War takes a lot of planning. It also takes a lot of people and weapons, but more than anything, it requires planning, which is how we find ourselves with a mid-season return that is as necessary as it is boring. War with the Saviors is on the horizon, and thus Rick and the Alexandrians (which is the name of my Sinatra cover band) find themselves doing plenty of walking and talking, but very little else.
Everyone’s already in Hilltop, having been tearfully reunited at the end of the last episode, so may as well get the conversation with Gregory out of the way. But come on, he’s a spineless weasel; not only is he not going to commit Hilltop to helping in the war against the Saviors, he doesn’t even want to be seen talking to Rick and insists they all go out the back door. Enid’s been spreading the word to the actual residents of Hilltop, though, and a handful of them offer their fighting services in a scene that lets Carl shoot an approving glance at Enid, just to make sure we all know that she’s part of the gang too. It’s ok if you missed that, because the heavy-handed predictability will be continuing for the rest of the episode.
The next stop is - of course - the Kingdom, because how else are Morgan and Carol going to be woven back into the tapestry of people we care about? King Ezekiel isn’t down with going to war, either, but he does offer Daryl sanctuary - remember, Daryl escaped from Negan’s camp, and it’s a pretty safe bet the Saviors are going to be on the hunt for him. They don’t actually ever enter the Kingdom itself, though, so he’ll be safe there… and isn’t it just so convenient that he’ll undoubtedly bump into Carol at some point? I know it’s hard to tell now, but I swear this show used to be surprising and shocking. Honestly.
On their way home from being shot down by Ezekiel, Rick and the Rickettes run into a tripline covered in explosives, which Carl conveniently overheard the Saviors talking about. It’s a trap to take out a herd that, in a convenience that beggars belief, show up at that very moment. Keep in mind, it’s been days since Carl overheard those Saviors talking about this herd, and yet here they are, right on cue, and despite them being a good half mile down the road, somehow Rick and Michonne only just escape their decaying clutches. I’ll lay this at the door of bad editing; the set-up for the peril is reasonable, as everyone has time-consuming, important tasks they need to complete as the Walkers keep coming, but the way it’s portrayed, the dead are far away, and then suddenly they’re on top of the survivors. It’s a shockingly jumbled sequence for a show that normally handles these kinds of scenes brilliantly but, on the upside, there is a wicked cool bit where Rick and Michonne recreate the opening of Ghost Ship by driving a wire through a couple hundred zombies. Oh, and then dynamite that Rosita didn’t like the look of blows up exactly when it would be most handy for it to, because that’s the way this episode goes.
While they were prying the explosives out of the tripwire, Rick and friends heard Negan ordering the Saviors to head to Alexandria to look for Daryl. Sure is a good thing they had that radio on them, isn’t it? Hustling back to Alexandria - after first stashing the explosives in a safe spot - lets them experience another scene to remind us that the Saviors are assholes, because we haven’t quite gotten that point yet, and discover that Father Gabriel cleaned out the pantry and skedaddled. He leaves behind a note that simply says ‘boat’, which leads Rick, Aaron, and a few others back to that boat full of stuff they scavenged a few episodes back. You may also recall that someone was watching them do it - the owner of the boat, one presumes. Following tracks leading away from the boat leads them to… well, an ambush, not to put too fine a point on it. They’re swiftly surrounded by a whole lot of very well-armed people and hey, do you think maybe they might end up being allies in the war against the Saviors? Gosh, that’d be swell!
Taken event by event, there really isn’t anything terribly wrong with Rock in the Road; the events make sense and lay the foundation for what’s to come. The problem is that it’s all handled as clumsily as possible. There is no elegance to this storytelling, no maturity. If you’ve ever asked a child to explain a story to you, this is basically how they would do it: “And then Rick went to the tiger man, but the tiger man said no, so Rick went home but he found some explosives and then zombies were gonna eat him but he cut up the zombies and then they blew up!”
The lone bright spot in the episode was Carol, who insists she wants to be left alone, yet somehow keeps managing to bump into people. Her exchange with Benjamin is both crusty and endearing, even if it does pretty clearly set up that he’s destined to become Walker food. In a cast that is rapidly becoming one-note, Carol is still a complex individual, played with steely grace by Melissa McBride. I can’t help but feel that she’s a stand-in for the audience, standing there with a frown, waiting for everyone around her to get their shit together.