The Walking Dead
Warning: contains spoilers
Season seven of The Walking Dead kicked off last year with an orgy of violence that reduced even veteran horror fans to slack-jawed silence. As the zombie drama returned from its mid-series break, many viewers will have crossed their fingers that there was no repeat of that earlier shock-fest, in which super-villain Neganembarked on a skull-cracking spree with his beloved baseball bat.
Their wish was granted, with an episode that took a softly-softly approach and kept the swaggering Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) out of sight. The calm was shattered just once, in a striking scene in which dozens of the undead walkers were decapitated with wire suspended between two onrushing cars.
But that sequence was played more for laughs than horror (if you don’t find headless zombies innately hilarious you probably shouldn’t be watching the Walking Dead in the first place). Otherwise, the emphasis was on the building conspiracy against Negan and introducing the heroes to yet another colony of survivors (the existence of which was hinted when the show took its leave just before Christmas).
The Walking Dead was also at pains to remind us anti-hero Rick (Andrew Lincoln) has rediscovered the mean streak so cruelly snatched from him by Negan. After weeks of troweled on man-tears, Sheriff Grimes was once again a post-apocalyptic action figure made flesh, the earlier self pity quietly scrubbed from the record.
Alas, there were glimmers, too, of the flatness that has bedevilled the first half of the season. Negan’s absence was a problem in an instalment that cried out for cackling menace. Still, Rick’s lack of blubbing came close to compensating, as did the mass zombie decapitations. How can you not love a caper that brings us Mad Max remixed with Evil Dead? Here’s the rest of what we learnt.
In the previous episode, a scout from a mysterious new colony watched Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) standing guard at Alexandria. Did Father Furtive cop he was being observed? This week’s action began with Gabriel stocking up on supplies and driving into the night. He left a clue for Rick – the word “boat” scrawled inside a book. But Rick had never told the padre about his and Aaron’s adventure at the house-boat. How had Gabriel learned of the vessel’s existence?
Did you catch Rick’s half-grin as, having followed Gabriel to the house-boat, the team were rushed by armed-to-the-teeth strangers? His high spirits make sense when you consider he’s on a drive to recruit rebels who will stand up to Negan and help with Alexandria’s lack of guns. If the newcomers don’t kill the crew, perhaps he can talk them around.
The outlook seemed grim as the walker horde huffed towards the road block. Then Rick played one of the Walking Dead’s best ever get-out-of-jail cards. He and Michonne (Danai Gurira) each got behind the wheel of a car, between which they suspended a length of wire. Towards the walkers they drove, lopping the noggins off those in the middle. It was silly, gory and hilarious – a bloody spurt of humour to break up the gloom.
We knew snivelling Hilltop boss Gregory (Xander Berkeley) would wimp out of backing the heave against Negan – even if many of the residents are eager to help. A bigger surprise was Ezekiel’s reluctance to pitch in. In his handful of appearances it has been made clear that the ruler of the Kingdom (Khary Payton) values his secret peace deal with the Saviours. But if anyone was going to talk him around surely it would be the re-charged Rick. But no, Ezekiel’s not for turning – though he did make recompense by sheltering Daryl (Norman Reedus).
Obviously it was a relief to be spared further gratuitous bloodshed. But Negan was missing, too, and his absence was felt. The episode teased us with the hilarious eulogy he delivered over walkie-talkie for the recently slain Fat Joey. “Without Fat Joey…Skinny Joey is just Joey….Let’s have a moment’s silence.” While we’re at it, let’s hope Negan is back next week.
The first half of the season established Negan’s villainy and the extent to which the Saviours had cowed other colonies. Now the fightback has begun. Jeffrey Dean Morgan has stated Negan will be around for series eight so he probably won’t catch his comeuppance just yet. But expect the push against him to achieve critical mass in the weeks ahead.
Though Rock in the Road boiled down to Rick and compadres walking through the wilderness looking a bit cross, the producers at least squeezed in the occasional melodramatic interlude. The most memorable was a bittersweet farewell between Aaron (Ross Marquand) and his partner Eric.
Granted, it was a fluffy heart-to-heart worthy of a soap opera: Eric feared Aaron would come to an unpleasant end, Aaron asked him to keep the faith. But it at least introduced a human moment to an episode that was really all about cranking through the gears and levers of the plot.
Rick, Carl, Maggie, Sasha, Tara, Morgan – aside from kidnapped Eugene (currently stewing in Negan’s dungeons), the entire crew had their moment to shine. Rock in the Road essentially doubled as the best post-apocalyptic school reunion ever.
The Walking Dead continues in the UK on Mondays, 9pm, on Fox
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