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.