… and it’s a relief as much as it was a pleasant surprise. I must admit, I wasn’t growing antsy with anticipation during the break like I used to in previous seasons, because lately TWD has been mostly uneven and inconsistent.

You get an action packed episode and then a couple of duds and you’re left wondering why on earth did they need to supersize them. Most of this past half season was either bleak, focusing on just one or two members of the group, or both – and while I can see how it “served the plot”, it still felt unnecessarily stretched out.

Given how the conversation’s been focusing on the need to start gearing towards an end to the series sooner rather than later – after all, how many times must we see our group get terrorized by the Next Big Bad only to come out on top in the end? and how long before the walkers decompose completely? – slowing things down this season seemed like a rather odd choice. Milking the Negan hype for all it’s worth might seem like a good idea on paper, but somewhere along the way it just lost its juice.

All of this is by way of explaining why I wasn’t overly optimistic about the mid-season premiere, and I was very pleasantly surprised to see that my worries were unfounded. I’m not too hopeful that the rest of the season will live up to Rock In The Road, but at least things seem to be back on track – for now.

So without further ado, let’s jump into some random thoughts about this episode:

  • First of all, has there ever been a douchier scumbag than Gregory on this show? I highly doubt that, and that’s saying a lot, considering the array of douchebags we’ve had to contend with so far. Xander Berkeley is doing a fantastic job (and seems to be really enjoying himself), and I literally laughed out loud when he exclaimed “rhetoricaaal“. I fully expected Daryl to punch him in the nose during that meeting but he somehow managed to contain himself, which was actually more surprising than most of the stuff that happened in this episode.
  • Enid made herself useful for a change, which was almost as surprising as Daryl not giving in to his baser instincts. We finally got to see some of the Hilltop people, and unlike Gregory, they actually have balls! Now can they just hurry up and oust the douchebag as their leader? I mean really, what are they waiting for? All Gregory seems to do is hide in his mansion and wait for the Saviors contingent to show up so he can kiss their asses, so why is he still in charge?
  • The Rosita/Sasha moment was the perfect blend of awkward, sad and true to life; just because they both ‘slept with the same dead guy‘ doesn’t mean they’re friends, and it makes sense for Rosita to be reproachful when she was the one who got unceremoniously dumped by poor Abraham. This scene made even more sense when taking into account that her demeanor throughout this episode can be easily explained by the fact that, aside from her obvious grief, she’s basically just lashing out after acting like an idiot. Her “make me one bullet” plan to kill Negan was almost as bad as Carl’s, and it not only cost Olivia her life, but also forced Eugene into captivity.
  • (Speaking of Eugene, I’m looking forward to seeing how he’s faring at the Sanctuary. I bet he didn’t think twice when Negan made him the same offer he did to Daryl, and he’s probably making ammo for the Saviors somewhere around that furnace where Negan likes to iron people’s faces off.)
  • One of the things that made this episode so good was the fact that we finally got some levity in what’s been a mostly depressing season (and no, Tara’s awkward non-jokes in Swear don’t count). The scene where Richard and his fellow Kingdom-ite approach our group on horseback, ready to give them the ol’ who-dareth-trespass shtick, only to promptly drop the act when he saw Jesus, was utterly hilarious, as was the entire group’s reaction to Shiva. (btw, is it me or did the CGI look less impressive this time? Maybe they just blew their entire CG budget on the walker scene so I’m completely fine with that.)
  • The meeting with Ezekiel might have been almost dull had it not been for the awesomeness that is Jerry. I especially loved his reaction to Rick’s story – which, I’m sorry, was a bit heavy-handed and ultimately confusing.
  • Morgan continues to piss me off, but not nearly as much as Carol. It’s no surprise Rosita almost bit his head off when the group told him about the deaths of Glenn, Abraham, Spencer and Olivia – and, sadly, it wasn’t even surprising when, once again, his solution to the problem was to suggest they just “try and capture Negan”. Not only is it infuriating, especially considering the effect he has on Ezekiel, but it’s also inconsistent: he was willing to break his vow not to kill in order to save Carol, but is willing to stay at the Kingdom, away from the fray, and twiddle his thumbs while the Saviors pick our group apart? F you, Morgan, and F you once more for lying about Carol. It’s incredibly annoying to see his loyalty lie with the person who’s become one of the most obnoxious characters on this show rather than Rick and the rest of our survivors.
  • Carol continues to be a douche, and I can’t, for the life of me, understand why people still like her character. She manages to terrorize yet another kid whom she sneaks up to in the woods. A kid who was nothing but nice to her. Ugh. She’s not even a badass, just a rude dick. Even when Daryl inevitably turns her around and she goes back to being badass ninja-Carol, I still don’t see myself cheering for her again.
  • Daryl’s sad puppy dog eyes when Rick told him to stay at the Kingdom were spot-on. “Scare Ezekiel into submission”? Yep, sounds about right. (By the way, didn’t he just escape from the Sanctuary like a couple of days ago in clean clothes? How does he always manage to look so filthy?)
  • Anyway, the group is on its way back to Alexandria, listening in on the Saviors thanks to Jesus swiping that walkie-talkie. Not only was this a genius move on the part of Jesus, but it also gave us a Negan cameo without actually giving us Negan, which is the best of both worlds. This episode was – and had to be – about our group. Negan’s tendency to chew the scenery was unnecessary this week, and his hilarious eulogy for Fat Joey over the radio gave us the best of both worlds, focusing on our group’s reaction rather than Negan himself, and giving the whole scene an added sense of urgency when they realized they had to beat the Saviors back to Alexandria.
  • The Saviors seem to be going out of their way to take out zombie hordes, but I’m not sure blowing them up to smithereens is the right call. Wouldn’t the blast simply attract every other walker in the area? Wouldn’t it have been a smarter play to just trap the horde to have on hand next time they feel like terrorizing the Hilltop or Alexandria? It doesn’t really matter: this plot point gave us the best scene of the episode – hell, the best scene we’ve seen on this show in ages – AND it provided our group with explosives. Win-win.
  • I’m a bit foggy on the details, so help me out here: did we ever learn what Rosita used to do before the apocalypse? Has there ever been any mention of a military background? Since when is she the explosive expert? And since when just fiddling with a couple of wires simply disarms such a device? Whatever, I’m totally willing to overlook the implausibility because what followed was so freaking phenomenal (ditto on EVERYONE’S ability to hotwire a car in every show and movie, ever).
  • Not only was is great to see Rick and Michonne on the same page and working together again, it was the most ingenious use of a couple of cars and a steel cable we’ve seen on television. That massive zombie clotheline was so freaking COOL, I literally cheered as I watched. A+ to Greg Nicotero and the entire crew of TWD for this one. (Also, this was exactly what I mean when I asked TWD to step up in this post, and I’m so happy to see they’re doing just that!)
  • Back in Alexandria, our group barely makes it home in time to let the Saviors inside. Simon is so freaking great as Negan’s right hand man every time he’s on screen (big props to Steven Ogg for not completely venturing into caricature territory) and he’s not messing around. I cringed when they basically trashed the place; I also had to wonder how, exactly, did he buy Rick’s innocent act, but I guess Aaron sort of saved the day when he improvised during the empty pantry scene.
  • Which brings me to Father Gabriel. I loved the fact that Rick, of all people, was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Did Gabe simply move their entire food supply for safekeeping? I really hope that’s the case, because I’ve been loving his character development lately and would hate to see him turn back into that cowardly weasel we met back at his church (yet another reason why this plot point worked: it was a great callback to Gabriel’s origin story of hording canned goods).
  • Finally, the closing scene on the episode has our group venture out to the boat location, and I just have to voice a minor complaint: these people are woods-savvy. They’ve been roaming around the countryside for years and are attuned to people and walker attacks alike. So how, exactly, did this armed group of kids simply sneak up on them out of nowhere? It’s inconsistent but, again, I’m willing to give it a pass, if only for the closing shot on Rick’s smiling face. It was a fantastic “you’ve got to be feaking kidding me“-face and a great cliffhanger to a solid episode.

Last thoughts:

  • Are these kids connected to whoever the booted spy we glimpsed in the mid-season finale was?
  • Will Daryl be enough to change Carol’s mind (and, I guess, Morgan’s and ultimately Ezekiel’s) or do we need some precipitating incident to light a fire under the King’s ass? My guess is that poor, sweet Benjamin isn’t long for this world, which just makes me sad.
  • More importantly, will it take our group another 8 episodes until they finally regroup and launch an attack on Negan? This would be a good time for Tara to finally speak up about Oceanside. These assholes already killed her girlfriend and her buddy Glenn and kidnapped Eugene,  what more does she need to break her vow?
  • While I’m at it: we have our core group of badass fighters in Alexandria, the few fighters at Hilltop and the reluctant (but big in numbers) fighters of the Kingdom, plus the potential of a lot of firepower courtesy of the women of Oceanside (which I’m hoping will happens soon, otherwise why bore us with that standalone episode in the first place?). So why do we need yet another group of people introduced right now? If they’re going to be an asset to our group I’ll be willing to eat my words, but so far they don’t seem exactly friendly, and we have enough hostile dicks to contend with as things stand.

This was the first time in a while that TWD got me excited about what’s coming next, and I couldn’t be more thrilled! Overall, a great start to the back half of the season and hopefully a sign of what’s to come.