Reviewed by John Hussey

After the usual Christmas break, The Walking Dead returns in style as we continue the story of Rick Grimes and his community trying to survive the zombie apocalypse. I’ve really enjoyed Season Seven so far because its introduced an interesting scenario with the arrival of new antagonist Negan. Seeing Rick being pushed into the ground and having his dominance taken away was quite scary to witness. He was no longer the “When I get the chance I’ll kill you” kind of guy and instead became an obedient little bitch who had to bow down to Negan’s every demands, no questions asked.

Unfortunately for me I do have a little gripe with this season’s structure (which I’ll get out of the way before reviewing the mid-season opener properly) and that is the pacing. Season Six built-up how terrible and scary Negan and the Saviors were and upon their arrival in “Last Day on Earth” it was made pretty clear why. Come Season Seven we were left in complete shock as to how far Negan would be willing to go in order to display his dominance over Alexandria and any over community he came across.

Rick was forced to witness the death of Abraham and Glen in the most brutal manner possible, before the awful mind-game of nearly cutting off Carl’s arm, to then being told that half their possessions now belonged to Negan, and that they can freely take their shit as they damn well pleased. Witnessing this as a viewer was just as hard to stomach as the characters which made for good television. We had to endure like Rick and the gang and constantly got kicked in the bollocks every time we had to witness them being brutalised by Negan’s cruel behaviour.

That is why I became pretty pissed that this idea wasn’t dragged out longer. For me personally I felt that it was far too soon for Rick to regain his confidence. Not to sound cruel, but I kind of wanted to see him suffer for a while longer because it needed to happen. Rick desperately needed his ego cut down to size and to be taught that his “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude would come back to bit him in the arse, and this finally happened! Two of his best friends paid the price and his entire community became Negan’s possession.

I wanted to see Negan’s control last over a period of months and really witness Rick’s decent into desperation. This would’ve made for a better pay-off when it came to him rising back into power. After having to bow down to Negan’s demands, being forced to essentially lick the dog shit from his boots, heck, maybe even made to kill one of his own just to make a point, to then have something incredibly bad happen that really pushed his button to the point where he broke his obedient silence would’ve made for great television, and gained a massive cheer from the fans as they finally get granted what they wanted – Rick’s return.

Instead we got half a season sort of concentrating on this important element, whilst other episodes concentrated too much on setting-up future plot-threads. So when “Hearts Still Beating” came around and something bad happened I wasn’t completely convinced when Rick suddenly changed his mind after only spending a few week’s under Negan’s control. It’s almost like he hasn’t learnt his lessons and that showrunner Scott M. Gimple didn’t want to risk expanding the storyline in fear fans got bored. I’m sorry but you missed out a great opportunity here which could’ve made for an even greater pay-off down the road if you’d just given it more time to flourish.

Anyway, “Rock in the Road” was a great way to bring us back into the fold as Rick attempts to convince the arse-wipe that is Gregory into joining his cause. Of course it was a hard sell the last time this idea was pitched and because Rick and the gang failed miserably to kill the Saviors the last time round Gregory wasn’t too keen to throw his precious life on the line again. Despite Rick’s confidence, his stern ideals, plus Daryl’s impatience with the douchebags’ attitude, Gregory couldn’t be convinced. I can’t really fault Xander Berkeley because he plays the role perfectly, but unfortunately it means he performs as a selfish, arrogant tosser that I want to see dead at the end of every scene he appears in.

Luckily the people of Hilltop quickly show their support by wanting to trust Rick and his group after they protected them on two separate occasions. In a noble manner they believe they owe Rick a chance and are willing to protect themselves from Negan’s intimidating control. Things are looking up but there’s still the matter of lack of experienced fighters and artillery. Jesus quickly comes to the rescue and offers both elements to Rick in the form of King Ezekiel (played by Khary Payton) and the Kingdom.

I’ve certainly enjoyed the progression of Jesus (played by Tom Payne) within Season Seven and how he went from a character that annoyed me in his debut (“The Next World”) to a character I really enjoy watching because of his strong, caring opinions and willingness to help out Rick in anyway shape or form. “Rock in the Road” pushes that as he desperately uses his charm to seek an audience with Ezekiel and ultimately attempts to help Rick pitch his offer.

I really liked the metaphor Rick gave to Ezekiel, based on a story that his mother told him when he was a child, in which a rock in wedged in a road on the way to a kingdom (similar to that of Ezekiel’s) and causes many disturbances to the travellers trying to reach their destination, often resulting in consequences. A little girl asks her parents why after they too hit the speed-bump and lose their precious cargo. The little girl eventually moves the rock (tearing her hands open in the process) and finds a pot of gold underneath left by the King of the kingdom as a message that “rewards await those who try”. This metaphor perfectly reflected the title, “Rock in the Road”, and the situation they the characters been dealt, along with what was at stake and the rewards that await them if they manage to remove the rock in the road to their promised lands.

Unfortunately Ezekiel shares the same dim-witted trait that Morgan suffers with, i.e. wanting to follow the path with the least bloodshed. It’s certainly sentimental and intelligent thinking but when the situation is truly dire and your people are inevitably at risk then there calls a time where violence is necessary. I wish it didn’t have to be like that but in an apocalyptic world as displayed in The Walking Dead peace simply isn’t an option and will surely result in further death.

At least with Ezekiel his choice is made for better reasons than Morgan’s during Season Six (which revolved around his selfish desire to preach his bullshit opinions about being a better person, ultimately causing many infuriating conflicts). Ezekiel is thinking about his people, and most importantly what they had already sacrificed building his dream of a better tomorrow. He simply didn’t want to jeopardise the Kingdom, nor put his people through further conflict. But unfortunately we as a viewer understand the situation the same as Rick and know what Negan is capable of, so it’s simply a matter of time before he and the Saviors go too far, by which time could mean it’s too late for Ezekiel to retaliate.

As indicated in “Hearts Still Beating” Richard, one of Ezekiel’s top soldiers, has a certain opinion about their dealings with the Saviors and that led to him desperately asking both Morgan and Carol to persuade Ezekiel’s views so that the Kingdom would fight against them. Richard was glad to hear that Rick wished to do just this and once again desperately tried to throw in his input as to why Ezekiel should stop turning a blind eye. Yes their position with the Saviours is peaceful, for now, but how long will that last? Plus, it is indicated that the people of the Kingdom don’t know anything about this deal, so what would they think if they were told the truth? Would they agree with Ezekiel, or would his strong image be tainted by such a deceit?

I will admit it was really exciting seeing these two communities finally come together. I know it wasn’t all that long ago Ezekiel and the Kingdom were introduced but it still felt like a monumental occasion, similar to Rick and his group encountering The Governor and Woodbury, Jesus and the Hilltop and Negan and the Saviors. I also really liked the fact that there was a clear underlining sceptism about the whole old-fashioned medieval approach to running the Kingdom, plus Rick’s expression after seeing Shiva is priceless, made even funnier by Jesus’ remark of, “Oh yeah, I forgot to mention he has a tiger”.

Of course things don’t go Rick’s way but time will certainly tell as Daryl is left behind for his own safety, after the express opinions of Ezekiel, as well as being able to try and persuade the king from the inside by whatever means necessary. I only hope that Morgan doesn’t screw everything up with his preachy “We shouldn’t kill” crap because that shit got old mere seconds after he started spouting that bullshit. He doesn’t have the right to preach his views, especially when they are ultimately wrong. Yes the survivors should retain the best of humanity but that doesn’t do much good in a fight against survivors that wish to retain the worst of humanity. Honestly part of me hopes that his shitty broken record song and dance comes back to bite him in the arse.

The best, and most tense, moments goes to the motorway scene in which Rick and the gang steal a bunch of supplies from a road-block set up by the Saviors. Of course the first set of tension came in by your worries of what will happen when Negan discovers his dynamite has been taken. Furthermore, there’s still the scary thought of what he’s going to do when he discovers Daryl is missing. Then came the third “shit your pants” moment in the form of a massive horde of Walkers heading in the gang’s general direction (because The Walking Dead wouldn’t be The Walking Dead without lots and lots of Walkers!)

I’m going to go on record and declare that “Rock in the Road” has the best Walker killing method of the entire series! My mind exploded when I saw Rick and Michonne using the cars, with an attached wire in-between, to mow down the herd. Fucking genius! This just shows why Greg Nicotero is a blessing to the show. His contributions as Co-Executive Producer, Special Make-Up Effects Supervisor, and Director really adds so much to the show. The man is a genius and knows just how to apply a smear of awesomeness to each and every episode (even more so when he’s behind the wheel as Director).

This mid-season opener ends nicely with the Saviors arriving at Alexandria in search of Daryl (which is delightful because they won’t find him there, despite Rick being semi-involved with his escape) and continue to show why they are colossal dicks. Was it really necessary to smash up the place during a search for a person? I’m sure he’s not hiding behind crockery! I think this is where it has to be noted that the absence of Jeffrey Dean Morgan is really noticed and it’s a shame we don’t get to see him. At least we got to hear his voice over the stolen radio that Jesus’ nicked, as part of his great scheme to keep Rick informed on the Saviors movements.

Things got even more interesting when the narrative finally caught up with the mysterious behaviour of Father Gabriel as he steals Alexandria’s supplies and disappears into the night with the stranger, whom we first saw hovering around in the mid-credit scene of “Hearts Still Beating”. This leads to Rick following a trail of bread crumbs (left by Gabriel) which ultimately ends in him and his group being surrounded by another group. What makes this moment great is the cheeky smile Rick gives. I don’t know if it’s supposed to mean, “Bitches please, do you think you’re the first fuckers who’s held me up at gun-point?” or “I think I just found myself a motherfucking army! Sweet!”

Either-way, I’m pleased at where the show’s going. An all-out war is just around the corner and all that remains is all the pieces of this epic chess-match being put into play. I’m confident when I say it probably won’t go quite according to plan, especially if Rick doesn’t change his game (and throw his massive ego out the window) to which his chances at beating Negan won’t pan out any differently than before. There’s certainly going to be a lot of bloodshed and I really can’t wait to see the moment when Negan well and truly loses his shit. In the meantime it was great to see Andrew Lincoln back to his old badass self and it’s certainly going to be an epic moment when him and Negan finally go toe-to-toe.