AMC has assured fans the second half of The Walking Dead season seven will be "very different" and that the series isn't torture porn, though you couldn't blame anyone for making that assumption after the gruesome season seven premiere. Plus, that barbed wire-covered baseball bat that bashed in two characters' heads was the centerpiece of a damn Super Bowl commercial. In other words, consider us cynical that the show will be keeping this promise.
However, the midseason premiere of season seven, "Rock in the Road," was a promising start that showed The Walking Dead can still hold moments of levity, and perhaps more importantly, kill zombies through increasingly creative means.
The episode starts on a potentially somber note, though, as Father Gabriel — who somehow turned into a remotely likable character in the past season and a half — grabs the remainder of Alexandria's dwindling supplies and drives off into the night. This looks like old Father Gabriel — abandoning people once things turn sour. Alexandria, having just been the scene of Spencer and Olivia's deaths, is in its trickiest situation yet.
Meanwhile, Rick and the group talk to Gregory to try and convince the Hilltop to join them in fighting against Negan. Gregory rejects the proposal, and makes an unfortunately timely "refugee" slight for taking in Maggie and Sasha at the community already. Members of Hilltop, however, are more inclined to help, though Rick admits they'll need more numbers if they're to stand a chance. Enter Jesus — the character, not the Messiah — who says he can take them to the Kingdom and meet King Ezekiel.
"...Kang?" Rick responds in his Southern twang, unable to properly pronounce the word "king." Seriously, this is hilarious and it's unclear if AMC is cognizant of how funny Rick sounds whenever he tries to say king. We'll be blessed with Rick saying "Kang" a few times more.
So Rick and the group head to the Kingdom and meet King Ezekiel. Also, they are understandably awestruck at the sight of Shiva, a glorious tiger and by far the best part of the show. She looks happy. Ezekiel isn't happy, however, that Jesus introduced him to Rick, as he prefers his current arrangement with Negan and the Saviors over going to war and losing any of his people.
As a token of good faith, Ezekiel offers Daryl asylum at the Kingdom — since the Saviors never collect their bounty at the community, he'll never be seen (Rick must think he's a friendly "Kang"). We're almost 100% certain something bad is going to happen to the Kingdom that will lead Ezekiel to change his mind about the Saviors, but for now, Rick and everyone else — sans Daryl — leaves to return to Alexandria without an ally.
On their way back, they stumble upon an elaborate booby trap set up on the highway by the Saviors. It's steel wire wrapped together in dynamite, which would presumably explode once a huge zombie horde tries to walk through. Rick sees the dynamite, though, and suggests they need to take it for their upcoming Negan battle. It's going smoothly until a timely zombie horde shows up. Then Rick and Michonne have to reenact the opening scene of Ghost Ship.
They use the steel wire stretched across two cars to plow through the walkers, and it's one of the most creative zombie kills The Walking Dead has attempted in seven seasons. So for fans who obsessively wait for innovative zombie deaths, "Rock on the Road" is your magnum opus. It is, however, difficult to get too invested in the actual tension of the group escaping the zombies because everyone feels untouchable at this point (seriously, when was the last time a main character was killed by a zombie, on a zombie show?). Somehow, this amazing string of events doesn't lead to Rick to smile.
They made it back to Alexandria just in time, before the Saviors show up looking for Daryl. Then they abruptly leave. But what about Father Gabriel?
Nobody can fathom that he actually left with a ton of their shit — they start spinning conspiracy theories about his whereabouts that would make Alex Jones proud. Rick finds his notebook, in which Gabriel has scribbled "BOAT" on one page, which Rick posits is Gabriel's way of saying he went to the boat where Rick and Aaron snagged some supplies. One glaring issue: How on Earth would Gabriel know where it is, unless he was the mysterious character with the fancy boots spying on them in the midseason finale, which wouldn't make any sense.
But hey, that's enough evidence for everyone to leave Alexandria, head to the boat and try and find Gabriel. The good news? They do make a discovery by the boat. The bad news? Well, it's a bunch of people we've never seen before with a ton of weapons. The group's surrounded, which causes Rick to smile. The fuck?
First off, this is expert trolling on behalf of AMC and showrunner Scott Gimple, who promised viewers that they'll see Rick smile again in the midseason premiere. But this situation leads to two plausible conclusions. Either Rick sees Gabriel somewhere within this new group, and knowing that he was right about Gabriel not abandoning Alexandria causes him to smile. Alternatively, Rick could be smiling because this man has lost it — he has before, he literally ripped out a guys throat with his teeth — and relishes another life-threatening scenario.
Whether this new group is friend or foe remains to be seen, but the season 7B synopsis did mention that the group will "meet new survivors in incredible places." Whoever these people are, they're still doing something spectacular. For the first time in a while, The Walking Dead looks promising.
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