Is it possible for a show to get more intriguing and worse at the same time? Because I think The Walking Dead just did that in "Knots Untie." There were some great concepts at work here, most notably the notion that different "tribes" of survivors would have different things to offer. But there were also some notions that don't fall in line with what The Walking Dead is, like a new blossoming love triangle. And of course there was the usual stock of questionable decisions that will get everyone killed. Not that this inconsistency is anything surprising!
It's becoming clear what this half of Season 6 is doing, and that's speeding through things as quickly as it can and leaving the little details behind. Maybe it's a reaction to the earlier complaints of the series when half a season went by without anything happening (just ditch the farm, Season 2 dudes), or maybe the show knows it needs to keep the pace up in order to hold onto its gaggle of viewers.
Whatever it is, we seem to be in a cycle of things simply happening to happen. In the first episode of this season, the mega-dangerous zombie-horde problem that was the driving issue for the eight previous episodes was solved by... sending every character out to kill the thousands of walkers in close-quarters combat with zero plan except "see zombie, kill zombie." In the second episode, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Michonne's (Danai Gurira) relationship busted out of the friendzone and into Hump City with little setup except whatever went on inside the heads of 'shipping fans. And in "Knots Untie," the idea of a food shortage was the spark that jump-started the inevitable clash between Rick's group and Negan (the as-of-yet-unseen Jeffrey Dean Morgan), this season's bad guy, glossing over more reasonable solutions than attacking some very ruthless dudes.
There have been teases of a food shortage recently, most notably when Deanna and Spencer planned to ration out the Alexandria pantry and when Carol mentioned using substitutes for her casserole because the nearby Safeway was ransacked of all of the Cream of Celery, but for the most part, The Walking Dead has glossed over basic survival ideas that didn't involve four walls or avoiding getting eaten. Yeah, we've seen Farmer Rick put a hoe to some asparagus (or whatever) outside the prison, and Carl (Chandler Riggs) has stuffed his face with pudding, but for the most part, the idea of food has been out of sight, out of mind. Just don't worry about it, people!
Which is why we have to take their sudden level of starvation and mindlessly accept it, since it's the plot motivator for one of the worst decisions Rick has made in the series. New pal Jesus convinced Rick to check out his camp in hopes of trading supplies or services — which Maggie (Lauren Cohan) found out about the hard way — and what Rick saw was a goldmine of resources. Inside giant lumber walls were vegetable gardens, free-range chickens, and busy survivors all pitching in to build a commune called the Hilltop. Their leader was Gregory (Xander Berkeley), who wasted no time being one of the most despicable characters the series has ever introduced by drooling all over Maggie and requesting some of her "services" in exchange for some carrots. Ugh, this guy. Die, please.
But Gregory was a crafty son-of-a-bitch who knew that because he held the veggies and poultry, he held the power. This was a very interesting idea, the idea that small communities are springing up all over, each with access to certain resources or advances in apocalyptic technology that could be used to barter for other things. It's a microcosm of the world today, or a zombified version of the popular Civilization game franchise. I'm into this, guys! This is logically how The Walking Dead progresses to the next step. But the hopes of this idea being an integral idea to the show kind of derailed rather quickly.
After trying to get a piece of Maggie, Gregory didn't know what he wanted from Rick and his group, and we didn't have any time to think about that because some Hilltop members returned with word that Negan killed a few of their men and held one captive. Ethan, a mountain of a man who returned from talking to Negan, said the only way Negan would release his captive brother was if Ethan delivered a message to Gregory. Apparently that message was on the end of a knife, because Ethan stabbed Gregory in the gut and then all hell broke loose as Rick and his group struggled with Ethan and a few of his party. It ended as most of Rick's fights end, with Rick covered in someone else's blood and guns drawn and pointed. (His "What?" was priceless.) It was a sequence of people acting rashly like boneheads and without any nuance, but that's the speed we're moving at here, folks. But the fight was exactly what needed to happen in order to shift the balance of power.
Jesus (Tom Payne) revealed that Hilltop had been handing half of all their resources--food, medicine, and more--to Negan in exchange for peace. Negan's essentially a schoolyard bully or a mobster, visiting locals while cracking his knuckles and saying, "It would be a shame if, uh, something were to happen to this place" and taking payment for his non-action. That's when Rick said that he and his group would kill Negan and save Ethan's brother in exchange for food, medicine, and whatever else Hilltop had to offer.
Look, Rick's decision is great for us. I mean, we all want to see a big, bloody fight, that's why we watch the show. But does Rick think he and his group are guns-for-hire now? Is their greatest asset their ability to beat some ass without remorse? Is it really a good idea to blindly promise a victory against a group that relies only on killing other people and taking their stuff as a means of survival? They're probably pretty good at killing! If it was a group of Girl Scouts that were messing with Hilltop, then sure, go beat 'em down. But Negan and his biker buddies? How many RPGs does Daryl have left? Not enough.
After being so skeptical about things in the first half of the season, Rick's just a "whatever, dude" dude now. He jumps in bed with Michonne, and now he's walking some of his pals into certain death (if the show sticks to the page, comic readers and those who've read the many spoilers on the Web know what I mean) instead of, I don't know, giving farming another shot? I know this is the boring buzzkill approach to watching the show, to comb through the details, but it all seems a little reckless. They've only had a secure Alexandria for a couple weeks, but now Rick is ready to get back in the blood for some kale.
Look, I'm not saying food isn't important, I'm just saying they've survived this long somehow and some of that had to do with the fact that they didn't go marching blindly into fights with thugs. And hey, if he wanted to kill someone for some food, he could have easily wiped out Hilltop since they only have pointy sticks as defense. Just sayin'. This is the kind of decision that will power another Rick personality change when someone dies because of his choices.
One more quick thing of note. Is Rick grooming Maggie to be the new leader? He sent her in to the bargaining with Gregory, and Maggie killed it. Not only did she broker the deal to get the group more food, she got Gregory to give up half their supplies up front. Way to go, Maggie!
Elsewhere, Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) wrestled with his conscience and his heart as he found himself caught between his current squeeze Rosita (Christian Serratos) and his crush Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green). This is a storyline that's... not that interesting. Again, sorry, 'shippers, but no. We're still scratching our heads from Richonne and now we have this to deal with. It's not that relationships aren't important on television, it's that The Walking Dead doesn't do them well enough to get us to care about them, and though "Knots Untie" tried to tie the idea of coupling into rebuilding civilization, there wasn't a previously established backbone to Abraham and Rosita's relationship to leave us concerned about his longing for Sasha. If The Walking Dead wants to explore the hearts of men, I'd prefer if it did by showing a zombie literally eating a man's heart out of his chest.
"Knots Untie" did what it needed to — Rick is moving headfirst into Negan's orbit and they'll have it out. But it was a little clunky getting there as if the episode just wanted to get it over with. The Walking Dead can certainly justify the means if the end is as explosive as I think it can be, but I'd feel a lot better if the journey there was more fun.