Rick (Andrew Lincoln) is still uncharacteristically happy in “New Best Friend,” thanks to the group that he ran into at the end of last week’s episode and forms an alliance with this week—and he hasn’t even been told yet about the seaside community that Tara (Ma Masterson) encountered during her last supply run. Yet, even by the standards of The Walking Dead (whose characters often speak in aphorisms, if they say anything at all), this new group is theatrically taciturn. It’s as if their response to the end of the world had been to devolve rapidly, losing the power of speech in the process. Their leader, Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh), talks, like The Road Warrior’s Lord Humungus, in the clipped monosyllables of a toddler, ordering a follower to escort Rick to the top of the trash pile by saying: “Show Rick up-up-up.”
Maybe these junkyard people communicate telepathically, like the ants they resemble—right down to their colorless attire. The episode’s director, Jeff January, invites that association by filming them from above as they stream out of a container nestled within an anthill-like mountain of trash, moving in seeming lockstep before forming a series of concentric circles around Rick’s people. January is also canny in his shooting of the fight scenes, highlighting strategy and emotions rather than glamorizing the violence. Rick and his followers win their lives and Jadis’s grudging respect by working together, like the de facto platoon that they are: They spring into separate but coordinated action when the junkyard people close in on them, forcing a standoff, before Jadis makes Rick prove his mettle by fighting a walker in a spiked helmet with the help of coaching from Michonne (Danai Gurira).
In contrast, when Ezekiel (Khary Paton) faces off against the Saviors who come to collect from his people, the philosophical differences among the Kingdom’s citizens undermines their sense of unity, weakening individual members’ stabs at resistance. The struggle that ensues after Jared (Joshua Mikel) takes Richard’s (Karl Makinen) gun and Morgan’s (Lennie James) staff at least shows that the Kingdom isn’t lacking in fighting skills; even Benjamin (Logan Miller) has gotten good enough with his staff that he can knock Jared down. But when Jared kneecaps Richard with Morgan’s staff, the focus isn’t on Richard’s pain, but on Morgan’s writhing in the background as his hopes for a pacifist solution to this dreadful dilemma take another beating.
The Mexican standoff that starts that fight, after Richard resists Jared’s attempt to take his gun, isn’t the only time Richard tries to start a war singlehanded in “New Best Friends.” He’s becoming increasingly isolated by his barely contained rage at having to follow orders—even Ezekiel’s—and by his sense of the urgency of the need to rise up against the Saviors, before all the loot and weapons they’ve taken from the other groups make them impossible to defeat. He even alienates Daryl (Norman Reedus), who should have been his staunchest ally, when he tells him about a plan to set a trap for the Saviors that involves using Carol (Melissa McBride) as bait.
It’s good to have Carol back, if only briefly, as more than just a topic of conversation. The emotional intensity of her reunion with Daryl and the delicacy of their unspoken understanding are a welcome respite from all the grim scuffles and stalemates and unstable détentes that now dominate The Walking Dead more than ever. Their dialogue also feels unusually nuanced, partly because McBride plays Carol with such dignified strength and tremulous sorrow, but also because we get another showcase of the love between these two that’s been unspoken yet evident for so long.
It’s not news to us when Carol explains why she left Alexandria, but it is to Daryl. More to the point, it’s the first time he’s heard it from her, though Morgan told him as much earlier in the episode, and given how much he must miss Carol and wonder why she left, he needed to hear her explanation. Similarly, his decision to tell her that merciful lie about how Alexandria beat the Saviors and everyone’s all right, in support of her desire to stay away from the group and its battles, is a touching demonstration of his love and respect, even if it’s also arguably paternalistic and dangerously likely to poison the trust between them, since she will surely learn the truth at some point.
The shards of bone-dry humor in Channing Powell’s script are also unusual, and welcome. At one point, Daryl says of Ezekiel: “Figure any guy that has a pet tiger can’t be that bad.” There’s also the moment where Gavin tells Jared to stop harassing Ezekiel’s riled-up crew and leave—with his newly acquired fighting staff—by saying, “Read the room, sensei.” But the episode’s main strength, like the show’s as a whole, is its visuals. January uses the countryside that the characters move through to remind us of the distance they’ve traveled in time, salting the backgrounds with already half-ruined artifacts from the culture that flourished there just a couple of long years earlier. Particularly poignant is a faded painting on the side of an abandoned truck that depicts a cowboy aiming a pistol at what appears to be another cowboy—a reminder of the default toward violence and blind faith in guns that infected American culture long before the walker-creating virus.
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