After a first half that began with a stunner and ended on a snooze, the back eight of season seven kicks off with a welcome end to the wussification of The Walking Dead. Gone is the sweaty, subservient Rick who preaches go along to get along; back is the sweaty, pissed off Rick who cocks his head, invades your personal space, and stares a hole in your skull while he convinces you it’s time to stand up and fight. Daryl’s found himself again, too, projecting that combination of toughness and vulnerability that just isn’t possible while wearing Walmart sweatpants. Along with the rest of the A-towners, they set out to recruit allies in their upcoming rebellion against Negan and his oppressive gang of bikers/iron-burn victims. Smartly, rather than drag out the recruitment process too long, Rick and company cover a lot of ground posthaste. The result? A surprising amount of progress toward uniting the clans, a mystery with Father Gabe, a twist ending, and one of the best zombie slaughter scenes ever.
The opener was a typical bit of TWD misdirection: a slow, silent creep in the darkness with Father Gabe as he abandons his post on the wall, cleans out the pantry, and drives out of town. Only much later do we learn that no one knew Gabe was cutting out with a carload of canned goods and tools. There’s a notebook with strange numbers and a sketch of what looks like Lucille. He leaves his Bible behind. What’s it all mean? No idea. More important question: Would anyone but Rick miss him if Gabe’s gone for good? Doubtful.
Thankfully, we shift immediately to see Rick in full recruitment mode at Hilltop, where Gregory is behaving in a rather Trumpian way, calling off a trade agreement and bitching about refugees. If the G-man had access to social media, he would have tweeted, “Asked so-called leaders Ricky & Margaret who will train cannon fodder 4 their war. RHETORICAL!” The meeting ends as Rosita channels the Sarge and calls Daniel a “walking ballsack” as all the world nods in agreement. Hey, who needs that weasel’s help when they have … Enid? She introduces Birdie, who herself introduces a bunch of eager Hilltoppers who owe their lives to Mags and are ready for revolution. Not a total victory, but it’s a start. Daryl also presents a battle plan that’s more Beavis & Butt-head than Sun Tzu — they need explosives or fire, he says. Um, sure Daryl. Plenty of those lying around.
Next stop on the Please Stand By Me World Tour is The Kingdom, or as Rick says, “the Kingdom?” Jesus somehow forgets to mention King Ezekiel has a large pet tiger, and also, Jerry. (“It pleases him indeed!” Missed you, Jerry!) Zeke’s doing his usual Medieval Times routine, tossing off lines like “What plans have you, Rick Grimes of Alexandria?” and “I invite you all to sup with us.” You can almost hear Rick’s thoughts as he somehow keeps a straight face: Man, this is total batshit, but we could really use a dude with a tiger and guys with body armor on horseback and a minstrel who knows “Life in a Northern Town” on acoustic guitar.
Rick’s pitch takes an odd turn when he recalls a story his mother told him about a rock in the road and a family who lost some beer and a little girl who dug it out to find gold buried underneath. (Not now, Jerry!) I think the true lesson here is that if a king plants a rock in the middle of the road as a test, even though it’s going to wreck horses and jugs of beer and the fingers of a child, then that king is a real dick. Zeke, however, seems to vibe on the message of great rewards coming to those who take a brave, perhaps bloody stand in the name of righteous change. But Morgan expresses doubt — he’s still hung up on taking lives, even though he saved Carol from certain death by killing that Savior. Morgan really wasted his “Get Out of Self-Imposed Jail Free” card on Carol, who’s still out there creeping in the woods, alone but not as far enough away as she should be if she were serious about being left alone. Don’t squander your pomegranates on her mopey ass, Zeke.
The King wimps out in the end, but Richard is all in. (Alas, something tells me our poor man’s Gerard Butler will not survive this war.) Zeke does a solid by giving Daryl asylum, which comes in handy when the Saviors realize he’s missing and turn A-town upside down. Yet the most shocking showdown of the night goes down when Sasha tries to make small talk with Rosita, who replies with the shade of a thousand black holes: “What the hell are you telling me for? We both had sex with the same dead guy. Doesn’t make us friends.” Whoa! Didn’t they recently exchange a knowing look not that long ago that suggested they were all good? Maybe Rosita is just salty because every guy she sleeps or flirts with ends up butchered by Negan.
Speaking of Neags, he makes a cameo via walkie talkie as the A-towners head home and hear his eulogy for Fat Joey. (“Things will not be the same now that he’s dead. Without Fat Joey, Skinny Joey is just … Joey. So it’s a goddamn tragedy.”) Then, wouldn’t ya know it, the gang discovers an elaborate herd trap rigged by the Saviors that just happens to fulfill Daryl’s shopping list: a steel cable rigged with dynamite and RPGs. Somehow Rosita has bomb-disarming skills (are we ever going to get her backstory?) and so the clock starts ticking. While they scramble to load up without blowing up, the Saviors are headed to A-town in search of Daryl as a massive herd of fleshbags is closing in. The payoff is epic: a mass walker slaughter as Rick and Michonne turn two cars and a steel cable into a zombie John Deere, mowing down hundreds of undead.
That victory isn’t enough to make Rick smile, of course. Even with all those boomsticks, he knows they’re still too low on manpower and firepower to take on the Saviors. Hey Tara, perhaps it’s time to mention all the single ladies you met? The ones with the guns and sniper skills? Making matters worse, a visit from the Saviors ends with mass property damage and an ominous warning: Negan’s mustachioed henchman suggests that if they ever find Daryl, Rick should “keep that hatchet handy … and it won’t turn out the way it did for your boy.” Day-um. One-armed Daryl would have a tough time riding that hog and loading a crossbow.
For some reason, Aaron risks his relationship and everyone risks their lives looking for AWOL Gabe at zombie lake. Rick spots a track, then — boom! — a band of camo-wearing, arms-bearing no-nonsense types surround them, guns drawn. For a second, I thought they were the women of Oceanside, but there are dudes in this posse. Instead of sweating some more, Rick smiles, finally. These aren’t enemies in his mind — they’re recruits. Imagine how tickled he’ll be when he meets the gals with guns and that nasty little brat who spit at Tara?