Following the head-cracking Season 7 premiere "The Day Will Come When You Won't Be" — which drew criticism (and praise) for its eye-popping depiction of the violence in this universe — The Walking Dead's second episode of Season 7 was a day at the beach. "The Well" left the brain-spattered forest where Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) homered twice on two main characters to spend time with conflicted killers Morgan (Lennie James) and Carol (Melissa McBride) — uh oh, more splitting up the group — as Carol recovered from injuries sustained at the end of Season 6.
And it presented a possible new direction for a series that's in dire need of one. One of — brace yourself — hope and happiness? What!? Happiness in The Walking Dead? Joy in a show that Vox's Todd VanDer Werff called "pointless, sadistic and dumb"? Hope in a series that AV Club's Erik Adams called "miserable emptiness"?
Yes, it's quite possible that King Ezekiel (Khary Payton) and The Kingdom may be the best things that have happened to The Walking Dead. After six full seasons, we're used to how the show works, now that zombies aren't really that big of a problem. It goes something like this: After some searching, Rick's group finds a place to settle down in for a season and then they come across a madman who eats people or something. There's a fight, people die, existences are questioned, villains are vanquished, and then it's off to find a new place for the next season. It isn't just violent and gory; it's depressing — and not just for them, but for us!
Not so with The Kingdom. It's not filled with lunatics who are into human sacrifice or wearing the skin suits of guests, it's full of nerds (cool nerds) who think a fine dinner is an evening at Medieval Times. The Walking Dead needed to break from its numbing formula — which peaked in last week's smash-athon — and making the most recent destination a permanent Renaissance Faire full of LARPers is about as far from The Governor or Negan as possible.
Last week I did some whining — forgive me — about how The Walking Dead only has shock value left, and that isn't enough to make a show worth tuning into every week. The show is a big step closer to proving me wrong with The Kingdom, and Ezekiel's late-episode admission to Carol that he is a zookeeper with an affinity for community theater presents a new kind of shock: the leader of a stronghold whose only personality deficit is wanting to give his flock too much hope.
This is the kind of situation that can give The Walking Dead new stories to tell, and a for a show whose idea of new stories is giving the same existential questions to a different character, this could be a big deal. Carol, who is in the midst of a post-apocalyptic midlife crisis, is also the perfect character to fall under Ezekiel's spell if she takes the pomegranate bait he offered. The Walking Dead too often rushes its characters into 180-degree changes of perspective (Carol kills! Carol doesn't kill! Sasha wants to die! Sasha wants to live! Rick is crazy! Rick is sane!), but Carol, who became the show's best character, has an opportunity for a great character arc in Season 7.
Morgan is also ideally situated for some great story in The Kingdom. After being schooled in the art of aikido by Eastman in "Here's Not Here," Morgan has the opportunity to pass the ideas on to young Benjamin. But as strong as those ideals are in Morgan, he's also in the midst of self-transformation and accepting that killing is part of this world. How will this mind state affect how he teaches Benjamin?
The groundwork for both Morgan and Carol to start over and make decisions based on positivity and possibility instead of out of fear and survival is a rare chance for The Walking Dead, and it's ideally situated at this point in the series' run because we know how much they've been through. Can these two broken and beaten characters shed the horrors of what they've endured and give this fantasyland of tigers and "your majesty" a shot? This won't make the same type of headlines Negan's bat did, but it does give The Walking Dead the chance to be something it hasn't ever really been: a solid character drama.
Fans of the show's primal violence might not be excited about that, but there will be plenty of blood and bone-breaking in the other storyline. For a few episodes, let's give The Kingdom and Ezekiel the chance to do something different. Something hopeful.
Of course, Ezekiel could turn out to be a total maniac and we may be back the same old, same old.
The Walking Dead airs Sunday nights at 9/8c on AMC.