Well, that didn't take long, did it?
Any notion that The Walking Dead was going come back from its midseason break and return to its usual long, slow, winding ways got wiped away quickly this week – as speedily and ruthlessly, you might say, as Rick and Michonne clearing a highway full of zombies with two cars and a cable. Tonight's midseason premiere, entitled "Rock in the Road," doesn't waste a lot of time with wound-nursing or chin-stroking. It begins with our heroes trying to raise an army to beat the Saviors. It ends with them making new alliances, winning new commitments, and surrounded by the biggest bunch of armed, able bodies they've run into in a good long while. The game, it seems, is on.
Of course, this being TWD, the plan doesn't go exactly as expected. The bulk of this week's action takes place in the Kingdom, where Jesus takes Rick and company to meet King Ezekiel, in order to convince him that – with the combined numbers, weapons and hard-won Savior-savvy of the Alexandrians, Hilltop Colonists and Kingdom dwellers – they could beat their common enemy. The episode's title comes from an old children's story our hero shares with the regent, about a dangerous rock that travelers spend years trying to steer around. One day, a frustrated little girl moves it out of the way ... and finds gold buried beneath. The message is simple: Just coping with an annoyance may be okay for a while. There are to greater rewards, however, to be found by removing the problem altogether.
Everything about the audience with Ezekiel seems like an effective strategy to get him to reverse his long-standing "no more war" policy – and, frankly, is handled with unusual expediency for this show. There's no drawn-out getting-to-know-you period between the Safe Zoners and their hosts. Rick catches on quick to the town's whole Ye Olde Renaissance Faire vibe, which is why he tailors his fable to his audience. And almost immediately, Ezekiel seriously considers the notion of attacking the Saviors, which he'd previously dismissed out of hand as foolhardy. He's even overheard reading MLK's "free at last" speech as a bedtime story, indicating that he understands the ultimate goal. (And wasn't that a nice touch, to have a king quoting King?)
But after all that buildup, the Man with the Pet Tiger passes, thus restoring some "hurry up and wait" order to the show. The best these emissaries is an admission from Morgan that he now sees the necessity of killing when it has to be done – as well as a better-than-anyone-may-realize suggestion from him that if Negan were taken out of play, his minions might back down without a fight. In the end, our not-so-merry band walks away empty-handed, leaving the fugitive Daryl behind to stay safe and urging him to work with Ezekiel's trusted, battle-ready (and possibly persuadable) soldier Richard to keep wearing the leader down.
Because, as one character puts it, the current situation with the Saviors really is untenable. They demand more and more "tribute" with every visit, which means they stay beefy and strong while their servants get scrawnier. The concept of this comes home hard when Rick returns to Alexandria and find Negan's jerky lieutenant Simon tearing up the neighborhood looking for Daryl, while making fun of the residents for how bare their pantry is. The food scarcity is explained in the pre-credits scene of this episode, with Father Gabriel cleaning out all the supplies and drives off into the night for reasons as yet unexplained (although apparently it's for an actual strategic purpose, and not done out of panic).
The mystery and urgency of that opening sets the tone for an episode that's fast-paced and on-the-go. So does the first scene right after the credits, where the comically chickenshit Gregory mocks the very idea that his community of Hilltop Colony farmers should sign up to be "cannon-fodder." It's a funny little sequence – especially when he nervously hustles his visitors out the backdoor of his office, saying, "I want to thank you all for not having this meeting with me today." And it has a rousing ending, when a Hilltopper named Bertie and some of her neighbors tell Maggie that they're ready to learn to fight.
The best bit in this whole episode, however, comes when the Alexandrians encounter a roadblock of cars and an explosive booby trap not far from the Sanctuary. For one thing, it's kind of astonishing that a Walking Dead installment that's only slightly longer than usual packs in so much story, going from Hilltop to Kingdom to a dynamite-threaded highway (and then a trip back to Alexandria). This sequence on the road is incredibly tense, too, with Rosita calmly disarming bombs, Tara hurriedly moving vehicles, and Rick and Michonne coming up with their clothesline technique to demolish an advancing horde of walkers – a one-stop-shopping mass-killing technique that's bloody, batshit and brilliant. All of this is so more exciting than watching frightened characters dispiritedly argue with each other. The heightened level of action bodes well for the rest of this season.
Back at the ASZ, Simon points at the empty cupboards and shelves and grins at Rick to get out there and, "Take some risks!" Judging by this refreshingly energized return, The Walking Dead writers seem to be following that advice themselves. After everything that fills the first hour of "Rock in the Road," the episode still finds time for a coda that sees our crew stumbling into a new enclave of young and mean-looking types. Rick flashes a big smile in the final shot, because he may have just found the army that Ezekiel wouldn't provide. Fans should smile too: The show's clearly not wasting any time in building toward an inevitable, all-out war.
Previously: The Gang's All Here