Spoiler Warning for the Mid-Season Premiere of “The Walking Dead.”
Rick Grimes and his band of survivors are back and ready to rise up and fight against their oppressors. After the first half of the season was highly polarizing to fans, the second half looks as though it will get back to what “The Walking Dead” is at its core: people coming together to survive and build a life for each other. The days of accepting Negan as leader are over and our characters are quickly realizing that in order to achieve peace, they must unite and destroy those that get in their way. This Mid-Season premiere perfectly establishes the characters’ viewpoints towards the upcoming battle; everyone is getting into position as the march to war officially begins.
The final shot of the Mid-Season Finale showed a mysterious figure spying on Alexandria as Father Gabriel stood watch. This episode picks up just moments later as Gabriel leaves his post at the gate and makes his way to the pantry where he swiftly packs weapons and food into boxes. He loads the supplies into a car and drives away from Alexandria as a darkened figure is revealed to be in the car with him. This eerie opening scene sets in motion the biggest mystery that is currently unfolding on the show; who is this hidden figure that has seemingly taken Gabriel hostage? While I don’t believe Gabriel is betraying the group, something dark seems to be going on and it will be interesting to see how things unfold.
At the Hilltop, Rick and the others meet with Gregory in his office to discuss their predicament with the Saviors. As the show’s biggest coward, Gregory shuts down everyone’s ideas about fighting back, clearly worried about fracturing the already stressed relationship between the Hilltop and the Saviors. Daryl calls Gregory out for standing by and doing nothing, but Gregory claims that he has provided a lot of aid in sheltering the “refugees” from Alexandria; this is referring to Maggie, Sasha and Enid, who Gregory has repeatedly expressed his desire for them to leave. Maggie proposes training the residents of the Hilltop to fight and defend themselves and both Rosita and Sasha volunteer to be in charge of this effort. Jesus calls Gregory out for cowardly hiding in Barrington House while the Hilltop was under attack from the walkers. Still, Gregory refuses to listen and the group exits the office to formulate a new plan. Enid arrives and ushers everyone outside. Some of the Hilltop residents have gathered to express their desire to fight back; a woman named Bertie (Karen Ceesay) explains that Enid has been rallying the residents. The fact that Gregory’s own people are beginning to turn on him points toward a possible change in leadership; he may be the acting leader, but Jesus, Maggie, Sasha and Enid are running things and the people are taking note of this.
Rick and the others prepare to head back to Alexandria, but Jesus reveals that he stole a long-range radio from the Saviors, allowing them to keep track of their movements. Jesus then announces that it is time for everyone to meet King Ezekiel. At the outskirts of the Kingdom, Richard and another knight denounce Rick’s group for trespassing on royal territory. However, Richard spots Jesus and deduces that Rick must be interested in establishing a trade deal with Ezekiel. Richard allows everyone to enter after they turn over their guns. A series of cinematic shots showcase the sheer beauty of the Kingdom; not only is the community peaceful, it seems almost untouched and separate from the collapsing world outside of the walls. Morgan appears and reunites with the group for the first time since the end of Season 6. Rick and Daryl ask about Carol and Morgan explains that she arrived at the Kingdom with him, but later left and is now “gone.” This rightfully creates a sense of sadness and fear in Daryl and Rick as they realize that they may never see her again. They aren’t give much time to think about their lost friend as they have an appointment with royalty to get to.
Rick’s group is granted an audience with King Ezekiel in the theater, but the presence of Shiva the tiger shocks everyone and prompts them to stand far away from the stage, hilariously confused at what sits in front of them. Jesus introduces Ezekiel to Rick and a gripping discussion follows as both sides voice their concerns and ideas about a war with the Saviors. Ezekiel is worried that the unique agreement that the Kingdom has with Negan will be compromised if they get involved. Richard speaks up and declares that they must join the fight before the agreement falls apart. Rosita breaks the news to Morgan that Abraham, Glenn, Spencer and Olivia have all been killed at the hands of Negan, providing evidence that they cannot simply live under his rule; she also calls Morgan out for not wanting to get involved in the attack on the satellite compound in “Not Tomorrow Yet.” Ezekiel asks for Morgan’s opinion on the matter to which he explains that a solution free of violence must be their course of action, perhaps capturing Negan and holding him prisoner. In an attempt to sway Ezekiel, Rick shares a poignant story that his mother used to tell him. The King announces that he will voice his decision in the morning and invites the Alexandria group to spend the night. This first interaction between Ezekiel and Rick’s group went more-or-less how I expected, but it is great to see these new relationships beginning to form. Plus, seeing Ezekiel’s hysterical right hand man Jerry always makes for an entertaining scene.
This episode briefly touches base with Carol, who crosses paths with Benjamin in the forest outside of the Kingdom. Benjamin is out training and Carol gives him a few pointers, but again shares her wishes to not be contacted by anyone. This leads Benjamin to tell Carol that Ezekiel will keep checking in on her, no matter what she says, likely because he has feelings for her. It isn’t completely clear if Carol is romantically interested in Ezekiel, but she is still definitely not ready to be around others. Benjamin returns to the Kingdom to find Ezekiel quoting Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech to his younger brother Henry (Macsen Lintz); “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last,” a speech that symbolizes the desires of the various communities to be free. Benjamin voices his opinion to Ezekiel that the Kingdom should join Rick’s forces. The next morning, Ezekiel guides his visitors and shows off some of the training that the residents undergo. He shares his final decision that the Kingdom will keep its peace with the Saviors and not get involved in the rebellion. However, Ezekiel does offer Daryl asylum in Kingdom territory; it’s worth noting that this is likely the only place that Daryl will be able to stay hidden. While leaving, Sasha expresses her anger at Ezekiel to Rosita, who snaps at her for being romantically involved with Abraham. Richard explains to Rick that he wishes to fight and Rick tells Daryl to accept Ezekiel’s offer to remain in the community; he also tells him to see if he can change Ezekiel’s mind.
While driving back to Alexandria, Rick’s group is stopped on the highway by a roadblock of cars that was clearly set up by the Saviors. Carl spots the smokestacks of the Sanctuary in the distance as Negan’s voice is heard over the radio eulogizing Fat Joey and announcing a search for Daryl. After moving some of the cars, Michonne notices another roadblock nearby, a metal cable strung out between two cars with dynamite strategically placed on the cable. Carl remembers a conversation that he overheard when he was hiding in the back of the Savior truck; the dynamite is being used in some sort of diversionary tactic against a large herd. The group realizes that they need the explosives for their own use and Rosita launches into leader-mode to dismantle the tripwire; did I miss something or was Rosita part of a bomb squad unit before the apocalypse? Panic sets in as Negan can be heard over the radio ordering Simon to travel to Alexandria and search for Daryl. Michonne states that they must return home before the Saviors arrive, but they decide to finish collecting the dynamite first. In the distance, a large herd of walkers can be seen creeping slowly toward the group’s location. The clock is ticking and everyone knows it.
Rick states that they may be able to use the herd to their advantage and commands Rosita, Tara and Carl to re-block the onramp with cars to keep the walkers on the highway. He also tells Jesus and Sasha to return to the Hilltop and update Maggie on everything. With extremely limited options, Rick and Michonne concoct a plan to drive the two cars straight toward the herd, slicing the walkers with the steel cable. The plan works and they manage to kill a hundred or so walkers in a scene that is incredibly over-the-top and ridiculous, but also insanely epic. Rick and Michonne exit their cars and make their way to the SUV that contains the rest of the group. Walkers swarm them, but they manage to get away as the explosives that they left behind detonate, causing a massive plum of fire and smoke to shoot in the sky, along with a few walker limbs. Michonne comforts Rick, celebrating the fact that they got away unscathed. The entire sequence is terrifying and demonstrates the strength of our survivors when they work together as a team; this sequence is also incredibly reminiscent of the highway scenes in Season 2, which were filmed at the same location.
Rick and the others make it back to Alexandria just in the knick of time as Simon and a group of Saviors arrive a few seconds later. Rick questions why they are so early to collect supplies and Simon shares that they are looking for Daryl, but Rick denies knowing anything about his sudden disappearance. From this, the Saviors search every inch of the community, leaving a path of destruction in their wake. After coming up empty, Simon’s group leaves, but not before issuing a stern warning to Rick that helping Daryl will only result in more people being hurt or killed. Rick asks Aaron and Tobin why the pantry is devoid of food, to which they reveal that Gabriel has strangely gone missing. Rosita immediately jumps to the conclusion that Gabriel stole the supplies and abandoned the group, but Tara, Rick and Michonne stand up for him and claim that he would never do something like that. In the armory, Rick find’s Gabriel’s Bible on the floor and questions why he would leave it behind; he also finds a notebook with the word “BOAT” written by Gabriel. Aaron prepares to leave with a search party, but is stopped by a nervous Eric, who has realized that Aaron is joining the resistance. Aaron and Eric haven’t shared many moments together on-screen, so it’s refreshing to see a short scene with them together; this is also the most we’ve ever heard Eric speak, which is odd considering he has been in the series for nearly two full seasons now. Later, Rick arrives with Aaron, Rosita, Michonne and Tara at the houseboat lake from “Hearts Still Beating.” Footprints are discovered, leading the group to a seemingly abandoned factory area. Suddenly, a massive flock of armed survivors surround our group as Rick gleefully smiles, realizing that they have just discovered some potential new fighters.
“Rock in the Road” sets the stage for what should be a thrilling second half to Season 7. Taking the time to focus in on the characters and their newly-forming relationships allows this episode to have a fresh feel to it, especially after the taxing first half. The connections developing between the communities is engrossing to watch and the fact that not everyone is on the same page makes for some great dialogue. While the walker-slicing gag was ridiculous, I am glad to see that the series is still able to come up with ways to have the walkers remain as an entertaining aspect of the overall story. Aside from Rosita, whose attitude is becoming increasingly irritating, seeing everyone returning to their normal state of mind is exciting. As usual, the performances are spectacular, specifically Andrew Lincoln, Danai Gurira, Xander Berkeley and Khary Payton as Rick, Michonne, Gregory and Ezekiel respectively. The mysteries of Gabriel’s disappearance and the new group at the end will surely keep fans theorizing all week. Be sure to tune in to “The Walking Dead” next Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.