Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched episode 10 of season 7 of “The Walking Dead,” titled “New Best Friends.”
Andrew Lincoln’s pearly whites haven’t gotten this much screen time since he was still doing rom-coms. Rick is threatened, taunted, and quite literally thrown to the walkers in “New Best Friends,” and yet that grin persists. His hopes haven’t been higher in what feels like an eon, and that optimism can finally be held by “The Walking Dead” viewers, too.
Not only is this latest episode is gritty, but more importantly, it’s fun and thrilling (finally!), putting Rick in the hands of another ruler without being miserable — introducing a new group that’s metal as hell.
The fourth community to join the mix holds up in a junkyard, and we rejoin their standoff with Rick and Co. in a stunning overhead shot as they pour into a clearing amongst the junk, clad in all black and an unwavering stoicism. Still a nameless group, their prominently banged leader, later revealed as Jadis, singles out Rick and makes her intentions clear. “We own your lives,” she says. “Want to buy them back?”
Doing so would prove difficult when the Alexandrians are already owned by Negan and what little they have left has been taken by this new group in retaliation from the boat expedition, so Rick begins his war recruitment spiel once again. Jadis gives an animated, dismissive “no,” and another fight breaks out. Gabriel, asserting himself as a badass in an episode full of them, takes one of the All-Blacks (let’s call them that) hostage. It’s his turn to lead the recruitment effort now, and knowing the All-Blacks’ prioritization of stuff above all else, he zeroes in on the loot to be gained by taking out the Saviors. The Alexandrians can even get them whatever they want now, because Rick can do anything. Now he’s speaking their language, but first the All-Blacks take Rick away to see if he’s really about that action.
Weaponless, Rick is tossed into a pit with the spiky-armored walker we saw in the midseason trailer. He skewers his own hand just trying to keep the walker back, as Michonne watches on through a tube, and slices his leg before making any progress. At her urging, he begins piling garbage onto the walker to keep it down and finds a glass shard to put it out of its misery. Individual walkers have long ceased to be a problem, but this one was downright terrifying.
It’s an impressive sequence, and Jadis agrees, lowering a rope down for Rick. She asks if he knows they’ll win, and Andy Lincoln’s southern drawl really shines as he says, “Ohhhhhhh, I know it.” But before they’ll join the fight, the Alexandrians must first provide guns. “A lot.” Further negotiations finalize the bargain: The All-Blacks will keep half of what they took from Alexandria, and they’ll get a third of the Saviors’ loot once the battle is won.
Rick returns to the group bloody and smiling, and because “The Walking Dead” is rarely subtle, Gabriel asks why Rick keeps baring so much teeth. “Someone showed me enemies can become friends,” he says. Gabriel was able to leave the note for Rick after the All-Blacks ambushed him in the pantry and kidnapped him with the goods. That note confirmed the two’s faith in each other, and their mended relationship finally feels warranted, even if the strides were clunky.
This mutual respect is mirrored in the Kingdom, where everyone but Richard has Carol’s best wishes in mind. After an even more heated trade with the Saviors strips Richard of his gun and puts him this much closer to being killed, Daryl finds him doing target practice with a bow and arrow. He gives Daryl a crossbow, and as our silent hero looks down the sight and into the camera, two things are clear: Daryl is back(!), and an alliance has been formed. They roll back to Richard’s secret trailer and prepare to ambush a group of Saviors on the road. But that alliance unravels just as quick as it was formed.
Richard wants to slaughter the pack of Saviors, which is cool, but he also wants to leave a trail of breadcrumbs back to a nameless woman’s cabin, which is not so cool. Ezekiel is fond of this woman, he explains, so an attack on her will push the Kingdom into arms with Alexandria and the Hilltop. Daryl keeps pushing to find out who this woman is before the obvious is revealed. Still, Richard argues Carol would be a necessary sacrifice—and all wars carry sacrifices. This doesn’t jive well with Daryl, and as the Saviors approach, he attacks Richard to prevent the ambush and protect Carol.
Daryl comes knocking at Carol’s door for an emotional reunion. Despite the repetitiveness of Carol once again explaining why she chose to leave, Melissa McBride delivers yet another stellar performance as she pours her heart out to her good friend and asks through tears if the Saviors hurt anyone. Knowing the truth would prompt Carol to kill even more for the ones she loves, Daryl lies, saying everyone is safe and that a deal has been cut.
His compassion allows him to understand why Morgan also lied when he told Rick that Carol was gone. Morgan still won’t come around and help Daryl convince Ezekiel to fight, but it’s nice to see them find common ground while casually hanging out by the tiger cage.
“The Walking Dead” has a habit of dropping satisfying episodes amongst long periods of missteps, so it’d be premature to announce the show is back on track. But “New Best Friends,” written by Channing Powell and directed by Jeff January, is the most electrifying effort this season. These preparations for war feel more like necessary steps than the belabored stalls that have preceded. And even without much background yet, this new group is intriguing for its sheer size, silence, and “we take, we don’t bother” credo. Pollyanna Mcintosh is fantastic as their steely leader, making every one of Jadis’ word count as she toys with her prey. Here’s hoping she and Rick get many more opportunities to play off of each other.
We’ll see just how much longer Rick has to smile, as plans turn to action and the trials become more grueling. But we’ll have few reasons to frown if “The Walking Dead” uses “New Best Friends” as a (re)building block.