‘The Walking Dead’ mid-season premiere recap: We can make it

Well, it’s a start.

After opening its seventh season with a run of over-long, graphically violent and generally painful episodes, The Walking Dead returns with a renewed sense of energy and -- dare I say it -- fun. All it took was clotheslining a bunch of zombies. And keeping Negan almost entirely out of the episode.

“Rock in the Road” finds our heroes back together, organizing for the fight against the Saviors, which we are all quite ready to be rid of. But it’s clear that The Walking Dead is a much more exciting and gratifying show to watch when Rick and the rest are active in their pursuit of survival, not passively taking abuse. The show suffered when the heroes suffered, and now that they’re ready for war, we’re ready for the new direction the show is going to take us in.

My kingdom for an ally

Hey Gregory and Ezekial, couldn’t you guys bend a little bit? The first step on the journey to destroying Negan is putting together an army, and Rick makes the case in front of the two communities he knows are also subjugated by the Saviors (that all-women community Tara found hasn’t popped up again). Gregory obviously said no, but our little go-getter Enid managed to rally a few supporters. Jesus, meanwhile, decides it’s time to inform them all of the existence of the Kingdom.

In the land of the tiger and the Fallout cosplay, everyone is reunited with Morgan, although he doesn't really help them in their bid to get the Kingdom on Team Kill All the Saviors. He helps convince King Ezekial to stay out of it and preserve the peace they have, even though the King's own people (Richard and Benjamin) want to fight. Daryl sticks around so he won't be found out by the Saviors which oh-so-conveniently places him near Carol and in a place to help convince Ezekiel to pick up the fight.

Speaking of Carol, she's still chilling on her own, and still the object of Ezekiel's interest. She didn't get to do much this episode but goodness, is it good to see her, even for a brief scene with Benjamin of all people.

Lady dynamite

Who knew The Walking Dead could find new material in a setting they've used so many times before? Our survivors have been up against a herd on a highway so many times over the course of the show, but somehow there was a fresh take on the action and a visually exciting sequence. On this particular stretch of highway, the group comes upon a blockade, complete with explosives, the Saviors have set up to deal with herds. They steal the explosives (thanks to Rosita's handy military background) but not before an actual herd comes along. Since the Saviors had strung steel cable in between two cars, Rick and Michonne hotwire them and use them to clothesline the entire herd of zombies and miraculously save everyone (as usual).

Even the characters realize how uncanny this particular escape was, as they sit drenched in sweat. Michonne, our new queen of positivity, tells Rick "we can make it." And hey, it's hard not to believe her.

Meet the neighbors

Back at Alexandria, all is not totally well. The Saviors show up looking for Daryl and, naturally, break things and threaten people, and discover a completely empty store room. You'll recall that in the episode's cold open, a very stressed Gabriel steals all the food and a bunch of weapons and heads out in a car, with a very creepy person in the back seat. The Alexandrians suspect this is what happened (minus the stranger), but Rick doesn't want to believe it. He finds a note Gabriel left, "boat," and concludes he's at the houseboat where he and Aaron found the supplies in the first place. Of course, everyone goes off right away (although Aaron's beau does not want him to) and they end up surrounded by a huge group of people with very pointy weapons. And Rick? Rick smiles.

Does he know them? Does he think he can win them over? Is he just happy to see other people who aren't the Saviors? Who knows, but at least he's in a good mood. We like the upward momentum of the show so far.

The women of Oceanside have reason to be so paranoid, and that reason is named Negan (episode 6). Gene Page, AMC

The women of Oceanside have reason to be so paranoid, and that reason is named Negan (episode 6). Gene Page, AMC

'The Walking Dead' Season 7, Episode 9 Review: A Disastrous Midseason Premiere

"The dead don't rule us."

~Rick Grimes, The Walking Dead S7E9

Watching Sunday night's episode of The Walking Dead would have been painful if it hadn't been so (unintentionally) funny. I can't help but wonder if the show's writers and producers are simply phoning it in at this point. Certainly many of the actors seem to be.

Let me be blunt: This show has lost its way. Maybe it never found its way to begin with. Whatever the case, quality is on a steep decline across all categories. Acting, writing, plotting, and so on and so forth. Only make-up and special effects seem to remain unscathed by the general decline eating away at the rest of The Walking Dead, as surely as any zombie rot.

The television program we just watched Sunday evening is not the same program we used to know and love. Now there are multiple different communities that the survivors travel between with ease. There's always a car and a tank of gas at hand. There's little to no dramatic tension. The focus on character has shifted to a focus on factions, clumsy politics, and increasingly bad dialogue. I've always had complaints with The Walking Dead, but at this point complaint would be an understatement.

Even some of the more beloved characters fell flat this Sunday. Daryl rarely speaks in The Walking Dead. In 'Rock In The Road' his brief utterances were bad, cringeworthy, nonsensical tidbits.

After King Ezekiel gets done talking about how he needs to look out for the people under his care rather than put them at more risk, Daryl spouts off "You call yourself a damn king! You sure as hell don't act like one!" as though 'acting like a king' means heedlessly rushing off to aid Rick in his war on the Saviors rather than thinking of the welfare of his people. Is this actually something Daryl would say? Or is it just the writers flailing, looking for some way---any way!---to give Daryl a reason to speak and look tough.

After all, it took Rick and his people a whole half of a season to decide it was time to fight. Why should Ezekiel change course after one conversation with a raggedy band of strangers? Strangers who admitted to making huge, immensely stupid mistakes in the past when trying to take Negan out the first time?

Daryl's other line, to Hilltop chief Gregory (who I thought Maggie was ousting?) is almost as bad. "What the hell man?" he says, all gritty and tough as nails. "You're either with us or ya ain't. You're sitting over there talking out both sides of your mouth!"

But this doesn't even make sense. Gregory is pretty consistent here: He wants nothing to do with Rick's group or their plans to take out Negan. So he's not with you, Daryl. He's said as much. This isn't a good retort to such a clear position. A swift kick in the teeth would be, but nobody bothers with the obvious.

To be fair, Gregory continues to be almost unbelievably obnoxious. When denying the survivors military support for their campaign against Negan, he asks "Who would train all this canon fodder?" to which some of the survivors reply "I will." Gregory then says "Rhetorical!" in his best impression of a valley girl. Like, gag me with a spoon, Rosita. It was like totally rhetorical!

I understand that Gregory is supposed to be annoying, but how could anyone follow this sniveling coward? How does he not only become leader but then hold onto that perch? And how are none of Hilltop's people fighters? How did they survive without fighting? Sorghum farmers don't survive the zombie invasion without some fighting skills. That's the same nonsense they tried to tell us about the Alexandrians. I don't buy it.

The downward spiral.

It gets worse, of course. Rebuffed by Gregory, our group leaves with tails tucked between their legs, fully cowed by the Hilltop boss. That's when Enid saves the day! Because of course she does. It's Enid, the one person on the show whose name spells "Dine" backwards. She's talked to the people of Hilltop rather than Gregory because, wow, I guess Enid has brain cells and nobody else in the group does.

And yet...why does Enid even need to be here at all? Why not have Maggie inspire the Hilltop community, undermining Gregory and beefing up her leadership cred all at once? Why does this all take place off-screen? Instead of an inspiring scene of Maggie's leadership, we have a bunch of extras asking her if they could really win. It's just...flat. These same Hilltop folk say that Maggie has saved all their lives a whole bunch of times, but I can only assume they're referring to the one time when the Saviors let in some zombies as retribution against Maggie and her people. She owed them that. They don't owe her anything.

Then Jesus takes them to the Kingdom. He's known about this place the entire time you see. He's known about all those potential allies, weapons, and resources the entire time and simply hasn't told Rick and company.

Really? Really???

That's pretty shady given that it was Jesus who introduced the group to Gregory, and Gregory who sent Rick to attack the Saviors in the first place. I can understand Gregory not doling out valuable information, but Jesus allowing Rick and company to go off to take on the saviors without giving them a proper lay of the land is kind of terrible.

I might be a little extra hard on Jesus right now simply because I feel like he's been badly miscast. Either that, or something about his character---or the portrayal of his character---just really rubs me the wrong way. He doesn't live up to his reputation. He comes across as too wooden. I see neither a puckish rogue nor a wise adviser in this version of Jesus.

King Rock

When Rick finally comes before Ezekiel, he tells the king that when they first fought the Saviors, they won. He actually believes this. Rick thinks that defeating one outpost and then being totally destroyed by the Saviors counts as "winning."

He must have tiger blood.

"We didn't know what we know now," he admits, without quite ever realizing that the reason they didn't know anything was that they never bothered to find out, either through scouting or even just asking people. Why Jesus didn't know that it was just an outpost and not actually Negan's stronghold is more puzzling.

Ezekiel asks Morgan for his opinion, and Morgan offers up the only sensible suggestion of the evening: Maybe they could just take out Negan (or capture him, as Morgan is still against killing whenever possible.) And why not? Why not just take out Negan? He's always placing himself in vulnerable situations. This would be easier than all-out war and would result in fewer unnecessary casualties than Daryl's plan to just blow stuff up.

When Rosita tells Morgan about Glenn and Abraham's death and all the other horrible things that have happened thanks to Negan she sneers: "You still think you were right?"

That's what the show seems to be saying also. It's sneering at the pacifists who don't want to fight. But Morgan didn't want to go attack Negan's people in the first place. If they'd listened to Morgan, Glenn and Abraham wouldn't have been killed in retribution. That's not to say that the Saviors wouldn't have done other terrible things later, but if we're to learn any lessons at all from this series of unfortunate events it's that Morgan was right all along.

Rick also tells a story about a rock in the road that nobody removes, and it keeps causing all these problems, and finally a little girl digs it out and it's actually a bag of gold. The king put it there on purpose because whoever had the decency to dig it up deserved a reward. It's kind of a weird story. For one thing, the king ends up doing all this extra damage to his people for no reason just so he can give a reward out to some random person who takes the time to dig up the supposed rock. The king could have made better use of the gold by being more considerate. For another thing, it's a weird story to use to convince Ezekiel to go to war.

I still like Ezekiel. As absurd as the scenes at the Kingdom are, at least they're fun. It's fun to see Ezekiel reading Martin Luther King speeches as bedtime stories. When Rick mentions the bag of gold, Jerry gets a big grin on his face and says "Alright!" It's a bit of humanity and humor in a show that's all bleak and grim. And young Benjamin makes a much better case for helping Rick than Rick did himself.

But Ezekiel doesn't relent. He takes in Daryl, providing him sanctuary from Negan's frontier justice. War, however, is not an option. Our heroes leave, once again rejected, but determined to get Ezekiel on their side. All I can think is how Rick and his merry band will almost certainly bring the Kingdom to ruin somehow.

Part Two

At this point the episode takes something of a turn. Leaving the Kingdom felt almost like the end of one episode. Finding the zombie barrier the Saviors created (which, as luck would have it, is rigged with explosions) almost feels like the beginning of a second one. There's a big steel cable, and Rosita plays Captain Obvious by pointing out that a big cable across an entire road isn't "just for one walker, it's for a lot."

Thank you Rosita for this gem of wisdom. Without it, your companions may have thought it was a single walker trap. We in the audience might have made the same mistake.

Occasionally Negan's voice pops up on the walkie talkie that Jesus gave them; oddly, nobody ever responds to Negan. It's just Negan, speaking into the void.

So begins the episode's most dramatic scene.

Will the heroes get the explosives off in time without blowing everybody up? "Not that one," Rosita warns Tera about one batch of dynamite. "I don't like the way it looks." It's not a batch of dynamite you'd want to go grab a beer with. She knows it in her gut.

Then Carl notices something in the distance. He even points to it. What could it be?

It's a herd of walkers races toward them at breakneck speed! A snarling, vicious horde half a mile away leaping over cars, bounding toward our heroes.... Or, well, shambling rather slowly toward them actually. They're really far off, so it's not that scary, but we can forgive Carl because he only has one eye and thus no depth perception.

So the zombies shamble toward our band of heroes.

What will they do? At this point we are all seriously on the edge of our seats. Biting our nails at this impending doom we shout at the TV "Flee you fools!" But they don't listen. They keep stocking up on explosives, ignoring almost certain death approaching, glacially.

What will Rick think of to get our plucky band of survivors out of this mess?

Well it turns out that whoever set up this barricade didn't attach the steel line to the sturdy and immovable side-rails on the edge of the highway. Instead, they attached it to two cars perfectly lined up and, as chance would have it, facing the same direction with full tanks of gas.

How fortunate! What luck!

This serendipitous discovery allows Rick and Michonne to drive at the exact same speed into the thick of the herd, cutting it off at the knees quite literally as they plow through row after row of shambling dead. It's a fun little action moment that's a neat spectacle. All those walkers ripped in half, all of them still alive but now legless. It's a cool action scene.

It's also probably the dumbest moment of the episode and one of the dumbest in the show period.

It's the kind of thing I'd enjoy in a movie like Zombieland but it doesn't work here, both because it's implausible (that the steel line would be attached to cars; that both cars would have gas; that they could then be driven at the same speed and with the same force through so many walkers; etc.) and because it's too goofy for a show like this. I thought this was a gritty, realistic portrayal of the zombie apocalypse? Now we have tigers and silly spectacles like this one.

The Walking Dead season 7, episode 9: “Rock in the Road” reveals the show can’t ditch its worst decisions

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but The Walking Dead is in trouble. Ratings are down, the show’s storytelling has seen better days, and the Negan arc has drawn no shortage of critical jeers (including from me).

And yet ... the show is still one of the biggest scripted series on television. Even with ratings slumping as much as they have, there are lots and lots and lots of people who watch The Walking Dead week to week, so there’s no real incentive to right the ship.

But even if there were, The Walking Dead is seven years old. It’s ridiculously hard to change course with a series that old, because audiences have largely seen everything it has in its bag of tricks (not to mention that this show in particular is rather faithful to a preexisting series of comics).

So the folks behind The Walking Dead have done what you’re supposed to do in this situation: They’ve teased that this latest batch of episodes (the second half of season seven) will return to what made the show so beloved in the first place. The storytelling will be tighter and less grim. The characters will move forward. We’ll get back to the “Rick against the world” tone of the early seasons.

All of the above is true in the midseason premiere, so far as it goes. But at the same time, “Rock in the Road” is further evidence that The Walking Dead might have permanently strayed from its most productive path.

The story might be moving forward, but it’s still sluggishly paced
The biggest problem with the first half of The Walking Dead’s seventh season was how mired it became in nothingness. It was a slog, with no momentum, where the characters simply lived underneath Negan’s iron fist. It wasn’t just boring; it was actively unsatisfying.

The end of the first half-season featured Rick and company deciding it was time to take the fight to Negan, having finally had enough. In and of itself, this move gives The Walking Dead a touch of the momentum it’s lacked for quite a while now. The characters have a quest, and with that quest comes a feeling of urgency.

Consider the sequence that unexpectedly turns out to be the episode’s most compelling one. Rick and his Alexandria-bound pals discover a blocked-off highway on-ramp, which they surmise must lead to one of the Saviors’ facilities. While exploring, they discover a trap laid by the Saviors and laced with explosives. They want the explosives, so they carefully dismantle it, even as a gigantic herd of zombies bears down on them.

At first, the sequence feels bogged down by many of the show’s worst tendencies — especially when it seems to involve little more than the crew moving a bunch of parked cars like post-apocalyptic valets. But the steady accumulation of plot points gives it a slow-building tension that resolves in gleeful zombie carnage: Rick and Michonne driving two cars in tandem, with a cable strung between the vehicles decapitating and bisecting every zombie it bloodily roars through.

If nothing else, it proves The Walking Dead still knows how to kill zombies with style. But how many times have we seen Rick and the gang take on a seemingly unstoppable foe? The show’s larger problems are macro problems, problems with the very way the show is constructed and just how repetitive it’s become. The audience isn’t turned off by Negan because he’s a horrible character (though he is that); the audience is turned off because we’ve seen characters like him before.

Season seven’s other big story — in which Alexandria, Hilltop, and the Kingdom form a fitful alliance to take down Negan (King Ezekiel isn’t in yet, but you know he will be) — is slightly better, if only because we haven’t seen a million other versions of it in past seasons. But functionally, it’s played out as an endless series of variations on “the gang is separated, then finds each other again” storyline that already we’ve seen too many times. The same applies to the army of folks who surround Rick and his friends at episode’s end, who are presumably the heavily armed, all-woman colony introduced earlier in the season.

Rather than really delving into, say, the Kingdom’s reluctance to take on Negan, or its relative affluence compared with the other communities, The Walking Dead is mostly interested in the Kingdom as a series of weirdo medieval affectations and a place for assorted supporting characters to hang out until the story needs them again.

The Walking Dead is struggling on an episodic level too
While The Walking Dead’s problems are more noticeable on the macro level, they’re not limited to it.

It used to be that you could explain, more or less, what any given episode of The Walking Dead was about, what smaller goal the characters were trying to accomplish, even if it was something stupid like trying to get a zombie out of a well. But the more the series has fallen under Negan’s sway, the less true that’s become.

What, precisely, are the characters trying to accomplish in “Rock in the Road” beyond what the show is trying to accomplish? The show needs Rick to meet King Ezekiel, but it also needs King Ezekiel to be reticent to take on the Saviors. So the closest thing Rick has to a goal — convince King Ezekiel to join his cause — is quickly thwarted by the show itself, simply because it needs to extend this story for a few more weeks.

This is why the highway sequence is the most successful part of the episode. The characters have an easily understandable goal, and they work to achieve it against mounting odds. These are the most basic tenets of storytelling, but The Walking Dead often seems to have forgotten all about them, in favor of world building. (In “Rock in the Road,” for instance, Gabriel pretty much just drives off — seemingly having stolen most of Alexandria’s food — because the show needs the characters to follow him and meet a new group of characters.)

World building, of course, is well and good, and TV shows need to indulge in some of it. But it can be hard to resist the call of simply exploring new corners of a show’s world at the expense of actually telling a story. This is especially true of older shows, which struggle to find new stories to tell, and, well, that sounds like The Walking Dead, right?

When The Walking Dead was at its best — back in the second half of season four and the first half of season one — it largely eschewed a larger, macro story in favor of a bunch of more compelling micro stories. It was ruthless with its characters and its plot momentum, and it didn’t much worry about overall build. Instead, it concentrated on producing satisfying standalone tales that slowly added up to something more.

That’s hard to do with a Big Bad like Negan getting in the way, and even in its stronger hours, season seven is a constant reminder of why that’s the case.

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