SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for “New Best Friends,” tonight’s episode of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” which as of publication hasn’t yet aired on the west coast, as well as the Image Comics series.
The introduction of King Ezekiel and The Kingdom in this season of “The Walking Dead” could have easily tanked, if only for its outlandishness. As I’ve said before, the main reason the tiger, the faux Medieval dialogue, and a bunch of folks parading around dressed as thrift-store knights all work is because of the show’s self-awareness. From the beginning, anyone from outside The Kingdom has regarded its citizens with skepticism. Even though that’s gradually given way to respect as they’ve realized that Ezekiel and co. are — for the most part — kind, loyal, and skilled in combat, there’s still a sense that The Kingdom is, for lack of a better word, kind of ridiculous.
But there’s another reason it works, one that goes beyond Carol, Daryl, and others rolling their eyes at the presence of an actual jungle cat: variety. “The Walking Dead” has always prided itself in being grim, realistic, and serious, going as far to give every antagonist the physical appearance that embodies these oh-so-typical traits of post-apocalyptic zombie fiction (leather, ripped denim, a pissed-off scowl, etc.). So it’s refreshing to meet a group of survivors who look a little (OK, a lot) over the top. It’s refreshing to see knights and a trained pet tiger. It’s refreshing to see “The Walking Dead” have a little fun for a change.
That same quality extends to the group we meet in tonight’s episode. After being apprehended by them last week, the Alexandrians get brought to a home-base of a garbage dump — already a departure from the varying headquarters we’ve seen in the past. As Rick begins negotiating with his captors to join the fight against The Saviors (something that likely crossed his mind as soon as he saw them at the end of “Rock In the Road”), we learn that, like The Kingdom, they speak in their own version of heightened English — a dialect that sounds otherworldly for its minimalism and frequent inversions. Most colorful of all, these new faces are well-versed in the kind of primitive warfare that exists in the junk future of the “Mad Max” series. They even test Rick’s mettle by throwing him into a garbage pit for dual combat against a walker outfitted with a helmet and several rusty spikes.
Is all of this a bit much? Without a doubt. But once again, it injects some life into the series by virtue of being different from every group Rick and his gang have encountered so far. Being zombie fiction, “The Walking Dead” was always going to be far-fetched, and it’s refreshing to see the show own up to some of that sensationalism this season. It creates an atmosphere of genuine unpredictability, even for viewers who haven’t read the comic. If the latest community upholds their end of the bargain and helps the Alexandrians take on The Saviors by the end of the season (hopefully with some help-on-horseback from The Kingdom), we could be in store for the most thrillingly batshit action sequence cooked up by the series.
But it’s not all Thunderdome theatrics. Beyond the garbage dump, “New Best Friends” has a grounded center in the form of Daryl and his reunion with Carol. Upon teaming up with Richard (and getting back his crossbow) for a plan to convince Ezekiel to go to war with The Saviors, he realizes the strategy involves using Carol as bait. This prompts Daryl to both verbally and physically warn Richard about Carol getting harmed, then venturing to her cemetery home to reconnect.
Separated from the more genre-heavy elements of the episode, these scenes cement the bond between the two beloved characters with quietness and stone-faced affection. Daryl can’t bear to inform her that Glenn and Abraham have been killed. Carol’s willingly cut herself off from everyone else to avoid tragedy; to avoid witnessing or being responsible for more death. Although she’ll likely find out about her dead friends sooner or later (and the wisdom behind Daryl’s withholding of information is questionable at best), it’s still touching to see him spare her a considerable amount of pain.
It’s this combination of the strange and the somber — this reliance on variety — that makes “New Best Friends” one of the more interesting and enthralling episodes of Season 7. Whenever we get another Saviors-heavy installment, it would be best paired with some of the aggressive genre spectacle on display tonight.