Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched the midseason premiere of “The Walking Dead,” titled “Rock in the Road.”
The midseason finale of “The Walking Dead” seemingly set the stage for war to begin when season seven resumed. Reunions were made, hugs were had, and Rick got his mojo back. Finally, after a sluggish eight episodes, we could expect the great, inevitable conflict with Negan and his Saviors to begin. But management posted a sign with the midseason premiere: the theatre is not yet ready.
“Rock in the Road” sees Rick attempting to recruit the leaders of the Hilltop and the Kingdom into war against the Saviors—and failing to convince either of them. And in this development, the oft-frustrating show fails to inspire belief that it can work out its pacing issues. The wheels have been spinning ever since Negan and Lucille bashed in the heads of Glenn and Abraham, and they still haven’t stopped.
Fortunately for the Alexandrians, Gregory’s refusal to join them in arms doesn’t eliminate the Hilltop as an ally. The leader-by-name-only doesn’t have the pulse of his community. Despite his insistence that the residents are mere farmers who wouldn’t want to fight even if they could—and him informing Rick what we’ve already heard him tell Maggie (they didn’t kill Negan and keep their end of the deal)—the people of the Hilltop step up to say they’re very much down. If Rick and Co. are confident in their readiness (they are), the mere farmers would like to be trained for battle.
This gives Rick his first victory, but he knows he still doesn’t have enough bodies. Cue Jesus, who now speaks up about another community in the same boat. He also picked up a walkie-talkie from the Sanctuary that will allow him to keep tabs on the Saviors, meaning the whole squad, minus Maggie, can now roll up to the Kingdom and talk to Ezekiel.
But first, a reunion with Morgan is in order. Technically, he’s not lying when he tells Rick that Carol has left after being patched up. He respects her desire for privacy by omitting her contradiction, that’s she’s left without leaving. Morgan also reveals that he killed a man to save her, in case we’d forgotten. You know, because he had to. This was a major compromise of his rehabilitative values, of course, but the show has beaten it to death as it does every moral quandary. We didn’t spend nearly enough time with Morgan in the first half of the season, but it’s too late now to keep grappling with this concept without getting tired.
As Rick begins his spiel, Ezekiel gives Jesus the side-eye and cuts Rick off to express displeasure about his secret deal with the Saviors being shared with an outsider. He asks Jesus why he would betray his trust, allowing Rick to cut to the chase and ask him to fight. Michonne and Rosita also speak up, and in doing so bring Morgan up to speed on Negan’s home run derby. Richard at last tells Ezekiel he wants to fight. His hunch that Ezekiel would value Morgan’s (or Carol’s) opinion more is correct, though. Morgan’s thoughts are the only Ezekiel directly solicits. Despite now having killed his first person since his reformation and learned about Negan’s further cruelties, Morgan still wants to find another way. Maybe just capture Negan and avoid all-out war, he suggests. Ezekiel requests a night to sleep on it, but in one final appeal, Rick tells a story from his childhood about a rock in the road that isn’t a compelling enough metaphor to warrant outlining here, let alone naming the episode after. Why didn’t young Rick read more fanciful fairytales?
Upon deliberation, Ezekiel decides to decline Rick’s request. He wants to maintain his uneasy peace with the Saviors while it is still a peace. But he is willing to help the Alexandrians by offering Daryl asylum inside the one community the Saviors don’t step foot in. Daryl balks, of course, but Rick forces him to accept for his own safety but also because he believes Daryl can convince Ezekiel to change his mind. Or in a methodology more apt for the gruff fan-favorite: “stare him into submission.”
The group’s departure, more than halfway into yet another episode unjustifiably longer than the normal running time, finally brings some action. They stumble onto a block of cars and an explosives rig—a pole spanning both sides of the highway, set between two cars, and peppered with dynamite—designed by the Saviors to hold back a herd of walkers. This dynamite could be useful in battle, so Rosita, suddenly an expert in explosives, takes the first step to disarm the rig before the group cautiously collects each bundle of dynamite, setting off a recitation of the “race against the clock before we all die in a nasty explosion” action movie trope. But instead of a literal timer, Rick and co. have to get back to Alexandria before the Saviors, who have discovered Daryl is missing (shout out to that walkie-talkie). The aforementioned parade of walkers also creeps nearer and allows for one of the coolest walker-killing sequences of the entire series. Rick and Michonne hop into the cars now equipped with a long, empty pole and gun it, creating a clothesline of carnage and clearing hundreds of walkers.
Simon, the thinly written subvillain who Steven Ogg nonetheless plays delightfully evil, arrives just after the group’s return and tears up Alexandria looking for Daryl. It’s yet another reminder that the Saviors own the place, but when the search hits the infirmary, all the food is found to be missing. Aaron tells Simon they’ve simply ran out of their own supplies while collecting for the Saviors, but once the gang is gone, Aaron and Tobin explain that Gabriel took off in the night: a scene we saw open up the episode. Rick is the only one who believes something must be afoot other than Gabriel being a coward, a faith that doesn’t make much sense given their history. Sure, they’ve patched things up, but it happened so suddenly and without enough explanation to hold up to scrutiny. And yet this faith is potentially confirmed when Rick finds Gabriel’s bible with a simple handwritten message: “boat,” referring to the loot Rick and Aaron discovered.
This episode, written by Angela Kang and directed by showrunner Greg Nicotero, makes sense in a vacuum. Convincing two communities to start a deadly war shouldn’t come easy. But that’s just not where this show exists. Progress has been too slow for the “The Walking Dead” to continue stalling, and we can usually count on the premieres, at the very least, to be explosive. Every point behind pacifism put forth in this episode has been squeezed dry. The only real bombshell comes at the very end, in typical “Walking Dead” fashion, when Rick, Michonne, Rosita, Aaron, and Tara go searching for Gabriel and find themselves surrounded by a mass of armed strangers, one of whom likely owns the boots we’ve seen lurking around.
Who are these people? Are they friendly? Are they also under Negan’s rule? Have they communicated with Gabriel? Why is Rick smiling with their guns in his face? What does he know?
Whatever it is, it better be compelling enough to keep us waiting for the theatre of war.