Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Walking Dead midseason premiere, “Rock in the Road.”
It’s been a bumpy road for The Walking Dead in recent months as it weathered an uneven first half of season 7. The show’s return to TV after a two-month hiatus was a much calmer affair, thanks to the absence of its booming villain and a pointed look at the war ahead in an episode that was probably longer than it needed to be.
Like the polarizing season 7 premiere back in October, the episode opened with intrigue: Father Gabriel took all of the food kept in storage in Alexandria and left in the middle of the night, which the others wouldn’t find out until later on. We don’t know if he’s betraying everyone or has some larger plan in mind, and by the end we’re no closer to learning his motives behind stealing all the food and a car. Chances are, fans will be as torn as Rick and the others.
While the teaser set up high expectations for the war Alexandria wants to launch on Negan and the Saviors, others aren’t so fond of the idea. Gregory, the leader at Hilltop, wants nothing to do with it. He disrespects Maggie (again), and his comments on refugees and the idea that Negan is Alexandria’s problem has already sparked the first (although probably not the last) comparison to current events this season.
— Dalton Ross (@DaltonRoss) February 13, 2017
The residents of Hilltop are more interested in that fight. It’s only a matter of time before Gregory is removed from power or he fills Negan in on what the others plan to do to save himself.
Neither, it turns out, does King Ezekiel. The Group is taken to the Kingdom by Jesus to make their case, and while he gives Daryl refuge there (the Saviors don’t enter the Kingdom) he won’t offer any fighters to their cause. Chances are, that resolve won’t hold for long. We also get a most welcome reunion between Rick and Morgan—who, as they remind us, have known each other since the beginning—but for now they must go home in defeat.
Negan might not appear in the episode except for his voice on a walkie-talkie but his presence looms large as the Group runs into an explosive trap set up by the Saviors. With Negan, less is more, and we don’t need to see him swinging Lucille around every week to remember that he’s still a threat.
The dynamite rigged up to explode provides a potential upper hand for the Group, who take what they can before using barbed wire to mow down dozens of walkers in one of the show’s more entertaining modes of zombie-killing in some time.
— the walking dead scenes (@waIkingscenes) February 13, 2017
However, they’ve got a bigger problem on their hands right now: They need to find Gabriel. An unlikely clue leads them back to the boat Rick and Aaron stole from a few episodes ago, except this time they’re not alone—and Rick offers up a rare smile.
Although Rick looked as though he might’ve recognized who he was facing, his reaction is more about the people who are holding him at gunpoint. (At the very least, they don’t appear to be more Saviors.)
“That smile has a lot to do with the next episode. Rick is caught in this awful situation and you’d think somebody wouldn’t be too happy about it — but all these people aren’t just a threat; they’re an answer,” showrunner Scott Gimple told the Hollywood Reporter. “It’s an interesting story and we don’t leave the audience on pins and needles about it and we go right into what that smile means in the next episode. There’s tough stuff in the next episode but there’s straight up fun and attempts are made at humor from the situation that these characters get in. A whole new world is discovered. It’s a cool turn of the story.”
The premiere almost felt like a different show compared to the season 7 premiere back in October, and even if the complaints didn’t reach the producers by the time they shot and edited “Rock in the Road,” it feels as though they took some tonal concerns into consideration. It had more attempts at characterization between increasingly larger (and more absurd) scenes of killing walkers. We’re reminded, for instance, that Aaron still has a boyfriend, albeit one who is not thrilled that Aaron is helping out Rick once again. We get to see Morgan process the loss of Abraham, Glenn, and other Alexandrians at the hand of Negan and the Saviors after the show botched other delayed death reactions. Not everything worked this time around, and The Walking Dead doesn’t need to be as long as it is, but it’s a start.
And we’re no closer to learning who those strangers are, but will they be the help they’ve been searching for?