Last week, The Walking Dead ended on a smile. That's not necessarily common for a show that likes to keep things gloomy and desperate, but these are different times for the series. The show has been trucking along the zombie apocalypse for nearly seven full seasons and try as it might to say otherwise, its dip in the ratings are a sure sign that show will one day inevitably succumb to the passage of time.
In the meantime, however, showrunner Scott M. Gimple is set to see Rick wage war with Negan's Saviors. In order to do that, though, Rick's crew is going to need some numbers and to arm themselves. That smile at the end of 'Rock in the Road' says that while he may be a grizzled veteran of the apocalypse, Rick still knows a good thing when he sees it. Whether nor not the Junkyard Community he and the others encountered will turn out to be a unexpectedly positive encounter or not is what 'New Best Friends' aims to prove.
As much as the group's appearance smacks of retro engineering, considering no one has encountered them before, they bring a new rhythm to a show that has otherwise danced to the beat of the same drummer for years. For now, the narrative importance of these Mad Max-esque characters and their leader remains to be seen, but it's a good chance viewers will dig their style. The group has a walker in a getup that's looks like a rejected Megadeth album cover and they are most definitely fans of combat. They're also a suspiciously well-armed group, which means Rick needs them whether he likes their brand or not.
After being turned down by both Hilltop and The Kingdom last week, Rick seems undeterred in his desire to build an army and go on the offensive against the Saviors. At present, that looks like a surefire suicide mission unless he can enlist the aid of these raggedy folks and their weapons. It's a clear want for the character that shrinks down the larger goal of the season into a plot better suited to an hour of television, and 'Best New Friends' certainly delivers on that account.
Like many of the better episodes of The Walking Dead, the hour tells as close to a self-contained story as possible. Though it's split between Rick and the new group and Daryl's reunion with Carol, the episode manages to make good use of its time, bringing both plots to their most logical conclusion while still leaving the door open for what comes next. There's an obvious emphasis on the Junkyard Community, as they are the next piece of the puzzle in bringing down Negan, but the episode also doesn't miss out on the emotions at play in seeing two popular characters back together after so many episodes apart.
Last week's smile signaled a new direction of sorts for the show and it's good to see the follow up hasn't lost track of or ignored those intentions. It's surprising to see how Rick's changed demeanor works to leaven the series as a whole, especially when coupled with a slight change in the otherwise ominous score. While Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh) and her people appear to threatening, the hour doesn't try to oversell the idea that anyone can die. So, when Rick gets pushed into a pit of trash with Winslow (the apocalypse's first metal-loving zombie) there's no expectation that he'll die nor does the show try to sell it as such. That small shift changes the series from a gloomy, tonally static show into a much more engaging adventure. Viewers have seen Rick kill zombies dozens of times, but none of them meant what Winslow's death does: a chance to bring the fight to an obnoxious bully. Like Rick's smile, there's the hint of promise in seeing him fight a walker without weapons and come out the other side victorious. The rest is just icing on the cake.
That icing includes McIntosh's new character and her people's code of taking but not bothering. Such a motto helps explain why no one has encountered them before, as they seem to be fairly secretive, and their community appears to cover a fairly vast patch of land. While it's difficult to imagine other groups haven't come across it and thought other people's trash could be their treasure, it's enough that Rick was able to make a deal to get Jadis' people to fight for him in the span of a single hour that the specifics of how the new group stayed hidden for so long can go overlooked.
'Best New Friends' succeeds in laying out a game plan for what's next, making the push to bring the fight to Negan's doorstep seem inevitable rather than impossible. In that regard, the hour earns a spot as one of the stronger episodes in season 7 and one that hints more may be on the way. It's too early to say The Walking Dead has turned things around, and goodness knows the series has cratered after a strong run before, but hopefully this is start of something positive.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'Hostiles and Calamities' @9pm on AMC.
Photos: Gene Page/AMC