The Walking Dead: Rock in the Road
As we move into the back half of the seventh season, our “heroes” are in trouble. No, I’m not referring to Rick Grimes and his scrappy band of apocalypse survivors. I’m talking about Scott Gimple and the gang responsible for creating the top-rated show on cable. Over the first half of the season, The Walking Dead‘s ratings have been in decline. While the show remains popular, this is a trend that needs to be reversed and the show-runners know it.
For years, they have shouted down any and all criticism of the show. But in the face of slipping ratings, they have changed their tune. Producer Gale Anne Hurd has acknowledged that the show will be toning down the violence. Apparently she attributes the decline in ratings to the over-the-top violence in the season seven premiere rather than the show’s numerous creative failings. Whatever the case, the message was clear. “We’re righting the ship.”
The mid-season premiere, “Rock in the Road” is the first step in moving the show away from the non-stop nihilism of the first half of the season. The episode attempts a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, it has to offer viewers hope that the show can be about something other than people getting their skulls caved in with a baseball bat. On the other hand, there are still seven more episodes left in the season (and you know a few of them will be extra-long affairs). So our protagonists can’t make any significant progress in their struggle against the Saviors.
The meat of the episode consists of Rick and his posse paying visits to the neighboring communities. Instead of asking for a cup of sugar, Rick wants the leaders of these sanctuaries to declare war on their mutual oppressor. Both Gregory of the Hilltop and Ezekiel of the Kingdom decline Rick’s offer, but the audience is clearly intended to be angry at Gregory and forgiving of Ezekiel. They both reached the same decision, but Gregory was an over-the-top jerk about it while Ezekiel at least offered to let Daryl stick around.
If you have been paying attention at all, the show is telegraphing where the story is going. Gregory is obviously going to come to a gruesome end ala Spencer so that Maggie can take over really for real. Meanwhile, Ezekiel’s Lando Calrissian-eqsue deal will get worse and worse until he has no choice but to throw in with the Rebellion.
On the way home from their diplomatic mission, Rick and company come across the big action set-piece of the week. It’s a doozy. There is a roadblock consisting of cars, wires and explosives. This has been set up as a trap for an oncoming herd. Low on weapons, Rick decides that the group needs to disarm all the explosives to start rebuilding their cache. The “tense” music starts to play signaling that the audience should be worried, but we all know Rick isn’t going to blow anybody up on the midseason premiere.
The payoff is absurdly over-the-top. That’s not necessarily a criticism, by the way. Rick and Michonne hop in separate cars with the wire pulled tight between them. They drive the cars in unison with stunt-driver precision and use the wire to mow down I don’t know how many zombies. Hundreds? It was a lot. When they ditch their vehicles, they are still surrounded by entirely too many zombies. The only reason they survive this mob is that they are wearing their “plot armor”.
The whole thing is beyond implausible. Do I care? No, not really. But it feels like a scene from a different show – one with a sense of humor which TWD lacks. The capper is a small explosion and a zinger from Rosita which in isolation is pretty funny. Makes you wish the show would stop taking itself so damned seriously all the time.
When the gang returns home, they find Negan’s goons are right behind them. The Saviors have realized Daryl escaped and they have come to Alexandria looking for him. Fortunately, he stayed behind at the (Not-so-Magic) Kingdom. Even though there is no sign of Daryl, the goon squad tears up the joint. Seriously, if they are going to keep breaking plates twice a week, what are the Alexandrians going to eat off of?
The head goon (his name escapes me) observes that the pantry is low on supplies. That’s because Father Gabriel packed up everything that was valuable and ditched town during the episode’s cold open. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Rick is confident that Father Gabriel wouldn’t betray the community despite his long history of looking out only for himself. But since Rick is always proven right even when he’s wrong, you know there’s some explanation for Gabriel’s action. The priest even left Rick a clue that points him back to the boat he found a few episodes ago.
The episode wraps up with Rick and company tracking Gabriel back to the boat. Just before the credits roll, they are surrounded by a (new?) community with primitive weapons. And before you can say “ewoks”, Han Solo, I mean Rick Grimes, smiles in recognition that he has found future allies.
Before I bring this write-up to a close, I want to do a little plugging for a friend of the blog. Readers of these write-ups probably know JRiddle who comments here frequently and posts his own write-ups at The Dig. JRiddle has been an active participant in the Walking Dead and Z-Nation communities that formed at the soon-to-be-defunct IMDB message boards. This time next week, IMDB will be pulling the plug, so JRiddle has set up a FB community for anyone looking for a place to discuss these shows. Check it out.