The Walking Dead is a frustrating show for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is that even in an episode like this — one filled to the brim with dull speechifying, blatant wheel-spinning, and lame parables — there’s one or two moments of brilliance that make it hard to just give up on this ever-mercurial series. Even when the show is stalling for time, serving up weak dialogue, or leaning into its weakest tendencies, it sprinkles in a couple of great bits that manage to rise above the rest of the flotsam.
This week, it’s the zombie cheese slicer and Rick’s smile, two dissimilar but connected moments that demonstrate what The Walking Dead is capable of when it’s not tripping over its own bad lines and plot contrivances. Such faults are out in full force in “Rock in the Road,” an episode that sees Rick and the gang at The Hilltop and The Kingdom in an effort to rally forces sufficient to take on The Saviors. The forging of that coalition is inevitable, and the arguments over whether to unite and fight or cling to the status quo have already been turned over by dozens of people dozens of times, which leaves “Rock” with only the thrilling walker-slaying sequence and a brief but clever way to convey Rick’s state of mind to recommend it.
But hey, many shows don’t even have that much, so let’s focus on the positives. If there is one thing The Walking Dead does well consistently, it’s those big zombie set pieces. While the show often struggles to come up with new directions to take the characters or new ways to move the plot forward, Greg Nicotero and his team never fail to come up with some new, outside the box scenario involving the undead to show the ever-present imagination of the effects-focused side of the series. If that’s all the show were week-after-week — a special effects spectacle — it would get tiresome (though I imagine some people nevertheless watch solely for such thrills), but as a periodic, imaginative treat, these scenes never fail to prop up sagging episodes like “Rock.”
The setup is, admittedly, contrived. The line of cars blocking the road and the set of tripwires and explosives does match up with The Saviors’ propensity to set traps we witnessed in last season’s finale. It’s a questionable use of resources and feels tailor-made to allow the slicing and dicing that follows, but the coolness of that scene makes up for some of the implausibility of what leads to it.
It’s also preceded by a pretty uninspired ticking clock scenario. There’s a definite sense that after a dialogue- and exposition-heavy opening half of the episode, the folks behind The Walking Dead felt the need to include some death-defying imbroglio to keep the action quotient up. For that reason, there’s little tension in the moment, despite the fact that our heroes are frantically defusing bombs and untying bundles of dynamite. Apart from the plausibility issues, the sequence simply feels like a throw-in, where given plot necessities, there’s little actual risk but the gods of empty action must be feted nonetheless.
“Rock” at least has the good sense to come up with a plot-relevant reason, however thin, to put our heroes through these paces. The theme of the episode, to the extent there is one, is that Rick & Co. are outmanned and outgunned, so every bit of odds-evening artillery they can amass is important to the upcoming fight. Still, the sequence of our humble survivors playing bomb squad can’t help but seem unnecessary, allowing the seams of The Walking Dead’s requirement to fulfill its weekly action quota to show.
But then, Rick and Michonne use a pair of cars strapped with trip wire to bisect an entire horde of walkers in about fifteen seconds. It’s just as dumb and gratuitous as the prior bomb-defusing sequence, but it has the advantage of being a neat visual and a novel concept, which allows it some grace the other plot obstacles of the week do not possess. Sure, it leads to another scenario in which our heroes are surrounded by zombies and somehow miraculously don’t get bitten or scratched, but in set pieces like these, the show runs on excitement, not logic. I’ve made my peace with that and learned to enjoy such shallow thrills.
The problem is that The Walking Dead can’t sustain that sort of energy or novelty for an entire episode. “Rock in the Road” is incredibly lumpy in terms its structure. There’s a rushed recruitment drive at The Hilltop, an extended visit to The Kingdom, the aforementioned walker madness on the highway, and a quick coda with an encounter with The Saviors back in Alexandria.
Despite a general sense of the protagonists struggling to survive in Negan-dominated lands (one that’s been present throughout the season) there’s not much of a connection or flow between these settings or the story beats. “Rock in the Road” simply limps from one place to another, content to offer a collection of barely related chapters in this larger story instead of anything with a more unified feel. Polemics about the “death of the episode” as a standalone unit are premature, but “Rock” conforms to the “here’s a bunch of stuff that happened” tack that old school critics have complained about with the rise of serialization.
The episode also conforms to The Walking Dead’s worst and most inescapable bugaboos, namely ponderous debates back and forth about whether to act, or to kill, or if there’s a fight worth risking your life for. Don’t get me wrong, Morgan and Carol’s struggles with their morality in the new order have been one of the strongest elements of the series in the last couple of seasons, and the notion of whether a leader should wage war in the hopes of a better tomorrow or hold onto a fraught, if unpalatable peace is an interesting one. But TWD does nothing but offer trite aphorisms and repeat itself when delving into these topics.
As with the explosives, there’s a sense of inevitability here that makes the hand-wringing over whether The Hilltop or The Kingdom will join the fight less compelling out of the gate. Some of that is unavoidable, but the other side of the coin is that great shows find their best material in making the expected nevertheless engaging, not just by unveiling surprise after surprise. This episode simply isn’t up to such efforts.
Rick’s fable about the titular rock in the road is not the persuasive argument and moving lesson — on the rewards for those who fight to save others from continuing ills even when it seems all hope is lost — that it’s meant to be. Instead, it’s a generic monologue, couched in rhetorical flourishes and a cheesy parable format that robs it of what little impact it might otherwise have. We can only surmise that narrative necessity will lead to the various enclaves we’ve met this season uniting to take on Negan eventually, but “Rock” can’t make the pitch for this inevitability interesting on its own terms.
The closest “Rock” comes is in Benjamin’s argument to Ezekiel for The Kingdom to join the fight. He makes the solid point that Rick & Co. are going to take on Negan no matter what, and that if The Kingdom doesn’t aid them, they’ll either die anyway, something Ezekiel’s men might have been able to prevent, or they’ll succeed, and free The Kingdom from The Saviors, without Ezekiel’s group pulling its own weight. Ezekiel makes a suitable counter argument centered on the lives previously lost when fighting the walkers, and Morgan’s gradual acclimation to the idea of taking lives in the name of a greater good has some weight, but on the whole, the various arguments back and forth turn ponderous quickly. “Rock” lingers on these debates, ensuring every character gets their two cents in, to its detriment. The show’s writing just isn’t good enough to sustain that sort of ethical weighing for so long.
Thankfully, TWD is not without some remaining creative flourishes. After their daring, cheese slicer-esque escape from the walkers, Michonne implores her beau to smile, telling him that their group will win, that they’re the ones who’ll live. Rick puts on a brave face, but can’t quite manage it. The implication is clear — as much as Rick must sell this hope for resistance to Gregory and Ezekiel and others, he cannot buy into it himself just yet.
But in the episode’s final scene, Rick and his band of not-so merry men go looking for Father Gabriel, who has seemingly, once again, grown scared and run away. (As with Rick himself, the battle for Gabriel’s soul is too well-trodden territory for me to really care about the mystery or the swerve there.) When following Gabriel’s clues, which call back to the supply hunt Rick and Aaron went on in the previous episode, our heroes are surrounded by a crowd of people who seem organized and well-armed. Rick smiles, and the contrast is just as clear — with these people, with these supplies, they may actually stand a chance.
It’s the kind of canny narrative device, the kind of subtlety, that’s almost wholly lacking in the rest of “Rock in the Road.” But it’s the sort of thing that keeps me coming back week after week, hoping that such successes will become the norm rather than the exception. It is, like Rick’s initial response to Michonne, perhaps more of an aspiration than a reasonable expectation, but hopefully The Walking Dead gives Rick, and the audience, more reasons to smile.