For both heroes and villains in The Walking Dead, safety from hordes of undead killers often amounts to a wall: a fence around the abandoned prison of Season 3, walls around idyllic communities like Woodbury, Alexandria, Hilltop and the Kingdom, and a combination of both for ultra-baddie Negan’s factory turned sanctuary (plus a few gnashing zombies impaled on sticks).
Who gets the protection of a wall, who doesn’t, and who gets to decide are questions the show’s characters have had to grapple with long before Season 7’s midseason premiere, “Rock in the Road.” Often, it’s Rick & Co. who find themselves at the mercy of strangers behind walls. Lucky for them, few have ever turned them away. As one leader of a walled-in community says in this episode, The Walking Dead’s heroes are essentially “refugees,” roaming across violence-ravaged southern America in search of a more stable, safer life.
That phrasing might not have been controversial two months ago when The Walking Dead went on winter break. Now, our culture’s so rancorous even cookie-cutter Budweiser commercials spark boycotts for daring to depict an immigrant’s story. Labeling the gun-toting, tribe-oriented, white male-led American heroes of the show “refugees” feels almost bold in Trump’s America. Almost.
It’s certainly a strange time for one of conservative America’s favorite shows.
Gregory, sniveling leader of the Hilltop, congratulates himself for taking in a handful of said “refugees” (Maggie and Sasha, namely) at “great risk” to his own safety, then uses this one professed good deed to excuse himself from doing more. No surprise there: Gregory has long been too afraid and too inept to effectively lead or protect his people. A woman, Maggie, has proven far more capable in that regard.
To stay put behind a wall, to maintain the status quo, and to refuse to rise up against an abuser in power is what heroes don’t do, this season asserts, as Rick seeks to unite three communities against Negan. Despite regular terrorizing from Negan’s goons (and the tragic loss of an entire case of whiskey), Gregory falls squarely in the “do nothing” camp. But a small chunk of more courageous Hilltop denizens break ranks to join Maggie and Rick’s resistance.
Kingdom leader Ezekiel, meanwhile, also hesitates to join Rick’s cause. In him, the show pauses to mull whether living under subjugation to avoid escalating conflict is actually doomsday wisdom, not cowardice. It helps that Ezekiel is leagues more likable than Gregory: he’s got a pet tiger, a hilariously bizarre way of speaking, and he is kind. Most importantly, he seems to care for his people above himself.
But even here, it’s clear whose side you’re supposed to be on: Rick’s. Everything surrounding Ezekiel urges him to fight off oppression: the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. that he reads to a boy falling asleep, with its last words “free at last.” The fable Rick relays about a little girl who gets her hands dirty eliminating an obstacle that everyone else simply worked around (the episode’s namesake rock in the road) is another call to action.
A teenage boy named Ben—himself prone to venturing outside the Kingdom’s walls to check on avowed hermit Carol—lays out the stakes for Ezekiel in the simplest terms: “They’re gonna risk everything if we help them or not,” he says. “And if we don’t help them, if we turn away, they can’t win. If they do somehow, they will have saved us and we won’t have done a thing.” To end Negan’s tyranny is a moral imperative, Ben stresses: “If you’re asked to be the hero, be the hero.”
Still, Ezekiel cites the carnage his group endured the last time they ventured outside their walker-proof walls as reason to turn Rick down. He manages to make the decision sound pragmatic rather than spineless (what with that accent and all), but the show comes down on it all the same: “You call yourself a king? You sure as hell don’t act like one,” growls Daryl. “This is different,” reasons Rick. “The dead don’t rule us.”
That’s a tenuous statement at best: the dead do rule, really, and it’s only minutes before the next teeming horde threatens to end them all. On a highway outside the Kingdom, Rick’s gang finds a wire set up with explosives, which they carefully dismantle and steal for their upcoming face-off with Negan. It’s a good plan, on the off-chance that Rosita and her heroically bitchy snarl don’t slay the Saviors single-handedly. (They might. Girl is pissed.)
This operation sets up the effects centerpiece of the episode: a jaw-dropping display of scale and carnage in which Rick and Michonne mow down the horde with the wire set up between two cars. It’s a thrill to watch, but quickly followed by an improbable moment in which both heroes escape unscathed from an awkwardly prolonged rush of walkers. Have these zombies’ fingernails rotted away? Were they just full and feeling lethargic? Questions linger.
On the topic of incompetence, Gabriel, having seemingly reverted to his life as a perpetually sweaty, anxiety-wracked loose cannon, disappears with the contents of Alexandria’s pantry. The Saviors, in town searching for Daryl, show mercy upon discovering that their monthly tribute of food has vanished, but Rick assembles a search party straight away. This brings us a sweet moment between Aaron and his partner Eric, who is understandably reluctant to let Aaron go. The show needs more of this couple, really.
The word “BOAT” scrawled onto the last page of a notebook leads Rick’s search party to a lake he and Aaron visited weeks ago—and straight into what seems like a trap, with both men suddenly surrounded by an enormous group of scowling strangers. One of those strangers is likely the one whose boots were spotted on Alexandrian soil at the end of the last episode, though their identity isn’t revealed here. Only time and footwear will tell.
If these strangers are yet another new group, they’ll continue what has so far been the best part of an otherwise bleak season: the expansion outward, past Alexandria and Negan’s compound, to the worlds in between. It’s what brought us the delightfully loony Kingdom and the fascinating tribe of well-armed women at Oceanside. Alternating between groups has allowed the show to breathe a little, and afforded it a welcome break from the standoff between Rick and Negan.
What Rick needs on his side is numbers, hence his appeals to both Gregory and Ezekiel. If he gets this new group of strangers on his side, his problems may be solved—but he’ll have to welcome them in to Alexandria first. That’s a daunting thing. But strangers have welcomed Rick’s group past their walls before; if anyone knows the value of taking that chance, it’s him.