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The Walking Dead returns with a purpose and explosives

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For the first, oh let’s say 15 minutes of tonight’s mid-season premiere (which is still a goofy concept, but whatever), I was worried. As happy as I was to see Rick and the team getting proactive—as good as it is to have the show break out (however briefly) of its nihilist funk—there’s something painful about watching it happen. And not just in the nervous, “Oh god, they have to ask the impossible, don’t they?”

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One of The Walking Dead’s great weaknesses is the way it decides how we’re supposed to feel about certain characters and then pummels that decision into the ground. The most interesting people on the show are the ones who are allowed to develop and grow without needing to fill a certain role; Carol is fascinating in part because her arc is as close to organic as the writers have ever achieved, and at no point in her story did the heavy hand of the author get in the way of us forming our own ideas of her as a person. Sure, I can’t imagine not loving Carol at this point, but that connection happened, at times, seemingly by chance. I don’t think she was initially supposed to be this important—it just was a combination of circumstance and Melissa McBride’s talent that made it so.

Compare that with poor Rick, who’s stuck in the position of always having to be right in the end, of always having to be the “leader.” Andrew Lincoln is a good actor saddled with an impossible task, and there are moments throughout tonight’s episode that I found myself cringing for him. And not just him; that scene at Hilltop with everyone lecturing Gregory for his “cowardice” is a bizarre misunderstanding of tone and context. We’re clearly supposed to hate Gregory (notice how King Ezekiel doesn’t get the same judgement, even after making basically the same decision), but Xander Berkeley is so good at playing this kind of morally compromised pragmatist that he sounds far more reasonable than the heroes who are dismissing him.

It doesn’t help that the show spent so much time building up Negan as a threat. The Saviors are basically omnipresent when the narrative needs to them to be, and that’s not an easy thing to face down. And on a certain level, the episode does acknowledge this; as mentioned, when Ezekiel chooses not to send the Kingdom to war, there’s no sense that he’s supposed to be weak or compromised. But at the Hilltop, it’s just a bunch of uninteresting people telling an interesting person (because, asshole or no, Gregory is at least complicated) that he’s the worst. The bit where our heroes learn there’s a group of Hilltop folks who want to fight with them is supposed to be inspiring, but it’s sort of hilarious, especially when you realize that most of them will surely die even if Rick’s plans work out perfectly.

So, yeah, it was rough going at first. But things started to improve once the group arrived at the Kingdom. Yes, Rick’s story about the “rock in the road” was not good at all, but at least the weird disconnect between what the show clearly wants us to feel (boo, hiss Gregory) and what’s actually on screen goes away. We know enough about Ezekiel now to like him; we even know that he’s smarter than his ridiculous royalty act lets on. When he decides not to team up with the Alexandrians, it’s still the “wrong” choice, but there’s not as much of a push to dislike him for making it. Only Daryl seems truly angry, and, well, he’s in a bad spot right now.

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Things continue to improve from there, with a third act suspense sequence that’s one of the best set pieces the show has pulled off in a while. The set up is—if not exactly simple—than at least clear enough that it’s easy to understand: While driving back home, Rick and the others find a trap full of explosives laid out for an oncoming herd. Being desperately low on weapons, our heroes disarm the trap and start carefully loading the dynamite into their car. Then the herd shows up, and the situation gets interesting.

In retrospect, there are probably holes in this, but those are easy to overlook in the moment. What matters more is that the need for more weapons is something that’s already been established. This isn’t just a whim that endangers everyone’s life, it’s a desperate gamble, the sort of risk they’ll need to be willing to take if they want to have a chance of beating the Saviors. It works because the risk/reward conflict is a small expression of the larger conflict the group finds itself in. Negan isn’t going to be taken down with good intentions and thoughtful speeches.

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That makes the eventual victory all the more satisfying. Rick and Michonne driving that cable through the herd is a gory and darkly hilarious punchline to the tension, and the fact that they end up with the explosives without losing anyone in the group or alerting the Saviors is the first real victory our heroes have had in ages. I have no doubt the fight against Negan is going to be unpleasant, and that more characters will die. There are, as ever, bad times ahead. But it’s a relief to see the show finding a note to play that isn’t simply an iteration on Negan’s creepiness or Rick’s desperation.

That carries through to the ending. In the episode’s cold open, Father Gabriel ransacks Alexandria’s supplies and leaves town. Gabriel has always been something of an oddity, and while he seemed to have found his way in the past season or two, having him suddenly turn heel is still a possibility. But it’s not a good possibility, which is why it’s a relief when Rick and the others refuse to believe he abandoned them without a reason. They find a clue in Gabriel’s notebook (“BOAT”) which leads them to believe he’s gone to the boat Rick and Aaron found earlier, and tracks there lead the group straight into a mass of people with weapons.

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The people don’t look entirely friendly, but Rick still smiles; that’s a rarity for him, and as ridiculous a character as he often is, it’s a thrilling to see that grin. We’ll have to wait till next week to find out who these people are, and if Father Gabriel has anything to do with them, but after a clumsy beginning, “Rock In The Road” finds the show moving forward in a big way. After the slog of the first half of the season, it’s about damn time.

Stray observations

  • Seriously, how many different communities are in this one area? It would be nice if someone made an effort to point out where everything is. Right now, I couldn’t tell you how close any of these places are to one another, and given how crowded the show has become, that’s becoming a problem.
  • King Ezekiel offers Daryl asylum in the Kingdom. So at some point, he’ll have to run into Carol again, right?
  • Carol does make a brief appearance. Benjamin runs into her while he’s out training in the woods, and she gives him a few pointers. Benjamin also tries to convince Ezekiel to team up with Rick’s group; I can see him getting killed in the upcoming battle, because he’s a nice, idealistic kid and they don’t tend to last long.
  • “I want to thank all of you for not being here today.” -Gregory
  • Nice acoustic cover of “Life In A Northern Town.”
  • It’s weird that the Saviors haven’t taken Michonne’s sword. I get that they’re mostly just interested in guns, but it seems like something they’d do.
  • Negan doesn’t make an appearance, but we do hear him over a walkie-talkie mourning the loss of Fat Joey. “Without Fat Joey, Skinny Joey is just… Joey.”
  • Rick’s reaction to Ezekiel’s tiger was legitimately funny.
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