Just as life in Alexandria seemed to be slowing down, things get a hell of a lot more complicated. We last saw Jesus busting up Rick and Michonne’s cuddle time, and in this episode, we find out why — he’s got a news of the mind-blowing, paradigm-shifting variety. Jesus is from an outpost called Hilltop, and his people have the food and supplies that the safe zone so badly needs. How hard can it be to make a trade, right?
Pretty damn hard, as it turns out, thanks to Hilltop’s sucky leader, the looming presence of Negan, and a knife-wielding dude with a man-bun and bad intentions.
Cultural advancement comes slowly in a zombie apocalypse, but Hilltop represents a quantum leap forward. The compound looks like an Old West settlement, complete with a blacksmith, crops, livestock, and a few FEMA trailers that were somehow transported before the wall went up. Its centerpiece is Barrington House, a massive Southern mansion that was converted into a meticulously preserved museum. Among the residents in these fancy digs is Gregory (played by Xander Berkeley, who unfortunately brings none of his experience running CTU on 24 to the party). Gregory is a natty dresser, a neat freak, and a creepy flirt, as Maggie — or Natalie, as he calls her — quickly learns. He revels in what he thinks is Hilltop’s distinct advantage in negotiating with Alexandria, and spells as much out to Maggie: I’ve got what you want, but you’ll need to work for it.
Luckily for Rick’s crew, a trio of Hilltop traders returns home and inadvertently exposes their Achilles heel. Man-bun is the bearer of grim news — a deal went south, and now Negan is holding his brother captive. Jesus later fills in the backstory: Negan’s gang, ironically dubbed the Saviors, once paid a visit to Hilltop and gave Gregory an offer of the can’t-refuse variety: You will give us half of everything you have, and in return, we will not kill you. To show they weren’t bluffing, the Saviors then beat a 16-year-old to death, and as Jesus recalls, “Said we needed to understand, right off the bat.” (Perhaps a subtle nod to Negan’s weapon of choice.)
Now it’s clear that Hilltop needs muscle. Rick wisely notes that A-town’s most valuable resource is themselves, and Maggie says they’ve dealt with people like Negan before. (“How?” Gregory asks. Her reply: “They’re dead.”) But based on Negan’s reputation, you get the distinct feeling that she’s wrong — they’ve never faced anyone quite like this guy. Yet the recent peace at Alexandria hasn’t softened up our heroes too much. When Man-bun goes bonkers and stabs Gregory, Rick proves he can still switch from kumbaya to killer in a blink. His tussle with Man-bun ends with a punctured carotid and Rick absolutely drenched in a geyser of Man-bun’s blood. As the horrified Hilltopians look on, Rick’s drops a one-word response: “What?”
People, your dude just tried to kill Rick. What did you think he’d do?
Of course, the visit to Hilltop is about much more than food and meds. One of the Hilltopians they saved in the episode’s brief bout with zombies is Harlan, who happens to have been an obstetrician and still has a working ultrasound machine and neonatal vitamins at his disposal. Maggie takes a big step forward as the group’s negotiator, a role Rick wisely passed on; it’s doubtful he would have kept his cool in the face of Greg’s weaselly demands (or kept his gun holstered). With ice-water veins and a no-bullshit attitude, Maggie talks Gregory into what sounds like a sweet deal: We kill Negan, you give us half, up front, right now. It’s a badass move that rivals anything Michonne has done with her swords.
Speaking of Miss M — or Carl’s mom, as Jesus calls her — the young Grimes has a rather awkward convo with his pops about what happened the night before. (Son, this just happened. Like, just happened, bro.) Hopefully Lori gave Carl the birds-and-bees talk, because this stuff is clearly not Rick’s forte. Rick makes it clear his thing with Michonne is different, and judging by the goo-goo eyes and hand-holding in the RV, he means it. (And however you feel about Carl these days, it was tough to see the poor kid tell Rick he’s skipping the Hilltop trip because of his “messed-up face.” Gabriel should thank him for taking on the job as Judith’s babysitter.)
While Richonne is going strong, Abraham is having quite the romantic crisis. Hard to take pity on the Sarge, given he’s torn between Rosita, the smoking-hot Latina Lara Croft, and Sasha, his smoking-hot, rifle-toting, peace-sign-flashing patrol partner. With Rosita, the sex is hot and the gifts thoughtful. What more could a guy ask for in a post-apocalyptic relationship? Yet the heart wants what the heart wants, and as the Sarge nearly gets choked out at Hilltop, Sasha’s voice is dancing in his head. To drive the point home, we see Rosita’s tail-light necklace lying on the ground, forgotten. (He may be lousy with the ladies, but Sarge’s one-liners always deliver — the “ugglin’ bumplies” reference to Rick and Michonne and his Bisquick question for Glenn were among his finest work.)
Sarge’s love triangle … Richonne … Glenn and Maggie’s ultrasound photo … all this potential happiness and hope for the future feels like a setup for heartbreak. Daryl thinks this Negan guy is an emperor with no clothes and that the Saviors are running a hustle: “These dicks just got a good story. Boogeyman, he ain’t shit.” Rick and Michonne seem to agree with him. They at least sound confident about making short work of Negan, affirming to each other, “We will win.” But it’s the architect of the deal, Maggie, who senses what’s coming when she assesses the consequences of her pact with Gregory: “It’s gonna cost us somethin’.”
Sure, the A-towners aren’t giving up any ammo or supplies. Their end of this bargain is nevertheless guaranteed to come at a much higher price than they realize. Translation: Folks are going to die by season’s end.