Late in the midseason premiere of The Walking Dead comes the kind of scene that fans–and ex-fans–are all too familiar with: two characters off by themselves, sure to become zombie food. But this time, as Aaron and Rick search an abandoned boat, the snapping, shuffling noises don’t mean our heroes are surrounded by an impossible villain. This time, Rick doesn’t flash his well-worn, brow-heavy scowl. Instead, he does something viewers haven’t seen him do in quite a while: He smiles.
The Walking Dead, it seems, is back. It’s back in its usual Sunday-night perch, sure, but it also seems to have regained its urgency–maybe even its relevance.
Rick Grimes couldn’t have gotten his groove back at a better time. The first half of Season 7 last year, with its premiere so brutal that Dave Chappelle lampooned it on Saturday Night Live, opened with a concussive blow, and the rest of the episodes just heightened the sense of sickening disorientation. And while that’s what showrunner Scott M. Gimple was likely shooting for in (mostly) sticking to one of the comic book’s most heartbreaking arcs, something about the show just felt…off.
You can argue the merits of killing off beloved characters, but the martyrs of Season 7 certainly deserved more in their final episodes. We, as viewers, deserved more. We deserved to see the blossoming relationship between Sasha and the gloriously profane, cigar-chomping Abraham Ford. Instead we got what seemed to be a rushed and seemingly arbitrary hookup that left longtime viewers confused. We deserved to see daddy-to-be Glenn reprising his old role as “runner” to grab supplies for his baby’s nursery, or his and Maggie’s first-time-parent jitters. Instead, we got a heartbreaking death that was glossed over in favor of gore and shock. (RIP, Glenn–you were too pure for this world.) And that’s not even mentioning a half-season of Daryl’s greased-up tracksuit antics, none of which inspired sympathy for a man who had seen one friend die, inadvertently caused the death of another, and been separated–seemingly forever–from both a shower and his BBF (best bro forever) Rick Grimes.
Judging from last night’s events, the second half of Season 7 seems to be heading towards the “All Out War” arc of the comic book series, and I am ready. Mostly because–and I don’t know if you know this–the Saviors are dicks. The midseason premiere seems to pick up almost directly where the previous episode left off, with Rick and his team turning to the Hilltop for aid and support from its leader, Gregory, a.k.a. the lovechild of Lucius Malfoy and the sexist day shift manager of a Home Depot.
Gregory is, to be clinical about it, the actual worst. He’s not even the interesting kind of evil, like Negan; he’s a banal, just-following-orders bureaucrat who somehow manages to use the phrase, “that’s above my paygrade” without shame. After a mini-tantrum over being forced to take in “refugees” Sasha and Maggie (#resonant), he finally turns The Gang down–not that his word is good for much these days. Official prediction: Maggie “I did not come to play with you hoes” Greene-Rhee will be making a play for Hilltop leadership before the end of this season.
Outside, Enid has gathered a group of well-meaning Hilltop citizens together, Stripes-style, for her two pseudo-moms, Sasha and Maggie. It’s a good gesture and a show of how much people trust Maggie over Gregory, but even with all of Alexandria and a handful of Hilltop folk, The Gang (is it just me calling them that? Seriously?) is seriously lacking bodies. Nevertheless, the display manages to shake a smile out of Carl, who I was honestly starting to worry about; that kid was one surly thousand-yard stare away from becoming a My Chemical Romance song. Despite their setbacks, their dedication is enough to convince Jesus that it might be time to introduce Rick to Shiva, King Ezekiel, and Ezekiel’s hypeman, Jerry.
Unfortunately, King Ezekiel is a man with a lot on his plate: He worries about his people, about the Saviors, about whether or not Carol like-likes him. He’s sympathetic, but can offer little more than letting Daryl hide out in the Kingdom–but we’ll get back to that in a sec. Nevertheless, the ensuing disappointed grumbles from Rick’s team leaves us with what has to be the best line of the episode, courtesy of Rosita: “We had sex with the same dead guy. It doesn’t make us friends.”
Meanwhile, Negan, who is what I imagine would happen if Fall Out Boy’s “I Don’t Care” was a person, has noticed that his pet redneck has escaped and sends his right-hand man and former bowling-alley pervert Simon to turn Alexandria upside down. As expected, Daryl is nowhere to be found thanks to King Ezekiel’s offer of asylum–but neither is Father Gabriel, who appears to have taken off with all of Alexandria’s supplies. Before leaving, however, the snitch-turned-friend scrawled a vague nautical-themed clue inside the inventory book, which seems to lead Rick and Aaron straight up Shit Creek… or does it?
Even at a supersized 90 minutes, the midseason premiere introduces a staggering number of plotlines, characters and relationships, but the pay-off is clear: What in less experienced hands could feel like a collection of futile videogame sidequests–and, in fact, has–instead shows a return to what made past seasons so great. The Walking Dead has never been about zombies. It’s about what happens to humanity when the thin veneer of society falls away. It’s about the deeply human need to connect with other humans, even when nothing else is left.
But whenever the writers want to have Maggie punch Negan in his ascot-ed throat and free all his wives Furiosa-style, I would also very much want to see that. Just a thought.