Well, the wait is finally over, folks. The Walking Dead returned for the 2nd half of season 7 tonight, and Sunday’s are now perfect once again. With the current chaotic and tense political environment, I couldn’t be more thrilled because to be honest, I need a good distraction. How about you? I think we all do. And, The Walking Dead is just what the doctor ordered.
What makes this even better is tonight’s mid-season premiere is a fantastic, top-notch opener to the back half of the season, and for those who may have complained about the format and pace of the earlier episodes, you should be pleased. While it is a slightly extended episode of 73 minutes, the extra time in this case is warranted, and every last minute is needed to tell the full story. It’s very fast-paced, with all of the communities visited (even the Sanctuary and Negan, albeit for only a brief moment), and there’s even time left to introduce us to a new community.
OH, HELL NO, FATHER GABRIEL BETRAYS ALEXANDRIA….OR DOES HE?
Thinking back to the mid-season finale, we should remember the mysterious, foreboding post-credit scene showing someone wearing boots (thus, the name “Boots” that has been given to the unseen character by fans on social media) spying on Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) while he’s in the watchtower. The episode begins exactly where that post-credit scene left off with Father Gabriel in the watchtower, reading his Bible, and then, leaving his post presumably because it’s the end of his shift.
He then makes an unexpected stop at the pantry, and that’s when everything goes haywire. As he vanishes out of sight in the pantry, we then hear a loud crash like something falling from the shelves, and the next thing we see is Father Gabriel pretty much looting everything in sight. Food, weapons, you name it. He packs everything up in plastic containers, loads them into the trunk of a car, thus leading all of us to believe that Father Gabriel has thrown all of his character growth out the window and is about to betray Alexandria and all of his friends. WTH? What. The. Hell!
Well, if you actually remained calm during this scene and refrained from jumping up and having a hissy fit, you probably noticed something that likely tells the true story. As Father Gabriel is driving away and The Walking Dead theme song begins to play, you see a hooded figure rise up in the passenger seat of the car. Ta-dum!!! Obviously Father Gabriel had been ambushed off-screen and left with the entire contents of the pantry because he was under duress by this mysterious person in a hoodie.
So, who is this person, what does he/she want with Father Gabriel, and more importantly, how in the heck is anyone from Alexandria going to track down Gabe? As it turns out, nothing else is revealed until the final scenes of the episode, and so, stay tuned. Oh, and hold onto your knickers, because it’s not really what you may be expecting.
“DICTATOR” GREGORY, A RESOUNDING “NO,” BUT A GLIMMER OF HOPE
As we may recall from the mid-season finale, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) finally agrees to fight Negan (Jeffrey Dean-Morgan) and the Saviors, and the premiere continues on with that storyline. Unfortunately, as Rick and the Alexandrians quickly discover, this is much easier said than done. Gregory (Xander Berkeley) is still adamant on not getting the Hilltop involved, and even though Maggie (Lauren Cohan) — AKA “Margaret” as Gregory now calls her — makes a pretty good argument, still no dice.
No way in hell. That was not the deal! You people swore you could take the Saviors out, and you failed. So, any arrangement we had is now done. Null and void — Gregory
Not to mention Gregory doesn’t seem to have much faith in his own people and believes they couldn’t be of much assistance anyways. As he puts it, “they grow things,” — i.e. not really good fighter material. So, while Rick and the group are pretty much wasting their time with Gregory, Enid (Katelyn Nacon) surprisingly steps up and provides the much-needed hope that a possible Alexandria/Hilltop alliance may still be on the table. She is able to round up about a dozen or so people from the Hilltop who are willing to fight the Saviors, and while that number may be small, it definitely is a start. Not to mention, with the smile Carl (Chandler Riggs) sends her way because of her efforts, I certainly think she has a new biggest fan.
While I’m sure all of us applaud Enid’s hard work, they are still a long way’s off from being able to launch an attack on Negan and the Saviors. They simply don’t have the numbers. With the losses that Alexandria suffered, even if you add in the dozen from the Hilltop who are willing to fight, Rick realizes that they would barely have enough to take out an outpost, let alone the entire Sanctuary. That’s when Jesus (Tom Payne) decides it’s time for Rick and Co. to meet Ezekiel — King Ezekiel (Khary Payton).
KING EZEKIEL — A TRUE KING OF HIS PEOPLE
It’s call The Kingdom? — Rick to Jesus
With all the terror, death and destruction throughout the past few episodes, this is when The Walking Dead gives you something to laugh about, and Rick learning the name of King Ezekiel’s community is only one of several comedic moments in the episode as Team Rick attempts to forge yet another alliance.
After getting past the initial shock of meeting a leader who calls himself a “King” and who sports a pet tiger, the time comes for Rick to make his pitch to Ezekiel for their two groups joining forces to fight the Saviors. During this time, there is also a very happy reunion between Rick’s group and Morgan (Lennie James). Of course, Rick asks about Carol, and Morgan fills everyone in on what happened — that Carol had been shot by a Savior, and Morgan had no choice but to kill the man. Morgan also surprisingly respects Carol’s wishes and tells Rick that after Carol recovered, she left. Anyways, on the surface, it seems like Rick’s connection to Morgan — whom Ezekiel likes and trusts — might work to his advantage. Well, that turns out to be short-lived. Ultimately, Ezekiel asks Morgan for his input about whether they should fight the Saviors, and the answer isn’t one that Rick wanted to hear. To everyone’s dismay, Morgan recommends that perhaps a better plan might be to just capture Negan, and then, maybe the Saviors will fall due to the absence of their charismatic leader (and, for those who may have been wondering if the television series would follow the comics on Negan’s storyline after “All Out War,” this is a big hint that the answer is “Yes”). At that moment, Rick just closes his eyes and hangs his head. Well, shit, Morgan! Here we go with this crap again.
However, even with that, Rick is a quick study and realizes that King Ezekiel rules with theatrics, and so, perhaps he can reach Ezekiel by using a metaphor. Rick then proceeds to tell Ezekiel a story that his mother told him when he was a boy, a story about a rock in the road (thus the title of the episode). A huge rock was in the middle of a road and caused a countless number of wagons to crash and lose their loads. Even so, the rock remained there for years and years, and no one really bothered to do anything about it. Then, one day a girl transporting a barrel of her family’s finest brew hit the rock, causing her wagon to crash and the barrel to burst open. This beer was all the girl’s family had to sell, and without it, they would likely starve. The girl just collapsed on the road and cried and cried, but then, an amazing thing happened. She decided to dig that rock up, thus making sure nobody else would hit it and lose their goods. The girl dug until her hands bled, and when she pulled the rock out, she made an astonishing discovery. Underneath that rock was a bag of gold (cue Jerry’s hilarious reaction, which Ezekiel doesn’t seem to be too fond of). The King had put the rock there, so that whoever came along and made the effort to remove it would be rewarded. This story seems to have made an impression on Ezekiel, and he says he will announce his decision in the morning.
The following morning King Ezekiel does reveal his decision, and it’s pretty much what I was expecting. Even with Rick’s persuasive story, even with Richard and Ben’s support of the potential alliance with Alexandria, Ezekiel ultimately says “No.” Of course, everyone’s pretty upset, especially Daryl.
You call yourself a damn King. You sure as hell don’t act like one — Daryl to Ezekiel
But, that’s the thing. Ezekiel **is** a king, but the King of his own people, the people of The Kingdom. As it turns out, a while back Ezekiel decided he wanted to expand, create more communities just like The Kingdom. As a result, men and women went outside the walls, fought the dead, and many of them ended up losing limbs. This all happened because of what Ezekiel sent them into, and it’s something he simply cannot do again. Of course, this situation with the Saviors isn’t really the same thing, but to be honest, I can’t say I disagree with Ezekiel. As King Ezekiel points out himself, most of these people don’t even know about his deal with the Saviors, and they just lead their ordinary, peaceful lives everyday, completely oblivious about the potential threat Ezekiel has thus far kept at bay. It’s unfortunate that they can’t help Alexandria with their plight, but at the end of the day, King Ezekiel is responsible for his own people, and that has to be his priority.
While Rick and Co. may be disappointed with Ezekiel’s decision, they don’t leave completely empty-handed. Ezekiel does understand Daryl’s precarious situation, given that he’s now wanted by the Saviors, and so, he offers Daryl asylum as a sort of compromise. For whatever reasons, the Saviors have never been inside the walls of The Kingdom, and so, Daryl should be safe there. Of course, Daryl is definitely not a fan of the “King” at this point and doesn’t want to stay, but Rick is adamant about it.
Stay here. Talk to Ezekiel. Stare him into submission. Whatever it takes — Rick and Daryl (Haha! LOVE this quote)
Fortunately, this is an incredibly smart decision because by the end of the episode, Simon and the Saviors would come knocking looking for Daryl with the full intent of killing him once he’s found. Needless to say, there would have been millions of screaming fangirls worldwide had Daryl not listened to Rick.
NO HILLTOP OR KINGDOM ALLIANCE (YET) BUT RICK DOES LAND A BIG PAYDAY
Besides visiting both the Hilltop and the Kingdom, Rick’s group also spends a great deal of time on the road scavenging in this episode, even after Daryl (Norman Reedus) escaping from the Sanctuary and the threat of the Saviors showing up anytime at Alexandria. That is primarily thanks to Jesus and his quick thinking while he was at the Sanctuary. He managed to snatch one of the Saviors’ long-range radios, and so, now, they have the advantage of always knowing what is going on at the Sanctuary and what their next move is (this includes hearing Negan giving an eulogy at “Fat Joey”‘s funeral, calling his death a “real tragedy”). This allows Rick and the group to remain gone from Alexandria as long as needed, without worrying about the Saviors showing up while they’re not there. After leaving The Kingdom, this proves to be very useful when they encounter a roadblock made of cars, presumably created by the Saviors to keep people away from the Sanctuary. However, upon looking more closely, Michonne (Danai Gurira) realizes there’s more there than meets the eye.
After venturing further down the highway, they uncover a walker “boobey-trap” (also created by the Saviors) made of cars connected by steel cable. Nobody’s really sure what it’s for, but then, Carl remembers the Saviors talking about it when he was in the back of their truck — this trap is for a **herd**. It’s an elegant one too, rigged with clusters of dynamite and RPG’s (probably the same ones the Saviors stole from Alexandria). Needless to say, if Alexandria has any hope whatsoever of defeating the Saviors, they need those explosives. But, there is one small problem — how in the hell do they disarm the bomb?
You know, I haven’t been a fan of Rosita (Christian Serratos) since the end of last season. Every since Abraham dumped her and especially since Abraham had been killed, she’s been insufferable, and her actions ultimately got Olivia killed and Eugene captured. However, here she rises to the occasion and proves herself still quite useful to the group. I’m not sure whether she learned this from Abraham or just was a natural in her previous life, but Rosita demonstrates to everyone that she’s pretty much a 1-woman bomb squad and quickly is able to disarm the bomb (she even directs the group to leave behind one cluster of dynamite that “looks funny,” which is a good call given it explodes after they leave the area) . Now, all they need to do is to carefully remove the clusters of dynamite and RPG’s, and then, get the hell out of dodge.
However, remember this is a boobey-trap for a herd, and before they are completely finished removing all of the explosives, a herd is spotted on the highway and headed straight for them. Everyone packs up and leaves, with the exception of Rick and Michonne who stay behind to retrieve the final few sticks of dynamite. By the time they are finished, the herd is literally on top of them, and the plan they come up to escape this desperate situation is one of the coolest walker scenes of the entire series in my opinion.
With an idea that is nothing short of genius, Rick and Michonne decide to leverage 2 of the cars connected by steel cable. They funnel most of the walkers into the median, hot-wire the cars, and floor them down the highway. The resulting tag-team clothesline creates the biggest, bloodiest slice-and-dice of walkers you will probably ever see on this show. They even kick it up a notch on the gore-meter by showing the scene from the point-of-view of the camera, with blood and walker guts splashing all up on the lens. Yes, ewww. Ewww. Ewww. Once they make it to the car that has everyone else, Rick and Michonne come damn close to being swarmed before making it inside. One effin’ close call. But, the point is they make it, which Michonne drives home to Rick pretty hard.
We’re here. We made it. We can make it — Michonne to Rick
As some of you may know, I’ve never been a big fan of the Richonne relationship, but I will admit that I liked this scene. Even though Rick has agreed to fight the Saviors, it’s still pretty evident he’s not back to 100% of his former self. There’s still hesitation, there’s still doubt, and Michonne is exactly the strong woman that Rick needs in his life right now to provide support, to provide inspiration, to basically keep him on course. Because of that, the relationship has become much more tolerable than it was last season.
A NEW COMMUNITY, NEW FACES — A LOT OF NEW FACES
Now, what about that new community? Once Simon and the Saviors leave Alexandria after ransacking the place looking for Daryl, Rick inquires about the empty pantry, and Tobias catches him up on everything that has happened while they have been gone. On the night they left to go scavenging, Tobias was supposed to relieve Father Gabriel in the watchtower, but when he got there, Gabe was gone. What’s more, the pantry had been cleaned out, and a car was missing. To most, it seemed obvious — Gabriel looted the place and just took off, and Rosita, continuing to be her insufferable self, is perhaps the loudest to voice this opinion.
However, Rick isn’t convinced, and others, like Tara, aren’t either. Then, once they open the pantry inventory ledger, they realize Rick is right. With the single word “BOAT” written across the page, Rick and Aaron (Ross Marquand) now know that Gabe’s been kidnapped, and they know exactly where they have taken him. “BOAT” refers to the houseboat that Rick and Aaron raided at the end of last season, and the person who took Gabriel is likely the same person we thought had been watching them the whole time and who likely followed them back to Alexandria. Well, Rick’s group finally come face-to-face with this “Boots” and his/her community (a VERY large community BTW) in the final moments of the episode after they go looking for Father Gabriel. Friends? Foes? Given the sheer size of this new community, let’s hope for our heroes’ sake, it’s the former.
Regardless, even though the rest of the group are visibly shaken by the dozens – perhaps even hundreds — of people who jump out and surround them, Rick’s demeanor is totally different. In fact, he actually **smiles**. And, why is that? Remember, in order to defeat the Saviors, Rick needs to find another group — a very large group — that has the numbers to give them a fighting chance. Well, I think Rick just found those “numbers,” and I suspect that is plenty to smile about.
All in all, the mid-season opener is 73 minutes of classic Walking Dead storytelling and fun. All communities are visited, there’s plenty of action, and more importantly, it has our fearless leader back at front and center, all fired up and ready to fight — and with his sword-wielding lady by his side. Even with all of that and also keeping in mind that Greg Nicotero directed this episode, there’s even time for a top-shelf walker sequence that reminds you while the Saviors may be the big threat at the moment, zombies are still the focus of the show, and we shouldn’t forget that.
The Walking Dead airs on Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.
Critic Grade — A
Geeky computer and math nerd by day and TV fanatic by night. My beats are The Walking Dead, The Strain, Person of Interest, Z Nation, and anything that most people would call freaky. Editor-In-Chief and Lead Writer of TVGeekTalk.com