The Walking Dead came into the Season 7 midseason premiere at a bit of a crossroads. The first half of the season hemorrhaged live air viewers after its polarizing premiere and irked all but the die-hards (of which there are undeniably a lot) with its oppressive bleakness and fractured storytelling. The core characters were scattered to the wind and screen time was hogged by Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), an exhausting villain who after nine episodes had already started to wear out his welcome. It was no fun, and even the biggest 18-to-49 audience on TV is going to be hard to keep when the show is consistently not enjoyable to watch.
Lucky for us, "Rock in the Road" indicates that Scott Gimple & Co. are righting the ship. The core group is back together and ready to fight while the narrative seeds planted in the first half are starting to bloom. The Walking Dead is getting its mojo back. This was the most satisfying episode of Season 7 so far.
This is not to say it was perfect — Gregory (Xander Berkeley) remains too cartoonish to be anything other than annoying and the machinations to get to the zombie-mowing set piece didn't even try to make sense. But that set piece was the kind of over-the-top spectacle that's the show's bread and butter. That's the kind of badassery we watch for.
The episode begins with nightwatchman Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) having some kind of freakout. He piles canned goods and weapons into the trunk of a car and speeds off into the night. Has he regressed to his old cowardly ways, or is something else afoot?
Next we pick up where we left off at Hilltop, with the Alexandrians and Jesus (Tom Payne) talking to Hilltop's slimy leader Gregory, who's still whining about their failure to defeat the Saviors and insisting that their trade deal is off. They leave his office and they're greeted by a group of Hilltop residents who Enid (Katelyn Nacon) convinced to join the fight if Maggie (Lauren Cohan) trains them. But a handful of Hilltop folks is not enough, so they discuss what else they need. Daryl foreshadowingly suggests that they need explosives to blow the Sanctuary to kingdom come. Speaking of Kingdom, Jesus says that it's time for Rick (Andrew Lincoln) to meet King Ezekiel (Khary Payton).
Upon arriving at the peaceful ren-faire, they're reunited with Morgan (Lennie James) and are taken to the throne room, where they're perplexed by the tiger and Ezekiel's whole vibe. They make their pitch for the Kingdom to preemptively strike with them, but Ezekiel is angry when he finds out that Jesus told Rick about Ezekiel's deal with the Saviors (he's paying for protection and keeping it secret from his subjects). Morgan learns of the deaths of Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), but advises Ezekiel against joining the fight, because it will be too violent. Rick tells a parable about the titular rock in the road, the moral of which is that those who take action to fix a problem will be rewarded. Ezekiel says he'll think about it.
Benjamin (Logan Miller), a young Kingdom resident whose death will probably spur Ezekiel to join the fight, runs into Carol (Melissa McBride) in the woods and tells her, "There's not a lot of us left. We have to help each other," and she advises him on how to better maneuver in secrecy, so Carol's isolation will be probably end soon. When Benjamin gets back to the Kingdom, he advises Ezekiel to join, because whatever happens with the Saviors will affect the Kingdom no matter what, and his late father used to say, "If you're asked to be the hero, be a hero." It's looking like Ezekiel is going to say yes.
But no! He wants to preserve the status quo. He allows Daryl (Norman Reedus) to stay, since the fugitive will be safe from the Saviors there. As they're leaving, Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) tries to talk to Rosita (Christian Serratos) and Rosita quite rudely says, "We both had sex with the same dead guy. Doesn't make us friends." Meanwhile, Richard (Karl Makinen), Ezekiel's right-hand man who wants to fight, says that the Kingdom's complicity is strengthening the Saviors, and that he and Daryl will continue to work on Ezekiel to change his mind.
On their way back to Alexandria, they encounter a Savior blockade of parked cars across the highway. They have to move the cars out of the way to get through, and then move them back in place to hide that they were there. But then Michonne (Danai Gurira) notices a booby trap — bundles of dynamite attached to a tripwire. Like Daryl said, they're going to need explosives, so they start stealing it. Plus there's a herd of walkers closing in, and the Saviors are heading to Alexandria to try to find Daryl, so they have to work fast. Rosita, who's apparently an explosives expert now, is like, "I don't like the looks of that bundle, throw it away."
While the rest go to the other side of the highway to move the cars back in place even though there's not much of a reason to do so, Rick and Michonne drive the cars with the tripwire between them through the herd, chopping hundreds of walkers in half with the steel cable as they get back to the others. It doesn't really make any sense, but it rules. Greg Nicotero knows how to deliver, and as he notes, this brings Rick and Michonne back together emotionally after being at odds through the first half of the season. And then the bit of dynamite that Rosita threw away goes off and finishes off the herd. Fiery icing on the cake.
Back at Alexandria, Simon (Steven Ogg) and his crew arrive right after Rick gets back. As they're tearing the place up, they discover the empty pantry that Gabriel ransacked. Simon leaves, and they're like, "WTF, Gabe?!" They go through his stuff, and in a notebook they find one word scrawled: "BOAT." As in, the boat Rick and Aaron (Ross Marquand) found. Aaron and his partner Eric (Jordan Woods-Robinson) have the first "this is what we have to do to survive" conversation of the back half of the season.
They pick up Gabriel's trail near the boat, and it leads them to a decrepit industrial area, where they're surrounded by dozens of heavily armed, scowling folks dressed all in dark colors. And Rick, rather than being worried, cracks a huge smile. Yes! This show is back on the first track!
Next week, we're going to see how Rick is going to recruit these junkyard folks and the reunion of best buds Carol and Daryl. It's gonna be good. We're moving.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.