In true “Walking Dead” fashion, after the brutality and significant body count of last week’s first episode of the 7th season, the producers sent us off this week in another direction. Narrative momentum is for shows still trying to earn tens of millions of weekly viewers; this one knows we are on the hook, and sometimes it dangles us there.
But it was an intriguing dangle, a pretty good view from that hook and a relief from the previous episode’s unrelenting explicit violence. More details will follow so, as the saying goes about TV-series recaps and summer-picnic potato salad, spoiler alert.
Instead we got former Friends of Rick Morgan and Carol, the latter recuperating from her injuries at the end of last season, trying to get along in another of “The Walking Dead’s” magical kingdoms ruled by men of bounteous produce and suspect sanity.
You could call it a placeholder episode, but just enough happened to relate to the main storyline that you could also see it as a builder of anticipation for the moment when worlds collide.
Here are five thoughts on “The Walking Dead” Season 7 Episode 2:
1. Call him Ezekiel because his name is Ezekiel. The king of this new village, known as The Kingdom, goes by that highly biblical name. And at first glimpse the man, played by Khary Payton with old-school diction and a preening regality, appears to be a piece of work, with a pet tiger chained to the throne he sits in on the stage of what appears to be a community center’s theater.
But the episode gradually teases out more and more about Ezekiel and his reign: His name really is that, he confesses to Carol. He was actually a community theater guy who decided that people needed someone to follow and “I faked it till I made it.”
That, of course, is likely not the whole of his story, either, the closeted nice guy who tries to talk ever-troubled Carol into sticking around to try the pomegranates. But will it go further than that? Man and woman cannot live on cobbler for breakfast and cobbler for lunch alone.
2. The Kingdom agrees with this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. They have a choir there, we hear, and then, of course, later on we hear the choir singing. The song is Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” backing music for the idyllic scenes of Morgan training the Kingdom kid Ben in Aikido, the people tending to their harvest, and Carol swiping a giant knife.
So folk music and fruit. Seems like a nice place, right, even with the self-proclaimed royal at the helm? Which means Carol’s got to get out as soon as she can plausibly walk away from the wheelchair.
3. Enter the Negan group, stage right. Ezekiel takes Morgan and some of his men out to hunt newly feral pigs in the city. It’s a new and creative glimpse of how things have changed since the zombie plague broke society — something this series could be better about imagining and showing us.
But we learn, alas, that butchered hogs are just part of the tribute The Kingdom pays each week to Negan’s group, known as The Saviors, who use the threat and commission of violence to stock their larders. Ezekiel is keeping this a secret from most of his people because he fears, he says, that they would want to fight to keep what is theirs, and they would lose.
But for some reason he lets Morgan in on the secret. The pig payoff meeting goes bad when two underlings start brawling, and so we viewers are set up for a big battle between The Kingdom and The Saviors, a phrase that could also describe the championship intramural basketball game at a Bible college.
4. Tiger, tiger, snarling bright. Yes, I said Ezekiel has a tiger. It’s big. It has orange and black stripes, massive fangs and glowing green eyes. Definitely a tiger.
Later, we learn the tiger’s backstory: wounded zoo animal, rescued by King E, who keeps him as part of the pomp and circumstance of his office and is confident the tiger will do him no harm, a statement that we English majors recognize as foreshadowing.
I liked the creature better when he was a mystery beast. But it’s good to have him on board, nonetheless. When you have a series that has decided to mostly be about tribal war among humans as they struggle to achieve basic states of civilization, adding an edgy big cat, another competitor from man’s early days, could be just enough spice to keep the stew interesting.
My big question, though: Will the tiger eat zombies? We know, after all, that their blood is not infectious. But staging a scene with even a highly trained tiger mowing down “TWD’s” lurching extras would probably be pretty dicey, from an OSHA standpoint. So I’m guessing it’s a no.
5. How do you solve a problem like Carol? Like Maria, that confounding young nun in “The Sound of Music,” Carol is perplexing, although in somewhat different ways. We saw her evolve, wonderfully, from cowed, beaten spouse to grieving mother to one of the baddest of the bad in Rick’s posse.
Melissa McBride, who plays her, is superb once again in her reaction to the Ezekiel-Tiger-theater stage tableau. After moments of silence, she laughs, finally, with what she says is wonder at all of it. But there is just enough mania in it to make you suspect something more is at play.
When Carol, trying to escape the Kingdom for what she sees as the raw honesty of the outside world, gets caught snatching an apple by Ezekiel, the biblical symbolism is way too heavy to try and process. But the upshot is that Ezekiel levels with her about who he is and talks her into, it seems, a kind of semi-freedom, wherein she can roam but also come back to The Kingdom.
It’s a version of Rumspringa, only instead of sowing wild oats, she’ll be splattering zombie brains and, quite possibly, learning things about Negan and corps. I hope and suspect that Carol, with her weaponry skills and her fearlessness and determination to be an outsider, will be a major player in whatever ends up transpiring this season.
May it all end with somebody riding, triumphantly if a little uneasily, on the back of that tiger. And at the feast afterward, of course, there will be cobbler.