Episode: 709
Airdate: February 12, 2017
Directed by: Greg Nicotero
Showrunner: Scott M. Gimple
Written by: Angela Kang (written by); Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Tony Moore (graphic novels); Frank Darabont (creator)

Another mid-season hiatus come and gone, and we all sit around wondering, “Who’s going to die next?” The last half-season has been one of the bloodiest, with no fewer than four regular characters going out in dramatic fashion – three at the hands of Negan himself. The mid-season finale left us with a sense of hope for the future, as Rick finally got off of his narrative doldrum and decided to start taking action. Reuniting with Daryl and Maggie at the Hilltop was played up for all of its sentimentality; in fact, the whole eight-episode arc played almost like a long, slow burn of grief, with very little hope given to either the group or to viewers. By the end of the last episode, however, there was a definite change going on, as Rick has shaken the fear and cowering out of his system. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Rick is back.

For anyone new to my reviews, a bit of a warning: I write my television reviews as a combination of episode synopsis and analysis. Therefore, the entire review is absolutely rife with spoilers. If you haven’t watched the episode and don’t want to be spoiled, please do not read past the big, bold spoiler warning below.

[Spoiler Alert: The following review will discuss plot points of The Walking Dead S07E09, “Rock in the Road” – read further at your own risk.]

The episode opens up at night in Alexandria. Father Gabriel is on watch. He reads a passage in his Bible, smiles, and then leaves his post. Heading to the pantry, he takes all of the food and the remaining weapons (all blades, as the guns are, of course, with The Saviors), packs them in the trunk of a car, and leaves. Where the hell is he going? We get some idea much later, but first, we jump to Rick trying his hand at diplomacy.

We go to Hilltop, in Gregory’s office. He’s meeting with Maggie, Rick, and the group who all met up in the yard in the mid-season finale. And he’s talking like a true two-faced politician. Daryl accuses him of not giving a straight answer, and Gregory tells him that he’s absolutely clear that they haven’t been there, and that they aren’t going to be seen leaving. He’s a coward through and through, and Jesus calls him on it. As they leave the room, Rosita mutters under her breath, “Walking ballsack” – best line of the night.

Enid meets them in the entry hall, and asks them to come outside. About a dozen Hilltoppers (Hilltoppites? Hilltoppians?) have gathered, and they pledge themselves to learn how to fight so that they can help in the struggle against Negan. Small steps. Rick is disheartened, and wants to head back to Alexandria just in case Negan’s men show up while they’re gone. Jesus, however, tells him that they can tell when the Saviors are going to show up – he has one of their long-distance walkie-talkies. Then he surprises Rick – “I think it’s time I introduced you to Ezekiel. King Ezekiel.”

Outside The Kingdom proper, the group is met by Richard (Ezekiel’s majordomo/captain of the guard) and a sword-brandishing knight. Rick is obviously a bit bemused about the whole thing, and when he is asked to surrender his guns – all two of them – he actually hands them over without complaint. This is a new reaction from Rick – in the past, he’s been very reticent about giving up weapons; more than anything, this is a reflection of how much they’ve come to trust Jesus. Richard – who, if you’ll recall, tried to talk Morgan and Carol into getting Alexandria to join with The Kingdom to attack the Saviors – is teased a bit by Jesus as they head inside on foot. Jesus tells him, “You know, Richard, I’ve never seen you smile. I think that’s going to change today.”

Once they’re inside the town, Rick and company run into Morgan. They have an awkward conversation about Carol, and Morgan lies to them about knowing where she is – he’s protecting her, which is understandable. But then he tries to distract them a bit by telling them how he had to kill a Savior. It’s almost a case of “look over there!” going on, and it too is disingenuous. It’s as though he’s not only trying to distract from talk about Carol, but also trying to indicate that he’s turned a new leaf, that he understands that sometimes he has to kill to live. He undermines this with his behavior shortly after in Ezekiel’s presence.

Once in the audience, Ezekiel questions Rick. Rick makes his case, and Ezekiel does what good kings/leaders do, and listens to his counselors. Richard is clearly in favor of fighting, whereas Morgan tries to plead for another way, suggesting that they perhaps try to take Negan alone. Ezekiel appears undecided, so Rick tells him a parable about the rock in the road (here’s a link to a version of the story Rick’s parable is based on). Ezekiel seems moved by the story, and invites Rick to take dinner with him.

We cut to the woods nearby, where young Benjamin, still in training to join Ezekiel’s knights, is surprised by Carol. He pretends that their meeting was an accident, but that Ezekiel worries about her. Carol, for her part, feigns disinterest, and tells Benjamin how to be quieter in the woods. Cut to The Kingdom, and Benjamin, whose job has been storytime for some of the younger kids, stands outside a bedroom listening to Ezekiel telling a story to a drowsing child. Interestingly, it isn’t just any old story, but part of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech, particularly the “let freedom ring” section from the end of the speech. This is a direct reflection of what’s going through Ezekiel’s mind at this point, and it’s pretty clear that, at this moment, he’s leaning toward helping Rick. This is further emphasized when he asks Benjamin his opinion and, after the young man tells Ezekiel they should step up (“When someone asks you to be a hero, be a hero”), Ezekiel hugs him and says, “Thank you for your sage counsel. Your father would be very proud. The king is very proud.” Does this not appear, then, to be Ezekiel all but saying he’s made up his mind to fight the Saviors?

One might think that…But the next morning, as he’s to meet with Rick, he watches a group of his citizens practicing archery. Several are missing limbs, and he grows pensive. He tells Rick that once they fought, fought against the dead, and that many died or were maimed. He keeps coming back to the missing limbs. He tells Rick that this is the same, that fighting Negan would amount to just making the same mistakes again, but Rick will have none of it. He doesn’t get angry or belligerent (this really does seem to be a different Rick), but he’s firm when he states, “No, it’s not.” However, he doesn’t press. Instead, he and everyone save for Daryl leave – Daryl’s been given asylum by Ezekiel, who tells him that the Saviors never come inside the walls. “How long you think that’ll last?” Daryl asks while giving the stink-eye. He doesn’t like it, but Rick tells him to stay, asking him to, “Try to talk to Ezekiel. Or stare him into submission, whatever it takes.”

We cut to them on the road home. A large, three-car deep roadblock is in their way, so they stop to move things aside. They can see Negan’s base off in the distance – nice piece of symbolism, the whole goal-in-sight-but-out-of-reach trope. As they move cars aside, Michonne sees a cable strung between two cars, covered in explosives. They realize that the whole set-up is intended to deal with a herd of walkers, and they decide to take as many of the explosives as they can. When they hear Negan over the long-range walkie-talkie telling his man Simon to head to Alexandria to look for Daryl, they suddenly have a time limit, a limit which is further exacerbated by the appearance of the herd in the near distance. Tara, Rosita, and Karl go to move cars back into place, while Rick and Michonne get the last few explosives; Sasha and Jesus have headed back to Hilltop on foot already. As the last cars are moved into place, and the last good explosives taken, the herd is upon them, separating the group.

Tara, Rosita, and Karl get into the SUV, while Rick and Michonne hotwire the two cars with the cable attached. (Before you question the ability of a several-years-old battery to turn over an engine, remember that these cars have been set here by the Saviors in order to deal with a herd – these are recently driven and working vehicles.) They time their acceleration, and go down opposite sides of the freeway, mowing down dozens of walkers in short order as the cable slices through them. Nicotero (tonight’s director), who has a special effects background (he started out as the show’s FX head and chief walker wrangler), decided to use a “cable-cam” – a camera that gives us a cable’s eye view of the carnage, becoming more than adequately covered in gore and slime. Quite a gross and gory moment, but then again, this is a zombie show.

They cut through the herd, and then scramble to the SUV, surrounded by walkers, but somehow slipping by them uninjured. Once in the SUV, they take off back home.

After hiding the vehicle (now full of explosives and their two guns), they walk into Alexandria just in time to meet Simon and the rest of Negan’s band of merry men. Simon reassures Rick that this isn’t a pick-up – they just want Daryl. They do a fair bit of petty vandalism, and end up in the pantry, which is completely bare, thanks to Father Gabriel’s earlier actions. Once Simon leaves, Rick asks what happened to the stores. No one is certain, but Father Gabriel disappeared off of guard duty the night before, so they quickly make the connection. Looking for clues, they find Gabriel’s Bible left behind on the floor, and several notebooks with drawings and lists. Rosita is very negative (this is becoming her go-to emotional range), but Rick keeps searching for a note or clue. Sure enough, on the last page of one of the notebooks, he finds a single word: BOAT.

Aaron decides to go with them to look for Gabriel and the supplies, but his boyfriend Eric is none too pleased. He sees through to the nub of the situation – the fact that Rick has decided to fight against Negan’s people again. He doesn’t want Aaron to go, but he explains to Eric that this isn’t a choice he can make – he needs to help Rick and to fight against what Negan stands for.

The group – Rick, Michonne, Aaron, Tara, and Rosita – head back to the pond with the houseboat that Aaron and Rick scavenged from previously. They find footprints – Gabriel’s, they presume – and begin to follow them. Near a large abandoned warehouse, they are suddenly and silently surrounded by dozens and dozens of people carrying all manner of gun and other weapons. They don’t say a word, and press right into the group. Then, oddly, Rick begins to smile. A big, broad, shit-eating grin. And cut to black.

This was an episode of hits and misses (or more correctly, misses and hits). They’re denied by Gregory (who’s just a complete jackass, calling Rick “Ricky” and Maggie “Margaret” because that’s just the sort of small man he is), but then have a bunch of people from the Hilltop tell them they’re going to follow them and fight; they get denied by Ezekiel’s Kingdom, only to find a very valuable pile of explosives and ordnance on the way home; and they find all their supplies looted, only to find…well, what exactly they’ve found won’t be revealed until next week. But if Rick is smiling, and assuming that he hasn’t just cracked under the pressure, it’s because he sees something he likes.

First, the obvious. Whomevever these people are, they don’t just shoot Rick and co. out of hand. This in itself is a net positive, as it increases the likelihood of conversation/negotiation. But that along wouldn’t cause Rick to smile. No, I think he’s returning a smile – likely Gabriel’s. This is what I’m thinking: Somehow, Gabriel has found this group of people, befriended and/or ministered to them, and now he’s ready to bring them into the fold – a whole army of armed survivors that will suddenly and dramatically swell the ranks of those ready to fight against Negan and his Saviors. At least, I hope that’s what’s going on. Time will tell.

Overall, the episode was well-paced, and the one action sequence on the highway was strong, if a little gory. The dash from the cars to the SUV was a bit over-the-top, as both Rick and Michonne looked way too lost in a see of walkers, and probably should have been bitten. But they’re teflon right now. Ezekiel’s Khary Payton continues to steal every scene he’s in, and I’m really loving his seneschal, Gerry. Rosita, with her dark turn into negativity, had a couple of the best lines of the night (the one about Gregory I mentioned above, and her comment on the herd as they barely escape it, “Yeah, I didn’t like the look of that shit at all.” Yes, swearing can be funny, especially in a show like Walking Dead that doesn’t overuse it, so uses it to good effect.

The weakest part of the episode would be the leadership of the Hilltop and The Kingdom. Yes, I did say that Ezekiel steals every scene he’s in, but his waffling just didn’t ring true. He was all but sold on helping, sees a few people who have been injured fighting walkers, and backs down. And Gregory? How does he manage to hold power in Hilltop after all of his blatant self-serving acts and malfeasance? I think there’s hope for Ezekiel, but Gregory simply has to go.

It’s good to see Rick fighting the good fight again. He doesn’t cower before Simon when they’re tearing Alexandria apart looking for Daryl, and oddly enough Simon – who is clearly a maniac – doesn’t call Rick on it. Perhaps he thinks he has him completely under control. The best scene (sans Ezekiel) was Rick and Michonne working together to take out the herd with the cable. They’ve been out of sync for sometime, as Michonne has been raring to fight against Negan, and Rick has been busy holding Lucille. As a fan, I’m very happy to see the two of them on the same page again.

So while there wasn’t much new here (until that oddly quiet group at the very end), the episode did some necessary footwork in the build-up toward war with the Saviors. This should take a few episodes before we’re going to see anything too out in the open, but hopefully Gimple and co. will continue to build the anticipation for us.

Steve’s Rating: 7.5 Stars (7.5 / 10)
A decent but rather subdued mid-season premiere saw no deaths among the living, but more treading water than narrative movement. At least Rick has met Ezekiel now, and the groups are all aware of each other. Now to find out who these new, heavily armed people are…