Last year, AMC’s The Walking Dead sparked an outrage. The gory season 7 premiere left beloved characters behind in favor of archvillain Negan, and audiences followed suit: by the time the midseason finale rolled around, ratings had dropped 40 percent. Now the show has returned for the second half of the season. It’s an opportunity to chart a new course, to correct the mistakes it’s made, and convince viewers that the story of Rick Grimes is still worth following. The only question is whether the series can pull it off.
Welcome to The Walking Dead Redemption Club.
Nick Statt: So last week’s midseason premiere wasn’t exactly a blockbuster showing. But it was a still a strong example of how The Walking Dead may be on its way to course-correcting after an abysmal ratings slump and a nihilistic and depressing first half. And really, ratings are one of the most defining factors for the show at this point. AMC’s Sunday star is among the best performing TV shows on air today. That simple fact is what’s kept showrunner Scott Gimple in charge and those 16-episode seasons on the table.
Yet viewership for the midseason premiere was still down 17 percent from last year’s, with 15.9 million people tuning in compared with an eye-popping 19.1 million viewers in 2016. These numbers are important because they’ll prove — more than any critic’s column or any torrent of angry tweets — that TWD’s structure and format are no longer resonating with hardcore fans. Of course, it’s worth noting that this season’s 16 episodes we’re likely filmed all in one batch, so there’s little AMC can do now to try and influence how the second half plays out. But if the ratings continue to drop, we could see TWD wrapping up the Negan timeline — arguably the high point and most explosive period of the comic books — much faster than expected.
Bryan Bishop: I’d actually push back on that a little bit: despite production schedules, there’s quite a bit they can do to soften the tone or massage a storyline, particularly with the gap between the two halves of the season. (I wonder how the season 7 opener would have played if they’d excised just a few frames of gore, for example.) I think we saw some of those tweaks last week, in the (admittedly odd) pseudo-comedic tone of the scenes with Gregory.
But I think the most important statistic is just how big the change was from the end of last year. The midseason finale brought in just 10.58 million viewers, which means last week’s episode had more than a 50 percent bump. Audiences are clearly ready to give TWD a chance again, and last week things got off to a strong start. Let’s dive in and see if the show kept that momentum up.
A kingdom under duress
Nick: One refreshing element that’s taking center stage lately in The Walking Dead is the Kingdom — and by extension King Ezekiel — as a kind of fuse waiting to be lit. The show failed to deeply explore the relationship between the Kingdom and the Saviors in the first half of the season, save a few tense moments during the weekly offerings. But what’s clear now, in the opening scene of “New Best Friends,” is that the tension is reaching a boiling point, especially after Ezekiel's bodyguard Richard refuses to hand over his gun to one of Negan’s henchmen.
Ezekiel made it clear to Rick and crew in last week’s premiere that the current situation with the Saviors represents a best-case scenario for both groups, as fighting Negan would result in an overwhelming loss of life that outweighs the cost of handing over supplies every week. However, Richard’s eagerness to escalate the situation by remaining defiant is illustrating how the Kingdom’s peace is a poorly disguised lie. On a whim, any one of the Saviors could kill a member of the Kingdom and shrug it off. Ezekiel appears increasingly aware of how fragile this arrangement is, and that’s a good sign for Rick’s rebellion.
Even Daryl has limits
Bryan: Richard’s frustration with Ezekiel’s inaction led him to turn to the most logical ally last night: Daryl. Richard’s plan was simple: the only way to overcome Ezekiel’s passivity would be to force his hand emotionally, so Richard and Daryl would attack a small group of Saviors to get their attention. From that point, he’d arranged it so the Saviors would discover a person that Ezekiel cared for, who was living by herself away from the Kingdom. When the woman was killed, Richard reasoned, Ezekiel would have no choice but to get involved and fight.
The only problem? The person in question was Carol, and no matter how much was at stake this was not a plan Daryl was going to be part of — or let happen. The logic of sacrificing one to save many makes sense in Richard’s eyes; they’ll all be goners eventually if the Saviors aren’t taken out. But it’s not that cold and calculated for Daryl, and he ends up beating the hell out of Richard to stop him from carrying out the plan. “I will die for the Kingdom,” Richard tells him, trying to prove the quality of his character.
“Then why don’t you,” Daryl spits back. In one expertly crafted exchange, he’s able to embody the larger moral question of the entire show. When things go to hell, we must take extraordinary measures to survive. But if we give up our humanity and love for one another along the way, is there anything really worth fighting for?
A new community worth an entire episode
Nick: When we last saw Rick, Michonne, and the others, they were in a garbage dump, surrounded by a group of bleakly dressed survivors encircling them with violent intent. Rick’s smile, which punctuated last week’s episode, was intended to throw viewers off. But when “New Best Friends” picks back up with the Alexandria crew, we realize Rick may just be gambling with his and the others’ lives. It becomes quickly clear he doesn’t know who these people are, but he asks their leader — a stone-faced woman with a bizarre speaking pattern — to join forces against the Saviors nonetheless.
The women flatly refuses, forcing Rick’s hand and leading to a brief tussle that gets Aaron injured. It turns out that Gabriel was forced to leave Alexandria with supplies from the boat that Rick ransacked earlier this season — the boat was a trap to draw out other survivors and steal the supplies onboard. Yet Gabriel grabs a high-ranking member of the group at knife point, demanding that they hear Rick out, and the leader abides.
In one of the best scenes of the episode, the mysterious woman takes Rick to the top of a trash heap, out of earshot of her fellow group members who appear not to speak and defer to their leader in a eerie, almost cult-like reverence. There she plainly spells out the predicament in a way that feels realistic, the kind of no-bullshit conversation you’d imagine real post-apocalyptic survivors would have in times of desperation. This group is running out of food, and they’re willing to make a deal with Rick if he can help them. But not before a test of his abilities, as the woman shoves Rick off the trash heap.
Rick’s gladiatorial contest
Nick: Rick’s trial, if we can call it that, is a textbook example of TWD’s goofy, surreal comic book roots clashing with its gritty, visceral realism. While I can’t say for sure whether this was a scene out of the comics or purely invented by the show, it still felt like it veered right into Mad Max territory to have Rick face off in gladiatorial combat with a helmet-clad zombie covered head to toe in sharp spikes.
Still, Andrew Lincoln pulls off the scrambling disorientation of someone facing a zombie nightmare, and the scene mostly works to prove how bizarre and otherworldly this group must be to keep this monster as a horrifying pet. Rick ends up stabbing his hand with a spike just to hold the zombie’s head away for a moment, and he scrambles around in a relatively tension-filled scene until he’s able to trap it under a heap of garbage and neutralize it with a shiv made of broken glass. In the aftermath, we see Rick and Gabriel go through a showing of mutual respect, a hard-earned transformation for the pastor over these past few seasons that makes him one of the most compelling characters left on the show.
Reunions and resignation
Bryan: One of the most compelling relationships in the entire history of The Walking Dead has been the bond between Daryl and Carol, and last night included one of the most evocative exchanges we’ve seen yet. After a group from the Kingdom visits Carol, bringing her some cobbler, Daryl arrives for a reunion that I have been waiting for ever since Carol left Alexandria in March of last year. “Why’d you go?” he asks her, his face crumpling like a distraught child instead of the warrior we’ve seen him be. Carol can’t help but cry, too, explaining that she had to.
I’m not going to lie. I got chills.
Daryl ends up staying for dinner, and as they talk over the night he sees just how damaged and distraught Carol has become. She’s the same person he’s always known, but her pivot toward merciless killer has nevertheless changed her, broken something inside her that he intuits may never be repaired. When she asks him if everyone is okay, he doesn’t tell her about the carnage Negan and the Saviors have wrought, or that friends like Glenn are now dead. Instead he shows her mercy, lying that everyone is still okay — much to her relief.
I don’t know where the show intends to take Carol’s story from here. If it wants to go the lazy route, Carol will eventually find out that Daryl lied to her, and it will drive a wedge between them in the meandering, purposeless melodrama that The Walking Dead sometimes stumbles into. But there’s another opportunity here, one that could see the show exploring the cost of giving into our baser instincts, and developing Daryl even further as he becomes a man that not only has hidden reserves of empathy and compassion, but possesses a deeper understanding of the human condition, and knows when it’s time for those we love to stop fighting and let go.
THE ROAD TO REDEMPTION
Bryan: Things got off to a strong start last week, but The Walking Dead has never wanted when it comes to opening episode fireworks. Where it gets bogged down in the week-to-week, where it sometimes feels like it’s just awkwardly filling time between hyped tentpole moments instead of, you know, telling an ongoing story about characters we love. This week’s episode certainly wasn’t as fast-paced as last week’s, but it did something even more important: it dug into the relationships that serve as the show’s beating heart.
The Mad Max-inspired fight was certainly an action highlight. (And am I crazy, or did that long, lingering shot of the junkyard feel like a nod to A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master? Okay, I’m probably crazy.) But the key to the entire thing working was that those moments, and the chess piece maneuvering of Richard’s frustration, were counterbalanced by strong character development and emotionally engaging interactions. You take the Carol and Daryl scenes out of this episode, and you get something that is very similar to what we saw during the front half of the season. But with the addition of those pathos, you get the mix that has made the show such a fabulous success.
Of course, maybe it’s just that Daryl Dixon is turning into a much more compelling character than Rick Grimes has become. Either way, I’m excited for next week — and I haven’t said that about The Walking Dead in quite some time.
Nick: Beyond reestablishing my excitement in what’s to come, these last two episodes have also proved me wrong in a major way. Throughout the empty, meandering nihilism of the first half of the season — in which we got too much of Negan and not enough of... well, anybody else — I wholly expected the show to take a familiar route. Faced with trials in the past, The Walking Dead has typically forced its characters to be ever more brutal, savage, and unrelenting in their quest to survive. I figured the only way to beat Negan would be by becoming even more monstrous than he is.
Instead, the show has taken a lighter, deeper, and more satisfying approach that relies entirely on the strength of its character’s trusted and well-tested relationships. Instead of watching Rick lead the others into violent madness, we’re seeing him, Michonne, and Gabriel step up as leaders who depend on one another to protect both their humanity and the group. And instead of sidelining Carol further and pushing Daryl toward his gimmicky role as the renegade cowboy, we’re seeing a complex interplay between their personalities headed toward genuine conflict. Meanwhile, the broader narrative appears to be moving toward a coalition against the Saviors that’s built on wanting to protect and preserve, rather than just exact revenge for Glenn.
It may not be The Walking Dead we’ve become accustomed to these last few seasons, but it feels good to finally root for the good guys again — and see those characters have a fighting chance for a change.