Last week’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Rock in the Road,” got high marks from audiences and critics alike (it was the second best reviewed episode of season 7, so far). This week’s follow-up, “New Best Friends.” improved upon the midseason premiere, after showrunner Scott Gimple and director Jeffrey F. January turned in what was the best episode of the series since the sixth season’s “The Same Boat” with Alicia Witt.
Much of what made “New Best Friends” different was its tone. The series is experiencing an energy unlike anything the show has ever gone through before. It’s faced challenges; it’s overcome obstacles; and it has vanquished villains in the past, but rarely has the show ever gone looking for a fight and never, obviously, with as formidable a foe as Negan. To be honest, I think Rick — who has a hitch in his step again — is enjoying the challenge. Rick spent five seasons looking for a home, two seasons defending it, and now he’s an underdog on the offensive, but unlike last season — when Rick took out a Savior outpost — he knows he can’t do it alone. He’s approaching this alliance building with a new sense of purpose and a surprising amount of fun. This time around, he’s less cocky and more self assured, and he has no illusions about being able to accomplish it on his own. He’s no longer the arrogant platoon leader charging ahead of his troops as they storm into battle; he’s a humbled General building an army to go into war.
And he’s still wearing that huge smile, and I don’t think Andrew Lincoln has had this much fun in the role in years.
In fact, Rick’s confidence never seemed to waver in the episode, even as the Hipster Junkyard Gang marched Rick and Co., into their dumping ground and surrounded them again (the Hipster Junkyard Gang, by the way, are what Mad Max extras would look like if that movie was set in Portland). Despite being outnumbered five to one, and seeing Gabriel being held hostage, Rick’s composure did not break. He calmly and forcefully attempted to broker an alliance, and as negotiations began to break down, Gabriel stepped in (with a knife around the throat of another Junkyarder) and revived them. Rick had only to prove that he was worthy of aligning with, a task he nimbly pulled off by taking down Winslow.
Winslow, by the way, is even cooler than the brief shot of him in the season’s adverts portended. How Winslow ended up wearing a suit of spiked armor — including an impenetrable metal helmet — is something that’s likely to remain a mystery, but that zombie was heavy metal. That walker was a cross between a band member of Gwar and KISS crossed with a Guillermo del Toro creation. It was legit bad ass, and I was a little sad to see him go. RIP Winslow: You made the best of your three minutes of screen time, and if Spencer weren’t already dead, I’d trade his life for the undead existence of Winslow, who capably guarded that pit in the middle of a trash pile like a deadly, deranged Fraggle. Who knows how many people Winslow killed guarding a broken toaster, a plastic ice tray, and 600 bags of trash.
Winslow’s spiked armor aside, who else watched that scene less afraid that the walker would infect Rick with the zombie virus and far more afraid of tetanus? Or an infection? I mean, Rick had a spike go through his hand, and then he spent three minutes digging through the trash. I don’t think they have Purell in the zombie apocalypse.
Nevertheless, with Rick’s victory over Winslow complete, all that’s left to make the alliance official are “guns and jars, jars and gun.” “We have a deal,” Rick declared, as though he’d won a decisive battle. I’ve never seen so many smiles in one place at the same time on The Walking Dead before. It’s a look that suits the characters. The bow on top was the sweet reconciliation speech between Rick and Gabriel, and the cherry on top of the bow was the junkyard cat Rick gave Michonne. Romance in the age of the zombie!
Meanwhile, back in The Kingdom, Daryl continues to make a play for an alliance with Ezekiel, and Ezekiel continues to rebuff Alexandria. Richard, however, attempted a workaround, but it would have involved sacrificing the life of Carol. Daryl — who had just become crossbow cousins with Richard — nixed the idea on the grounds of “if you touch Carol, you will die.”
We did find out, however, that Richard has a weapons stash. Also, that Richard is willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good of The Kingdom. That probably won’t be necessary, however, as it seems more likely that Benjamin will be killed by The Saviors, saving any one else of the need to be sacrificed.
There was also a very sweet reunion between Daryl and Carol, and no matter how many times The Walking Dead goes back to that well, it never seems to lose its power. This reunion between Daryl and Carol is no exception. As though we needed more proof that Daryl cares deeply about Carol, he also kept the deaths of Glenn and Abraham a secret from her, knowing that such information would put her on the frontlines in a war with Negan. Daryl has seen what that looks like, and he obviously wanted to spare Carol from the danger.
And so, Carol returns to her solitude for yet another week, as Ezekiel continues to pine away for her. Daryl, meanwhile, is headed back to The Hilltop, escaping the safety of The Kingdom.
— I don’t know which was more devastating this week: The death of Winslow, or the loss of Morgan’s stick. What kind of sick bastard takes a man’s stick? If Morgan is not willing to go to war with Negan over his stick, I don’t know if Morgan will ever be ready to go to war.
— Daryl is a man of very few words, but this week, he may have uttered more lines in one episode than he has in entire seasons. I love Norman Reedus, but his character is more effective the less he speaks. A grunt and a scowl would be a more effective threat against Richard than the two-minute long spoken threat.
— Jerry got in another line tonight, as Cooper Andrews continues to kill it by providing the show with some much needed comic relief. That guy has great energy. He seems like a sweet guy, too, but he also wields a battle axe. I can’t wait to see what he can do with it. I think he may surprise us.
— That was some seriously bad green screen behind Rick when he stood atop the trash pile with Jaydis.
— What is up with Rosita? It’s not just that she’s lashing out at everyone, trying to pick a fight. It’s that it’s so completely out of character for her. I understand that she wants to get back at Negan for killing her ex-boyfriend Abraham and her booty call, Spencer, and because she feels guilty about missing her opportunity to kill Negan, but there’s no need to take it out on Tara or Morgan or Sasha. Rosita needs to check herself.
— Rick dropped a line to Tara tonight just to remind us that the Oceanside Community is still out there, and they have all the guns that the Hipster Junkyard Gang could possibly need. “Tara, you’ve been out further than anyone else. At least you can tell us where not to look.” What’s going to provoke Tara to go back on her promise to the Oceansiders? Maybe it will be the death of Rosita?
— Negan didn’t show up in this week’s episode, either, but a preview for next week’s episode answered the question that’s been hanging over the back half of this season for weeks: Will Negan be with or without a beard when we see him next. Disappointingly, it looks like the beard is gone for good.