If you enjoyed the action-packed midseason premiere of The Walking Dead – and let’s assume like us, you did – then this week’s episode (“New Best Friends”) is going to make you very, very happy. There’s more jumping around from location to location; more indications that our heroes are going to battle the Saviors sooner rather than later; and even one big, badass monster-fighting sequence plopped into the middle of the hour. Rising to the challenge of matching last week’s freeway-wide walker clothesline, this episode puts an unarmed Rick into the middle of a pit carved out of a garbage dump, where he has to dispatch a zombie covered in spiked armor. Sheriff Grimes, meet a walker who apparently just wandered off the set of Spartacus.
The weaponized walker is part of a crucible designed by Jadis, a new character (played by Pollyanna Macintosh), from a group that doesn’t presently have a catchy name. They’ve apparently been living inside a catacomb-like junkyard for years, escaping detection and coping with what they call “the change” by following a simple policy: “We take, we don’t bother.” One of the community’s agents, Tamiel, had silently watched Rick and Aaron plunder the houseboat in the midseason finale, figuring it was easier to wait and swipe those supplies from a tired human that to wade through zombie-filled waters. And that’s just what this band did, grabbing the cache of goodies from Gabriel.
“New Best Friends” doesn’t do the best job of filling in the gaps of everything that happened off-screen with the former man of the cloth in last week’s episode. It also doesn’t make a lot of sense that when we catch back up with Rick and company this week, they’ve gone through being captured, dragged through these scrapyard-dwelling outcasts’ underground lair, and then trotted back out into a secure open-air space, where they are confronted by the new faction’s leader. We don’t pick up exactly where we left off last episode. First, there’s a lot of hoop-dee-doo.
But having the members of two strange factions in a dangerous post-apocalyptic world wait 10 minutes before asking each other some basic questions – such as, “Who the hell are you?” – is some forgivable dramatic license in the name of a more dynamic visual. The overhead long shot of this black-clad secret society streaming out of a portal in the middle of massive walls of garbage looks genuinely impressive. And sure, Jadis probably could’ve come up with a better way to test Rick’s mettle than to take him “up up up” to the top of a trash-heap and then push him down to face her ravenous spike-beast. But that whole gladiatorial routine (shades of the Star Trek episode “The Gamesters of Triskelion”) is enjoyably nerdy, even if it’s contrived.
Besides, the fight gets the show’s larger narrative where it needs to go; and as with last week, it does so in a way that’s more exciting to watch than just conversation alone. Rick may well have convinced Jadis that her group should join their fight, given that she’s already admitted that their scavenging has begun turning up more and more cans of rotten food. (“Changing again,” she sighs, in the choppy, sing-song way of talking that distinguishes her people … again for no real reason besides that being kind of a cool, fantasy-fiction thing to do.) Rick’s surviving the zombie arena seals the deal, though, and gives the Alexandrians a new task: If they can round up enough weapons and ammo for these potential new recruits. they’ll have support on the battlefield.
The rest of the episode takes place in and around the Kingdom, where Daryl gets a better idea of what life has been like for Morgan and Carol, while King Ezekiel gets another warning that it may be time to stand up to the Saviors. After all, we opened with another drop-off that almost erupts into violence, indicating once again that this arrangement is becoming untenable – especially since the bad guys keep insisting on pushing the good guys around as part of their deal. (Next time, they warn, “Things might need to get a little … visceral.”)
This all sets up one of The Walking Dead‘s semi-regular symposiums on “why we fight.” The student this week is Daryl, who’s grown accustomed to thinking of Morgan – and, by extension, Ezekiel – as a naive fool, holding on to some ideal of human decency that savvier folks abandoned long ago. But when Richard tells our favorite greasy fugitive his plan to ambush some passing bad guys and pin the blame on Carol (so that she’ll be attacked and Kingdom residents will be forced to respond), our man balks. And later, when he meets up with his old friend living by herself in the woods, he can’t bring himself to tell her that Glenn and Abraham got bludgeoned to death by Negan. “Everyone’s all right,” he says, choosing to preserve her ignorance so that she won’t be coerced to revenge.
The lesson here seems to be that even when war is necessary, how you wage it and who you enlist still matters. Daryl’s a man of action, but he’s also fundamentally decent and compassionate. In the end, he heads back to the Hilltop, after urging Morgan to start working on swaying the indecisive regent. In the process, he lets a lot of animosity go, perhaps because he sees that his ire is ugly, and ultimately unnecessary. The way things have been going, the King won’t need to be persuaded. The fight’s probably going to come right up to his gates, whether he invites it or not.
Previously: Down to the Wire