‘The Walking Dead’ takes a much-needed drama break

Courtesy of AMC Studios Ratings for the mid-season premiere of “The Walking Dead” were solid, raking in nearly 12 mil. viewers as compared to the 10.5 mil. from the last episode.
Courtesy of AMC Studios Ratings for the mid-season premiere of “The Walking Dead” were solid, raking in nearly 12 mil. viewers as compared to the 10.5 mil. from the last episode.
Courtesy of AMC Studios
Ratings for the mid-season premiere of “The Walking Dead” were solid, raking in nearly 12 mil. viewers as compared to the 10.5 mil. from the last episode.

By Nicole Prieto | Staff Writer

With a new group, new explosions and a new way to take down walkers, “The Walking Dead” returns in an admirably-paced midseason opener. The season left off with Spencer getting gutted by Negan and Eugene getting kidnapped. The Hilltoppers reunited with Rick and company, and the group set its sights on taking back their freedom. They are now faced with more diplomatic challenges as Rick tries to rally everyone to face a common foe.

Here is a spoiler-heavy rundown of the good, the OK and the ugly of TWD’s Season 7 midseason premiere, “Rock in the Road.”

The Good

While not much action happens in the midseason premiere, it should be credited for adopting a sensible narrative pace that forgoes throwing around guts and gore and calling it a day. The group hops between the Hilltop and the Kingdom without the story suffering from any knee-deep plot holes. With respect to acting in particular, there is a fair amount of “good” to go around.

Rick and his fellow community leaders take the spotlight. Xander Berkeley makes Gregory’s narcissism and cowardice cringingly believable. He also manages to deliver one of the top one-liners of the episode with a straight face. When Gregory questions Rick and company about recruiting his people for war, he asks whether they intend to “start a platoon of sorghum farmers.”

While Negan is evil incarnate, the man knows how to deadpan a eulogy. Over the long-distance radio that Jesus steals, the group listens as Negan orders a moment of silence for “Fat Joey” — who Daryl killed during his escape. Negan mourns at how he and Fat Joey had joked about sex over his barbed bat Lucille; he bemoans at how “Skinny Joey” is now only going to be known as “Joey.” Not many villains can manage this kind of almost-believable sincerity and sarcasm in one breath.

Last half-season, King Ezekiel dropped the “king” act around Carol to show her that he was just a regular guy trying to keep the peace. In the premiere, Ezekiel recites Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech to Benjamin’s younger brother. Khary Payton’s acting is organic without being monotonous. He is a refreshing addition to the cast and pulls off handling a CGI tiger pretty well.

The OK

If special effects are TWD’s principle strength, characterization whiplash is an unapologetic weakness. The bad blood between Rosita and Sasha over Abraham rears its ugly head, which is a downer from the midseason finale when both women nodded in understanding to one another. Rosita is quick to remind Sasha that they were in a relationship with the same “dead guy,” foregoing any friendship between them. To her credit, at this point, everyone is in a sour mood after Ezekiel refuses to participate in the great “#RiseUp-ing.”

On their return home, the group finds an explosion-laden steel cable. Rosita takes point, making it possible for everyone to collect the saviors’ dynamite bundles lining it. But they have to act fast: A walker mega herd is at their back, and Negan’s goons are on the move to Alexandria. After retrieving the bombs, Rick and Michonne hotwire the cars that are holding the cable taut between them. They then proceed to do what TWD does best as they bifurcate a good number of walkers scythed-chariot style. It is not the most dramatic zombie takedown in the show, but it is a smart and entertaining one.

The Ugly

Given the dramatic buildup and counseling from his sympathetic squire Benjamin, it is hard, but not unreasonable, to understand why King Ezekiel wants to stay out of Rick’s revolt. But more baffling is Morgan’s insistence that they take the path of least resistance when combatting Negan. It is an eye-rolling moment when he even suggests they try capturing Negan alone, rather than mustering the Kingdom’s forces for war. Morgan’s naiveté about the situation is surprising, given what he had to do to save Carol from the Saviors before.

When Daryl (again) asks about Carol’s whereabouts, the episode highlights an odd quirk about his character; Daryl is entirely built around his angst over the people he loses in his life. Just as it is difficult to imagine Rick not being consumed by the welfare of his kids, it is getting harder and harder to see Daryl as an independent character from anyone else around him.

The End

The episode is stuffed with canned allegorical lessons about doing the right thing and a convoluted lesson about needing to bleed to be rewarded. The premiere feels like a filler episode in a kid’s cartoon that makes a handful of strange decisions against an otherwise strong backdrop. There are a lot of loose ends to address before the season’s end. But at least the group has a few sticks of dynamite and some RPGs, in addition to a new band of well-armed (potential) allies. Episode 10, “New Best Friends,” airs Sunday at 9 p.m. EST.