SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for “Rock In the Road,” 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.
At this point, a mostly low-key premiere of "The Walking Dead" (midseason or otherwise) is a bold move. That's because we've been trained to expect there to be a major character death or huge event every time the show returns -- something AMC doubled down on in last season's premiere. At seven years in, it's not monumental tragedy, but the absence of it, that makes for the bigger surprise.
Unfortunately, it can also result in boredom. While "Rock In the Road" may be understated, it's front half is also fairly uneventful. I have no problem with the show's quieter moments (they've resulted in some of the best episodes), but those usually work best when they're further developing the characters, not focused on plot mechanics. Here, though, it's more about the exposition. The Alexandrians need help taking down The Saviors, so they first approach Gregory (who naturally no longer wants anything to do with them) before moving on to The Kingdom. King Ezekiel is more understanding, but ultimately passes on supplying them with the manpower they truly need (I expect that will change).
These scenes in Alexandria's most interesting neighboring community are mildly interesting for giving us just a little bit more insight into how things work in The Kingdom, with the Medieval posturing turned up to 11. But the shots of its citizens practicing archery and bellowing faux regal-speak can't make up for the fact that much of the episode's front half is made up of Rick negotiating. He goes over the same old song and dance with both Ezekiel and Gregory -- the danger of The Saviors, how Negan's an omnipresent threat even when he's not interacting with them, etc. We've heard it all before, although to be fair, it is amusing to see the group's collective skepticism towards Ezekiel's community theatre concept of royalty, not to mention his live tiger.
As if making up for the first half, things pick up in the back end when The Saviors arrive to Alexandria unannounced to search for the escaped Daryl and, best of all, the gang comes across an elaborate walker booby trap on their way home. A steel cable has been stretched across two lanes of highway, carefully armed with dynamite for an oncoming horde. Being hopelessly low on weapons, Rosita instructs everyone on how to remove the dynamite. It's a tense sequence that culminates with all the explosives (save for one bundle) being removed and two of the vehicles guiding the cable through the army of zombies, decapitating hundreds in the process.
The sequence ranks as one of "The Walking Dead"'s best for several reasons: First, there's the aforementioned jolt of an elaborate action set-piece in the middle of an episode where not a ton happens. The other element of surprise comes from everyone getting away unscathed. As I said before, tragedy has become the expected story point on "The Walking Dead," so it's refreshing to see one of the Alexandrians' plans -- however minor -- go off without a hitch or any deaths, especially when considering the grisly nature of the first half of the season.
Of course, that could change in the coming weeks. When Gabriel disappears with a substantial amount of food from the pantry, leaving behind only a note with the word "BOAT," Rick and co. head to the houseboat already infiltrated by him and Aaron. There, they run into yet another group of survivors that could spell trouble for next Sunday. Then again, Rick smirks when he sees them. Does this mean this is actually good news for the core cast of "The Walking Dead"? Maybe there are even more positive surprises around the corner.