[SPOILER WARNING: Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the episode. I mean, come on, you know how this works]
The first half of season seven was a little rough for The Walking Dead. After the borderline insulting cliffhanger that ended season six, we had one of the most shocking and divisive premiere episodes in the show’s history, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be”. In a particularly sadistic twist Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) and Glenn (Steven Yeun) were both dispatched in a visceral, shocking fashion by Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his barbed wire-wrapped “vampire bat”, Lucille.
The Greg Nicotero-directed episode alienated a lot of fans and critics but, honestly, this was the episode the season six finale should have been. The problem was after it was all over the rest of the season became wildly uneven and strangely directionless. Grief is hard to define visually and even harder to make entertaining. So we ended up with a lot of choppy, stop/start episodes where Rick (Andrew Lincoln) channeled his mopey inner goth and the other characters just kinda wandered around talking about “stuff and thangs”.
To make matters worse Negan, the villain of the piece, became curiously likeable, especially compared to our inert lead characters. That’s not to say there weren’t some decent moments along the way, but did we really need an entire episode dedicated to Tara? In a show already stuffed with too many characters it was a weird move.
Things seemed to be getting back on track with the mid-season finale, however, as Rick regained his mojo and the band got back together. So can 7B shake the lack of forward momentum and bring the goods? If the first episode back, “Rock in the Road”, is any indication… yes, actually!
“Rock in the Road“’s cold open is a curious one. Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) is on watch in Alexandria at night but something is wrong. He goes from reading the bible, to looking tense to raiding the pantry, flogging all the food and drink and piling it into his car. He drives off to destinations unknown. It’s an odd way to reintroduce us to the world of The Walking Dead but we’ll come back to that in a bit.
After the opening titles, we have Rick and crew talking to the gloriously, hideously slimy head of the Hilltop, Gregory (played to perfection by Xander Berkeley who clearly loves being a scumbag) about taking the fight to the Saviors. Gregory is the worst so, naturally, he doesn’t want to join the battle, but he seems okay with Rick doing all the work and him taking all the credit later: classic Gregory. Initially, our heroes are frustrated but when they leave the G-man’s office the “sorghum farmers” of the community express their willingness to fight. Score one for the good guys.
Rick’s visit to the Kingdom is less successful. Rick pitches his united front against the Saviors spiel and initially, King Ezekiel (Khary Payton) is attentive. He tells the band to crash over and he’ll let them know in the morning. In that time we get to see a little more of the idyllic existence at the Kingdom: a community that, for the most part, is unaware of the backdoor deal they have going with Negan.
The Kingdom, in many ways, represents the better, more optimistic version of Alexandria and society in general in the zombie apocalypse. King Ezekiel reads the “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King to children as a bedtime story, which is wholly mawkish yet utterly charming. He’s the kind of man who teaches amputee children archery and raises crops. Despite this, or perhaps because he doesn’t want to lose hope, the King says no to Rick. He offers Daryl asylum (which Daryl accepts with a classic Norman Reedus grumpy glare) but says he will not fight. It’s a bummer but it would be surprising if the King and Shiva (Ezekiel’s tiger) don’t join the fight down the road a spell, they just need some more convincing.
This brings us to the episode’s best moment: the explosive roadblock. Rick and crew come across a Savior-rigged stretch of freeway where an explosively booby-trapped length of high tensile wire is stretched between two cars. The gang disarm the explosives with Rosita (Christian Serratos) doing most of the work (because that’s something she can do now, I guess?) but just as the last stick of dynamite has been grabbed a massive horde of zombies descends. Rick and Michonne (Danai Gurira) manage to hot wire the trap cars and drive headfirst into the undead herd, the wire tearing the stinking shamblers asunder in a splattery cloud of limbs and gore – and it is amazing.
This is the kind of gloriously gory and slightly silly stuff The Walking Dead should be about. Fighting obstacles, problem-solving and outrageously over-the-top gore realised by Greg Nicotero, who himself learned the art of zombie dispatch at the feet of the master, Tom Savini, during the filming of George Romero’s Day of the Dead. To be honest, I watched this sequence a half dozen times and will probably do so some more, it’s cathartic and fun, something The Walking Dead should be more often.
The band arrives back in Alexandria just to have the Saviors appear looking for Daryl. Led by Simon (Steven Ogg aka Trevor from GTA V) the visit is brief and comparatively cordial (just a few plates smashed, no one shot or gutted – it’s progress!) but full of potential menace. It looks like Negan will not forgive the death of Fat Joey soon, so Daryl better beware.
This, of course, brings Rick’s attention to the cold open and the lack of goods in the pantry. Rosita figures Gabriel is just a dick and has flogged the food and done a runner but Rick refuses to believe it and finds a clue in Gabriel’s diary, the word “BOAT”.
Rick and the gang investigate, looking for the missing padre, but before you can say “ongoing mystery” a band of scruffy-looking cultist types, armed with spiked weapons, surround our heroes and Rick, somewhat inexplicably, breaks into a big smile.
So who are these grimy newcomers? Yet another group? The post-apocalyptic version of Scientologists? More cannibals? Hopefully, we’ll find out more next week.
Overall “Rock in the Road” is a pacey, intriguing course correction for season seven of The Walking Dead. Honestly, the wire vs zombies sequence is worth the price of admission alone, but the general sense of cautious optimism of the episode echoes my own. Hopefully, the back half of this season can continue the upward trend and stay focused on characters we care about, doing things that make at least a vague amount of sense.
Oh and if we could kill Negan in a spectacularly gory fashion, that would be great too.