Whenever and however The Walking Dead eventually ends, this week's episode – auspiciously named "The Key" – may, in retrospect, come to be seen as one of the most pivotal hours of the series. It weaves between three main storylines: an uneasy alliance struck by Dwight and Simon; a long-anticipated battle royale between Rick and Negan; and a challenge posed by three entirely new characters. In each, the players make moves that are likely to resonate across the rest of this season … and beyond.
Yet what's odd about this hour is that it doesn't feel that consequential. Unlike the padded length and ponderousness of the midseason premiere, or the overwrought structural experimentation of something like "The Lost and the Plunderers" (where even the title was pretentious), this latest episode just chugs along, unassumingly. That overall lack of gravitas does mean there's a bit of a "Wait… what?" to this Walking Dead. Or at least that's true of the scenes involving Georgie, Hilda and Midge, a trio of new arrivals who enter the story more of less out of nowhere.
We meet these strangers after they've delivered a message to the Hilltop, attached to a crate left just outside the gates. They claim to be offering a trade: essential survivalist knowledge, in exchange for whatever old vinyl LPs Maggie and company have laying around. (Just music, though. No comedy records spoken word or "Learn the Fundamentals of Contract Bridge" or anything like that.) The skeptical 'Toppers – including Michonne, Rosita and Enid – meet Georgie's gang at a literal crossroads, and seize the ladies' food-filled van before taking them all back to the Colony.
What follows is that old Walking Dead favorite: a long scene where people stand around and debate. Michonne believes they should follow the example of Carl, and be more open to outsiders (even though last we checked, that strategy didn't work out so well for him). The other women conclude that anyone as friendly as Georgie is doomed to die anyway. Therefore, the Hilltop should clean out all of the supplies in their van before the Saviors do.
Maggie stews for a bit, but eventually is persuaded to hand over the albums and let the visitors go, without demanding anything other than what they originally offered: "A key to a future." Maybe she does this because she respects Michonne. But it seems more likely that she's impressed by their newfound friend's sales pitch, which one of the lady's cohorts's insists is purely an act of benevolence. "What else should I do?" she asks, boiling everything down to the one question that's preoccupied this show for several seasons now.
It's probably no coincidence that Georgie steps out of her van in a Hillary Clinton-style pantsuit, or that she reassures Maggie's crew that in this post-apocalyptic landscape, "the worst has been outpacing the best lately … but that won't last." Perhaps sensitive to the criticism that the show has gotten too bleak and dude-dominated since the introduction of its bullying strongman with a barbed-wire bat, the writers may have very intentionally created a moment where a group of women opt to trust another group of women, all in the name of forging a better tomorrow.
As a reward for their faith, the Hilltoppers are given some of the food they chose not to steal, along with detailed blueprints for building an advanced agrarian society. "We'll see what we can do," Maggie humbly says to the demand that she construct a paradise. "You will," Georgie insists, confidently.
But will they even get the chance to build that new world? Not if Simon has any say. In the other big negotiation this week, the Saviors' mustachioed goon proposes to Dwight that their big bad boss's way of doing things has hit a dead-end. "They keep coming," he says of their rivals, adding: "They don't scare." He suggests something similar to what he recently advised Negan, arguing that it's time to move on and to find some new masses to exploit. His traveling companion seems willing to at least see where this might lead – but then appears taken aback when the troops are told that before they begin their new adventure, they need to "expunge" and "redact" all the existing opposition.
The whole reason Simon can even assume control of the Saviors is that Negan's waylaid by Rick. Although the sheriff was supposed to alert everyone as the enemy approached, he hops in his vehicle and purposefully slams into his nemesis, chasing him into an crumbling old building for what he hopes will be a final showdown. During the course of their fight, each takes turns having the upper hand. Bullets fly. Fire rages. Structures collapse, Zombies, naturally, encroach. ("As long as you die first," Rick declares to his nemesis.) These are the only legitimately exciting scenes in "The Key." As with last week's "Dead or Alive Or," it's a lot easier to sit through The Walking Dead's circuitous dialectics when the characters are actually doing something while they state their respective cases.
That said, nothing really gets resolved here between Rick and Negan. The Savior offers the Alexandrians what he believes to be a generous new deal – where the good guys only have to kick up 25% of what they scavenge or grow, instead of half. In response he gets called a loveless loser and is left to die. We don't actually see Negan escape, though in the closing scene, we do see him waking up in a car with Jadis. He laughs his usual "well, shit" laugh. She clocks him in the head with a gun.
What kind of deal is she about to offer? Strangers bearing blueprints, surprise betrayals, the big bosses suddenly slugging it out – everything's changing so fast right now on The Walking Dead that next week pretty much anything could happen.
Previously: Blind Faith