[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 7, episode 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
You might not think last week's ultra bleak, excessively gory season premiere served a greater purpose than to spark a million online conversations and to usher The Walking Dead to ratings glory once again, but the follow up episode suggests a potentially greater benefit in having the series swing so far in one direction: To compensate, the story must swing back in the other direction. But that isn't just a response to the season 7 premiere and its double execution of core characters Glenn and Abraham; it's a necessary response to the series' oppressively grim tone that is so often justified or waved off through a reference to the nature of its apocalyptic concept. Having hit the seventh season mark, it is, in many ways, a little late to believe this tiger might be able (or, for purely financial reasons, even want) to change its stripes, but after an opening like 'The Day Will Come When You Won't Be,' the series has left itself with almost no other choice.
As such, 'The Well' makes a decent argument for the necessity of tonal variance. For one thing, its primary focus is centered on two characters who have attempted to reject the series' prevailing ethos of responding to every new circumstance with a convincing display of strength, and as such find themselves, not coincidentally, on the periphery of the story. But after six seasons and some change, that periphery has started to become a more interesting place. The series has presented characters who reject violence, or are uninitiated in its ways, as simple or even foolish and almost certain to die because of the oft-repeated variations on "this is the way the world works now". In essence, characters like Morgan and Carol are on the wrong side of the show's core belief that survival through the domination of one's enemies – the undead, the living, and in some small cases, the environment – is the only course of action left to those still wandering through the broken world of The Walking Dead.
But what 'The Well' suggests is that even this series has sensed a limit to how far that attitude can take the narrative, and that, eventually, this ride needs to stop somewhere other than a town called Misery. The question, then, is: will The Kingdom and Ezekiel be the beginning of something new for The Walking Dead, or will the relative safety of the self-appointed king's territory fall once more fall victim to formula? The fact that it's Morgan and Carol who first make contact with this new group is promising, if not immediately telling. The encounter is possibly more fruitful, given the absence of Rick and his "kick down the front door" code of conduct when meeting new people. It allows the hour to better explore whether or not there is a different way of thinking than what's been presented so far. There's still plenty of road to travel beyond the introduction of The Kingdom and the storytelling possibilities it presents, but the hour offers a potentially interesting new path for the series to walk down.
As for King Ezekiel himself, Khary Payton is a welcome addition to the cast, as his affectation somehow becomes more charming throughout the hour. The risk of his kingly speech becoming grating was high, but Payton presented every line without winking at the audience, and his straight-faced delivery added some depth to what is ostensibly a ridiculous role. More interesting, perhaps, is that The Walking Dead chose not to play Ezekiel as ridiculous, but to acknowledge the absurdity of his speech, his position, and his, well, kingdom, through Carol and her unwillingness to buy into the charade. And again, Carol serves as the outlier, as everyone in the kingdom – Morgan included, to a certain degree – has bought into the fantasy. That's a rare thing for this show to present, but it's important. The series is so oppressively nihilistic at times the sight of others collectively believing in something larger than themselves, that doesn't exist to subjugate others or simply crush them as a demonstration of their strength, is very welcome indeed.
Besides, writer Matthew Negrete wisely lets some air in during Ezekiel's conversation with Carol in the garden. The moment opens the door into the kingdom and into its king's mindset, and, surprisingly, there are a few lines of dialogue that might actually make the audience smile. Moreover, the conversation is an incredibly rare example of a character on The Walking Dead being interesting beyond having simply survived for so long or being an example of the world's penchant for brutality. His backstory isn't nearly as important as the way Payton tells it: He speaks like a person who actually lived a life before the apocalypse, as opposed to nearly everyone else who feels as though they suddenly came into being the moment they appeared on the show.
As an episode, 'The Well' does two things well: it works as a potent palate cleanser for the premiere, but it also establishes a potentially interesting new thread of hope in The Walking Dead. So far, Morgan and Carol have seemed to be in search of such a thing, so it makes sense that at least one of them would stay behind in the Kingdom. The change in Carol's mindset continues to be difficult to pin down, so her desire to take up residence in a house somewhere between Alexandria and the Kingdom is about as logical as anything else she's done recently. But there's promise in a relationship with Ezekiel – whether it turns romantic or not – that makes her situation more interesting than watching someone suffer wordlessly through guilt or despair.
There's hope in the Kingdom and that's something this show desperately needs. So, naturally, it will only be a matter of time before someone comes in and knocks the whole thing down.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'The Cell' @9pm on AMC.