How you felt about Sunday night’s midseason premiere of The Walking Dead, “Rock in the Road,” likely depends entirely on how you felt about the first eight episodes of the season. If watching Rick Grimes and his ragtag band of warrior misfits be repeatedly brutalized by a violent sadist in between scenes of B-characters, like Tara and Dwight, exploring new communities worked for you, then you probably hated it, as there was no Negan to be found, here. If you were ready for the group to move on as a team and work towards a common goal again, with Rick sitting firmly in the driver’s seat, then you probably loved it. But either way, the main takeaway here is this: recruiting soldiers for the suburban Virginia war against Negan and his Saviors will take up the latter half of Season 7, as Rick and his crew go from survivor’s colony to survivor’s colony to see who is up for a fight. And when that war finally comes — in the season finale, no doubt — it’s going to be a miserable bloodbath. ...Just, you know, a miserable bloodbath that hopefully won’t alienate fans and enrage the PTC this time around, like the miserable bloodbath we saw during the Season 7 premiere. Already on the Grimes Gang’s side by the end of the night were some members of the Hilltop clan, whom we visited briefly at the top of the episode. Gregory — who is still the leader of this spartan clan, because sure, why not — of course told Rick to go scratch straight away, because he’s the “then they came for me” guy in that famous poem about Nazi Germany, and does nothing unless it benefits him immediately and directly. But since no one at Hilltop listens to Gregory now that Maggie, Sasha, and Jesus are their unofficial ruling triumvirate, a small group of them quietly approached Rick’s team and promised to fight the Saviors if given proper training. Great! Now they have approximately 12 people. Next up was the Grimes Gang’s first trip to Ezekiel’s Kingdom; an excursion that was somehow even less successful than the one to Hilltop. Virginia Community Relations Manager Paul "Jesus" Rovia had known about the Kingdom for quite some time — apparently, he approached them first about the “kill the Saviors” deal that eventually went to Alexandria — so he got Rick, Daryl, Michonne, Sasha, and the rest of them through to meet the King without a hassle. However, Ezekiel is still reticent to enter into war with the Saviors. He explained to Rick that he once tried to expand his Kingdom by sending his well-trained soldiers out to settle new land, but lost a whole lot of good men — and some perfectly functional limbs! — to walkers in the process. And even tales of Glenn and Abraham’s brutal deaths couldn’t convince Morgan to join the war, so the Grimes Gang left the Kingdom with their tails between their legs. (ASIDE: Morgan still thinks that capturing Negan and Negan alone is the best way to stop the Saviors — and given that the jail cell he spent multiple episodes building last season is still around, this seems like a pretty safe bet for a plot point come season finale.)
However, two of Ezekiel’s most trusted advisors — Benjamin the good-hearted teen, and Sir Richard the grumpy red shirt — were very down to join Rick’s fight, and did their best to convince their boss that taking up arms was a good idea. And since Carol is still hidden near the Kingdom, and Daryl is now living there full time thanks to Ezekiel’s offer of sanctuary from Negan, these forces will inevitably soon combine to produce an outcome that will work in Rick’s favor. Also in Rick’s favor? The fact that his group now owns a whole bunch of the Saviors’ explosives, which they managed to pick up during their fateful trip back to Alexandria (or Hilltop, if you’re Sasha and Jesus). The Saviors had duct taped dynamite to layers and layers of thick wire, attaching the wire to cars spanning a highway as a means of defense against hordes of walkers. Rosita — who is now apparently the group’s explosives expert — successfully removed the dynamite from the wires. Rick and Michonne then started up the cars the wires were attached to and drove them past a horde of dozens of walkers, chopping them right in half in a visually cool sequence that also made very little sense. Why did Rick leave most of the walkers alive, when that has never, ever been a good idea throughout seven long seasons of this show? Why steal the explosives now with virtually no plan to use them, when Negan and the Saviors could just waltz out to their front yard at any moment and notice they’ve been stolen by the very same people who chopped all of their defense zombies in half? Wouldn’t they theoretically figure out that this was Rick in, I don’t know, ten seconds? Isn’t this a very “Rick” thing to do? I don’t know, whatever, the scene was cool. Anyway, the episode was bookended by scenes teasing the next big piece of this puzzle, which somehow involves that mysterious person wearing boots from the midseason finale. First, in the cold open, Gabriel packed up and left in the middle of the night, leaving only the word “boat” in a composition book as a clue. Rick and Aaron later correctly surmised that Gabriel was referring to the boat full of ammo they’d found in the middle of that zombie-infested lake, and brought the whole gang out there for a visit. Gabriel wasn’t there when they arrived, but a whole new colony of people (my guess would be Oceanside, or some escaped former Saviors) were waiting for them, armed with a crap ton of assault weapons. So next week will almost definitely pick up where this cliffhanger left off — with Rick smiling, a giant gun pointed at his face — and we’ll get to meet this new clan of disposable bodies in the war against Negan. … And hey, as long as they take out that mustachioed Savior who also played the creepy locksmith on Broad City before they fall, I am down. Walking Dead definitely isn’t exploring any new thematic territory yet in this latter half of Season 7, but at least they cut down on the joyless, relentless brutality, and gave us all a common goal to root for. After multiple episodes of Negan calling Rick a “cuck” while he whistled, raped women, and pretended that a baseball bat was a person, any episode that contains a Michonne smile should be taken as a small victory, and celebrated accordingly.