Over the course of five-and-a-half seasons of The Walking Dead, we've seen survivors settle into prisons, hospitals, churches, farms, small towns, and gated communities. And in this week's episode — "Knots Untie" — we visit someplace entirely new: "The Hilltop," an agrarian society built around a Colonial Williamsburg-like "living history" museum. That's something this show has always done well. Sure, nearly every storyline ends with half the characters dead and our heroes starting over. But at least the writers are kind enough to change the scenery.
After the relatively relaxing downshift and reset of last week's episode, this latest installment picks up the pace, building smartly on what came before. Nearly the entire hour is spent with Rick, Michonne, Glenn, Maggie, Daryl, and Abraham, as they hop into their RV with Jesus and drive to Hilltop, to explore the possibility of opening up trade. The newcomer's people have livestock and crops. And Rick's people? They have weapons and ammo and … well, that's about it. But they've survived and even thrived in every one of those aforementioned locations. Increasingly in this fallen world, adaptability is the most valuable asset.
"Knots Untied" is a strong episode overall, as introduction-minded Walking Deads tend to be. Just when we're getting sick of the same buildings and the same people, this show has a way of revitalizing itself just by hitting the road, and taking a look at how other survivors are making do. It's always fun to meet new folks — especially when they're as amusingly prickly as Hilltop leader Gregory (played by the always-formidable Xander Berkeley), who spends a lot of this chapter verbally sparring with Maggie.
The two big Gregory/Maggie scenes are the highlights of this episode, for a couple of reasons. We haven't seen much of Ms. Greene lately, so it's good that she has something to do — other than listening to other people talk about their plans, that is. More importantly, when a series relies as much on quiet scenes of conversation as The Walking Dead does, it helps when those moments are actually dramatic. What these two have to say to each other matters. As they ask questions, strike deals, and bluff about their towns' respective strengths, they're establishing what the relationship between Alexandria and Hilltop will be going forward.
Contrast that with another character who gets a lot to say this week: Abraham. The good sergeant's been questioning his future with his girlfriend Rosita lately, because he's developed a crush on Sasha, and he's not sure if it makes sense to settle down with anyone in this dangerous, untamed zombieland. Credited writers Matthew Negrete and Channing Powell have a lot of fun with Abe's colorful dialogue, whether he's talking about Rick and Michonne "ugging bumplies" or he's questioning Glenn about Maggie's pregnancy by asking, "When you were pouring the Bisquick, were you trying to make pancakes?"
The problem with the Abraham scenes is that they go the same thematic well that The Walking Dead dips into these days, where a character talks — and talks and talks — about whether it's better to plan for a distant future or to focus on making it through another day. That's a fine thing to consider, and it's what this whole series is about, ultimately. But haven't we had this conversation already? Like, a lot? Isn't there another navel we can gaze at?
Luckily, "Knots Untied" isn't all talk. Not long after Rick and company arrive at Hilltop, they find out that Jesus hasn't been entirely honest about why he wants to work with them. As it happens, without Alexandria's impressive arsenal, this old plantation has been turning over a hefty percentage of its output to the mysterious Negan and his lackeys, known as "The Saviors." We learn this when some Hilltoppers return from a supply drop, minus two colleagues who've been killed and one who's been imprisoned. As soon as they walk through the gate, they try to assassinate Gregory, on Negan's orders.
So now Maggie has something to trade. She's certain that her battle-tested warriors can wipe out the Saviors, and asks for half of the Hilltop's food and medicine in return, along with "one of them cows." Her friends are willing to be hired muscle, to save their new neighbors from bullying marauders. That's a classic adventure plot right there: think The Seven Samurai (or, if you prefer, The Magnificent Seven, or A Bug's Life). Mainly, think action, which is what The Walking Dead needs most heading into Season Six's homestretch.
All modern zombie stories have their roots in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and its sequels, which invented how the undead behave. Those films weren't exactly optimistic. You could sum them all up with what Jesus says to Rick this week: "Knots untie and locks get picked. Entropy comes from order." But they're entertaining, because they show people doing something to stave off the end of the world. It's okay for a TV drama to allow its characters to take a few moments now and then to talk about how they want to build their new society. Eventually though, someone needs to pick up a hammer.
Previously: Jesus Saves