The Walking Dead is always at its best when it focuses on two things: its core relationships and cool zombie shit.
So even though very little happened in the most recent episode, “New Best Friends,” what did happen was satisfying in a way the show hasn’t been in a while.
By this point in season seven, we’ve established that the audience is basically kicking up its heels while the show’s many disparate communities slowly decide to unite to fight Negan — something that obviously isn’t going to happen until the end of the season.
This delaying process has left the series in an endless cycle of advance and retreat when it comes to actually having its allies make progress with one another. Our heroes at Alexandria have made friends within each of the other communities season seven has introduced us to, but so far, the series has made it clear that it can’t have them make friends too quickly.
That’s why “New Best Friends” is a nice change of pace. The last episode ended with Rick (Andrew Lincoln) smiling oddly as he and his friends were surrounded by an apparent junkyard gang.
This episode, that smile paid off. Instead of putting up a series of even more sluggish dramatic roadblocks in the way of getting where the show needs to go, it dispatched with tedious diplomacy and decided to have Rick prove his worth Shatner style, in hand-to-zombie combat. It was a smart decision for a show that’s spent most of this season feeling bogged down by its own self-imposed structure.
Even better for the show’s longtime fans is the tearjerker this week’s episode delivered: Daryl and Carol, reunited at long last.
Rick and company are still struggling to find the key to the Kingdom
Both within and without the Kingdom, the urgency to convince Ezekiel (Khary Payton) to forsake his truce with the Saviors in order to help Rick, et al. defeat Negan and his gang has been building.
To this end, restless Kingdom resident Richard (Karl Makinen) enlists Daryl (Norman Reedus) to help him attack a band of Saviors. In order to wake up Ezekiel to the reality of the Saviors’ violence, Richard has set a trap to frame someone Ezekiel cares about for the hits he and Daryl are about to perform.
The problem? His chosen target is none other than Carol (Melissa McBride), who is still living by herself out in the woods. Richard’s chosen her because she thinks that by choosing to live alone, she’s just waiting to die. Daryl quickly ends this misapprehension, making it clear (with his fists) that Carol is off limits.
Later, Daryl and Carol have their long-awaited reunion, and it’s just as touching (and platonic) as you’ve come to expect. Carol is clearly guilt-stricken, questioning her decision to leave in order to avoid more violence, and consumed with worry over the fate of the group she left behind. Daryl, in a gut-twisting moment of kindness, lies, telling her that everyone is alive and the Alexandrians were able to make a deal for their survival to keep everyone safe.
Daryl is all too aware of the need to get Ezekiel to join the growing collective of fighters. After his visit to Carol, in a great scene where he snuggles Ezekiel’s tiger, Daryl even asks Morgan (Lennie James) to be the one to convince the Kingdom to join up. When Morgan refuses, Daryl tells him he has to let go of whatever he’s been holding on to.
Morgan responds by calling his bluff: If Daryl had told Carol about Negan killing Glenn and Abraham, she would have returned to the Kingdom with him, ready to fight. The fact that Daryl chose to delay her heartbreak tells Morgan the two men are just alike.
This scene sets up an additional parallel — one between Ezekiel and Daryl. Daryl is still the heart of The Walking Dead, its mostly unblemished moral conscience, but he believes, as Ezekiel does not, in the occasional necessity of engaging in violence to secure peace. Ezekiel talks a good game — after all, he owns a tiger — but his desire to avoid trouble is itself a potential problem spot.
It’s Daryl who can unleash the beast when needed — and it’s significant that this is also the episode in which he regains his crossbow. As he’s leaving the Kingdom for the Hilltop, armed with his weapon of choice and the knowledge that Carol is safe, he finally seems like the character we know and love once again.
The partnership between Rick and the leader of the junkyard gang shows promise
Meanwhile, the best part of the junkyard gang is its leader, Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh), a taciturn dealmaker who barely speaks in full sentences yet quickly reaches an understanding with Rick.
This rapprochement comes after a totally delightful bout of nonsense in which she drop-kicks Rick into a special gladiator section of the junkyard in order to fight a whacked-out combat zombie outfitted all over with plated spikes. It’s just like Kirk fighting the Gorn but bloodier and with pillows for weapons. It’s dumb and silly and great. Once Rick has proved himself by besting the zombie, Jadis agrees to help fight the Saviors in exchange for lots of guns.
The gladiator zombie fight is over far too quickly by Walking Dead zombie fight standards, but it’s a highlight of the season so far. With Michonnne (Danai Gurira) yelling orders to Rick, we get to enjoy how well the two partner together, and there’s a great moment after where Jadis visibly recoils at the thought of shaking the hand she just forced Rick to bloody.
Jadis is an interesting character to add to the mix of prickly partners Rick has had to deal with; she’s terse enough that you feel wary of her and her intentions, but blunt and straightforward enough that you can’t help but feel delighted by the prospect of Rick joining forces with someone who’s willing to toss you to a zombie in order to get shit done.
Yet outside of the quickly formed partnership between Rick and Jadis, this episode barely furthered the overall plot. Given that we’re just barely halfway through the season, I’m left wondering what hurdle will quickly arise to foil this beautiful friendship. This episode also explicitly returns to the latent conflict between Tara’s promise to Cyndie not to reveal the location of the all-female camp in the woods and her loyalty to the Alexandrians. For now, she’s keeping her vow — but for how long?
Still, the sparseness of actual plot in this episode left us room to hang out with characters we haven’t gotten to spend much time with lately. Getting to see Carol and Daryl, and later Daryl and Morgan, bonding to one degree or another reminds us not only how much the Alexandrians all still care for each other but how much their group encounter with Lucille continues to impact their decision-making, even when scattered.
And that reminder of all this group has lost is also keeping us primed for some good old-fashioned revenge.