If The Walking Dead were a boxer, it’d be hit-like-a-hammer George Foreman, not float-like-a-butterfly Muhammed Ali, so the sly head-fake that opens “Rock in the Road” throws us surprisingly and effectively off balance. The episode starts where the midseason finale left off: outside at night in Alexandria with Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) just after an as-yet-unidentified stranger, whose face we’ve yet to see, leaps down from the wall where he or she was spying on him. The ominous memory of that mystery stalker—not to mention the show’s penchant for blowing up any post-apocalyptic community that starts to feel safe or stable—primes us for mayhem, as Gabriel finishes pondering a passage in his Bible and heads into the supply room. So when the camera lags behind him as he rounds a corner, the sudden clatter registers as the sounds of a struggle until the camera catches up and Gabriel is seen loading up on canned goods and tools that could double as weapons, which he then puts in the trunk of a car that he drives off into the night.
On the surface, Gabriel going AWOL on the eve of war with the Saviors, after stealing supplies from a community that lives by scavenging, seems like the ultimate act of betrayal. Except one of The Walking Dead’s signature moves is staging an unexplained departure by a member of Rick’s group that initially appears to be a betrayal but turns out to be something else entirely. And sure enough, the note that Rick finds from Gabriel appears to be evidence that he wanted them to know where he’d gone to if he ever went missing.
We get a welcome break from Negan this week as Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and most of his crew start rounding up allies in the other communities, though the leaders of both the Kingdom and the Hilltop prove harder to convince. Pronouns are important, as people either embrace or reject the notion of becoming part of Rick’s “us.” Gregory (Xander Berkeley) does his usual weasel-y Neville Chamberlain bit before bristling at Rick’s use of “we” and throwing the group out of his office. King Ezekiel (Khary Payton) is more sympathetic, looking appropriately concerned and aware of the magnitude of the situation as Rick asks him to go to war. He also gives Morgan (Lennie James) the floor, so we get a brief pitch for the nonviolent alternative.
As always, though, the series sees violence as the only viable route toward survival, and anyone who wishes to try another path as weak or misguided but sure to come through in the end. I had hoped that Carol and Morgan’s hard-won and deeply felt commitment to pacifism would serve the same function on The Walking Dead that the new president promises to serve on Homeland, offering an alternative to the generally unquestioned conviction that killing is the only effective response to existential threats. But Morgan’s stammering plea to save lives by capturing Negan is hardly compelling or likely to work, given the ferocity of Negan’s band of enforcers, and Rick and Michonne (Danai Gurira) don’t even give it the courtesy of a debate, shaking their heads as he talks and then ignoring him.
Within Rick’s core contingent, no one ever voices a doubt about the necessity or virtue of going to war except when they’re temporarily unmoored by grief or fear, as Rick was for a while after that horrible night when Negan killed Abraham and Glenn. And their militaristic perspective is often privileged, as it is in this episode, with a shot of a group of determined Alexandrians marching heroically toward the camera. I’ve been looking at Negan, since his appearance last year, as a cautionary tale—a timely warning about how quickly and horribly things can go wrong when a chaos-strewing authoritarian narcissist takes charge of a weakened social system, ruling through fear and brute force. But maybe he’s just the bogeyman who provides an excuse, along with the increasingly irrelevant walkers, for Rick and his followers to unleash another hellstorm of violence, asserting themselves as the ultimate strong men. Maybe Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz and Sean T. Collins were right when they wrote last year about this being a fascistic series.
Certainly, The Walking Dead isn’t interested in how people behave when they’re not fighting for their lives or gearing up for battle. Scenes of everyday life in Alexandria, now that our main characters have settled into it, are rare and brief, and if someone starts talking about feelings, ideas, or plans for the future (anything at all other than grim recitals of essential facts or strategy sessions), you can be pretty sure they’re about to become walker food. True to form, there are no conversations to be heard when Rick’s group enters the Kingdom in “Rock in the Road,” just clumps of people acting out stagey vignettes. A few are farming, but most are practicing archery or jogging in formation, making the most peaceful and stable community we’ve encountered to date look almost like a military camp.
At least Ezekiel’s Medieval Times act and pet tiger give the Kingdom a touch of self-aware cheeseball zazz. There’s a welcome moment of levity when Ezekiel shuts down his sidekick, Jerry (Cooper Andrews), for getting too sycophantic, but most individuals in the Kingdom are as self-serious and humorless as the Alexandrians. Jesus (Tom Payne) says he’s never seen Richard (Karl Makinen) smile, and they seem to know each other pretty well. Michonne tries to coax a smile out of Rick at one point, but the only thing that gets him to break out in a rare (and radiant) grin is the battalion of armed and dangerous-looking people that he encounters in the episode’s final scene. (Could Gabriel, whose note led Rick and company to the place where the strangers are encamped, have gathered those supplies to bargain with them?)
Those ferocious-looking potential allies aren’t the only likely additions to the collective “we.” A group of Hilltop residents pledge allegiance to the Alexandrians’ cause. Carol (Melissa McBride) turns out to be alive and well and toting a shotgun, and though she still wants to stay to herself so as not to have to kill anyone, it’s hard to imagine her remaining neutral once war with the Saviors breaks out. And Rick’s group has some vital new weapons: the dynamite they freed from an elaborate Savior booby trap and the walkie-talkie that that allows Rick’s group to monitor Negan’s transmissions. All in all, a good day for those who love the smell of napalm in the morning.
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