“Your world is about to get a whole lot bigger,” says Jesus (Tom Payne) to Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Michonne (Danai Gurira), Daryl (Norman Reedus), and Carl (Chandler Riggs) during the opening minutes of tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead. His words hum with a self-conscious sense of enthusiasm, a certain recognition that more than just Alexandria, but the series itself, has been trapped in a sort of standstill from which it’s been trying to escape. Jesus does a fine job of convincing Rick’s group that he means them no harm, negotiating a mutually beneficial future and rolling out the red carpet toward a nearby place known as the Hilltop. And for a moment, the group’s cautiously measured excitement rhymes with our own.
By the end of “Knots Untie,” though, it feels as if only Rick’s motley group of survivors has moved closer to a better tomorrow, as audiences are subjected to such an enormous amount of exposition and lengthy establishment of future conflicts that the title of the episode becomes comical in its aptness—or is it deceit? On the way toward the Hilltop, Jesus spots one of his community’s vehicles overturned by the side of the road, sparking obligatory concerns from Rick’s group about Jesus’s trustworthiness and, subsequently, a rescue mission of a few Hilltop citizens from a nearby building. The sequence, if not for the moment where Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) freezes in shock after nearly killing an injured Freddie (Brett Gentile), resonates mostly as a series of grinding plot gears.
At the Hilltop, Rick’s group meets the community’s leader, Gregory (Xander Berkeley), some kind of perverse caricature of the Southern gentlemen. By which I mean he scarcely qualifies as one. He takes a pervy shine to Maggie (Lauren Cohan), and in their interactions, the episode seems to broadcast either his doom or her future rise to a prominent leadership role, maybe both. (In fact, Rick so suddenly promotes Maggie to his right hand, after Gregory insists he “clean up” before they chat, that it’s surprising that she hasn’t usurped Rick himself by the end of the episode.) And it’s outside the mansion where Gregory roosts that the leader almost bites it, when a Hilltop member, Ethan (Justin Kucsulain), charges through the gates screaming about his kidnapped brother, Craig, and drives a knife into Gregory’s gullet as a message from the mysterious Neegan.
“Knots Unite” is especially exhausting because even the turning of the plot screws that aren’t pointing to the eventual meet un-cute between Rick’s band of survivors and Neegan are rife with portent. Not that all of this doesn’t lead to the occasional grace note. The episode begins with a discussion of Maggie and Glenn’s (Steven Yeun) future “pup,” with Abraham wondering to Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) if it’s right for the couple to bring a child into this world “because of the way things go.” He is, of course, referring to what happened to his own children during the nascent days of the zombie apocalypse, and as he and the survivors later drive back to Alexandria from the Hilltop, and Daryl hands him a picture of Maggie’s sonogram, the look Abraham shoots Glenn is striking for how Cudlitz so subtly articulates his character’s torment and his understanding that it’s far from a unique.
No episode of The Walking Dead ends without chatter, on social media, message boards, and around water coolers, about a character’s looming death. Such speculation can be a fool’s errand, but Abraham’s though line during this episode is so cloyingly sentimentalized as to suggest that the series is trying to give him a “proper” sendoff. “Your damn near perfection,” he tells Rosita (Christian Serratos) after sleeping with her—“damn near” because Sasha is truly his idea of perfection. Later, after Ethan nearly strangles him to death, a strange mix of ecstasy and resignation hangs on Abraham’s face. It’s the look of someone who feels he doesn’t belong in a world where he can’t have what he wants. That so much can be read from that expression attests to Cudlitz’s talent, even as it further corroborates how almost every scene from “Knots Untie” is a telegraphing of future events. It seems, then, that this world is actually about to get a whole lot smaller.
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