After a bleak, depressing, almost nihilistic opening eight episodes of the seventh season of The Walking Dead, the midseason premiere, “Rock in the Road” quickly shifted gears from hopelessness to optimism. The episode picked up where the midseason finale left off, with Rick, Daryl, Michonne and the gang reuniting with Maggie and Sasha in The Hilltop and piecing together a plan to vanquish Negan. But first, they need the numbers, and the midseason premiere conformed with expectations that the back eight episode would be about piecing together a winning alliance.
We start in The Hilltop, where Rick confronts his first obstacle: Gregory.
Despite his growing unpopularity within The Hilltop, Gregory still remains the nominal leader of the group, and in conversations with Rick, Jesus, and Maggie, he remains steadfast in his refusal to take on Negan, although he’s all too happy to accept any benefit that might accrue from Negan’s defeat, so long as he doesn’t have to put his neck out and risk the lives of his “sorghum farmers.”
Fortunately, those sorghum farmers are willing to put their own lives at risk, and thanks to the good word Enid put in for Rick, several members of The Hilltop are willing to sidestep Gregory and join the burgeoning alliance. It’s a small victory for the Resistance, but it’s something to build upon.
The worry here is Gregory, who has revealed himself to be someone willing to watch his own people die rather than endanger himself. It’s only a matter of time before he’s confronted by The Saviors, and I expect he’ll sell out Alexandria at the first opportunity. The only saving grace here is that Rick and Maggie already know this about Gregory, and he could potentially be used to feed Negan false information.
Meanwhile, at The Kingdom.
Jesus, who is apparently the ambassador of all The Walking Dead colonies, decides its time to introduce Rick and Co. to Ezekiel, which provides an opportunity for a low-key reunion between Morgan and his old Alexandrian friends. Then comes the meeting with Ezekiel and Shiva; Morgan doesn’t give Rick a heads up about what to expect, which affords Rick his own “Oh sh*t” moment when he is confronted by a tiger. Rick does not, surprisingly, question Ezekiel’s mental health, but instead plays along, offering his own extended tale about a King and a rock in the road and some hidden gold treasure. It’s a nice story, but weirdly out of character for Rick, who doesn’t often slip in stories his mother told him as a child.
Ezekiel, however, remains unmoved by the story and ultimately decides against offering the assistance of The Kingdom in the fight against Negan. Ezekiel is a man of peace, a point the writers not-so-subtly reiterated by having Ezekiel read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech as a bedtime story to one of The Kingdom’s children. Ezekiel is a real piece of work. Having already lost several members of The Kingdom to a herd of walkers, however, he’s not willing to risk their lives to confront a threat they don’t even know about yet.
That, however, may be where Daryl comes in. Ezekiel does offer to let Daryl hide out with him, safe from The Saviors, who never enter the walls of The Kingdom (this gesture is all the more kind considering what a dick Daryl is to Ezekiel when Ezekiel hands down his decree). Daryl reluctantly agrees to stay behind, and Rick asks him to continue working on Ezekiel. Daryl might be better off confronting the residents of The Kingdom directly, warning them about the dangers of The Saviors, and doing an end-around on Ezekiel.
This, however, may present a wrinkle and an opportunity for the television series to diverge from the comics. More on that below, but first, let’s check in on Carol, who runs into Benjamin out in the woods and offers Morgan’s apprentice some more advice on how to survive the zombie apocalypse. Benjamin also teases Carol with details about Ezekiel’s crush on her. Carol seems intrigued (this, again, mirrors the relationship between Michonne and Ezekiel in the comics). The conversation, however, is Carol’s only real contribution to the episode, as she continues to be sidelined. She figures, however, to play a central role in perhaps convincing Ezekiel to join the alliance with Rick.
In the meantime, Rick leaves The Kingdom disappointed that he’s unable to add any additional soldiers to his army, but two huge breaks quickly avail themselves. First, on the way home, Rick and the Alexandrians manage to steal a number of explosives the Saviors set up to take out a walker herd. Not only does it provide the Alexandrians with some explosive firepower, it also gives the episode its most exciting action sequence when Michonne and Rick decapitate a few hundred walkers by extending a cable between two cars on both sides of a freeway and hold a zombie mow-down.
Elsewhere, back in Alexandria — after The Saviors ransack the place looking for Daryl — Rick discovers that Father Gabriel took all the contents of the food pantry and disappeared in the middle of the night. As we explained last night, there may be a method to Gabriel’s madness, luring Rick and Aaron out to the boat and introducing them to a new community, the Junkyard Gang, who look to provide Rick with the numbers — and some of the artillery — he needs to take on The Saviors. But first, he’s going to have to convince the Junkyard Gang that he’s friend not foe.
Here, however, is where it may get interesting for comics readers. The Junkyard Gang is a creation of the television series. They might function as a stalling mechanism so that the series can spend one or two more episodes trying to convince them to join the Resistance and simply pad their numbers. Or, should the Junkyard Gang join the Alexandrians, it renders The Kingdom less necessary to the fight, meaning The Kingdom could either sit it out or even join The Saviors and go to battle against Rick.
“There are some people who go to the dark side who are going to take you by surprise,” Lennie James — who plays Morgan — said ahead the midseason premiere, and I’m beginning to wonder if those “people” might include the entire colony of The Kingdom (minus Richard). The ingredients exist for that divergence from the comics: There’s a new colony in the Junkyard Gang to fill the vacuum; Daryl — a creation of the television series — is inside The Kingdom; and Carol, Morgan, and Ezekiel are all pacifists reluctant to take on The Saviors. It’s possible that when the war comes, Ezekiel’s attempts to play Switzerland backfire and the The Kingdom ends up becoming Vichy France, a puppet of Negan and the Saviors.
Granted, the television series has never strayed that far from the comics, but such an arrangement would not necessarily change the overall dynamic of the storyline. With falling ratings, it’s just the sort of departure the series could use to keep things fresh.
— What is up with Rosita this week? She snapped at Morgan for no apparent reason when she snarked that he was going to offer them an “I told you so” after he found out about the deaths of Abraham and Glenn; she crapped all over Sasha’s attempts to bond; and she was the first one to (falsely) conclude that Gabriel had abandoned them. It’s refreshing in that at least the writers are making an attempt to advance the character, even if it doesn’t jibe with her past actions, but this sort of character building often precedes a death.
— Negan didn’t make a physical appearance this week, so we have to wait another week to find out the season’s most important question: Does he still have the beard or nah? However, via a walkie talkie, Negan still had the line of the night: “Without Fat Joey, Skinny Joey is now just Joey, and that is a goddamn tragedy.”
It really is. R.I.P. Fat Joey. #NeverForget
— Note that, when Ezekiel asked Morgan his advice on how to deal with Negan, Morgan suggested that there has to be another way, like locking him up. Recall that Morgan built a jail cell for just this sort of thing.
— Building on that theory of why Rick was smiling at the end of the episode, I didn’t spot it on the first watch, but there is a second person in Father Gabriel’s car, presumably the boot-wearing spy. This suggests it could have been less a designed plan to steal the food pantry items and lure Rick out to the Junkyard, and more of an abduction, in which Gabriel left behind clues so that Rick could find him.
I’m not sure how the boot-wearing spy could have abducted Gabriel, however, because Gabriel was inside the fence and the boot-wearing spy was outside. Gabriel’s actions didn’t appear to be that of a man under duress, and since the boot-wearing spy hid out in the car, there was nothing that could have stopped Gabriel from alerting others in Alexandria of an abduction. So, either it was a planned getaway with the boot-wearing spy, or a poorly written abduction. It does not ultimately change the reason for Rick’s huge grin, however: He’s finally found his army.