Last week’s episode of The Walking Dead, called “Rock in the Road,” opened with an enigmatic sequence: Father Gabriel Stokes (Seth Gilliam), keeping guard at the Alexandria Safe Zone’s wall, silently withdraws from his post, empties out the settlement’s food stores, and then hops in a car and drives away.
While intriguing, the teaser was also left unexplained, as Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and the group are only able to investigate the mystery towards the very end of the mid-season premiere. But there were clues aplenty to be had for both the characters (Gabriel’s jotting of “boat” in his notebook) and the audience (an unknown figure popping up in the car’s passenger seat as it drives away from Alexandria), building up to the sudden introduction of the junkyard community and the arrival of this week’s episode.
Unfortunately for all involved, the resolution of Gabriel’s seeming betrayal isn’t as Earth-shattering, or even eyebrow-raising, as the writers clearly hoped it would be. Even worse, the character development they hoped to glean from the sequence for the ex-priest similarly doesn’t land as well as it must have been thought it would in the writers’ room, leaving the incident vaguely similar to what viewers encountered in the season premiere – more hype than actual pay-off.
Still, it did lead to a nice moment between Gabriel and Rick, and it did land Alexandria with its first partner (even if an unusual one) in its upcoming war with Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and his Saviors, so it wasn’t entirely for nothing.
Did Gabriel betray the group?
In a word: no.
After Rick and Aaron (Ross Marquand) discovered a far-out, booby-trapped supply cache at the end of season 7.0, they inadvertently led an unknown figure – who, we now know, was posted at the remote site to observe anyone who might try and unload it of its items – back to the Alexandria Safe Zone. That half-season ends with the mysterious individual observing Gabriel as he begins his night-shift guard duty, in fact, attempting to build up to the “twist” of the father’s betrayal with a cliffhanger note of suspense.
Through some carefully-selected editing, we never see this unknown assailant and his cohorts slip past the city’s defensive wall (in fact, how they manage to do so is never addressed), confront Gabriel, and attempt to force him to hand over all the supplies that Aaron and Rick brought back. Unfortunately for them, those recently-recovered items aren’t on-hand; angry, these off-screen bandits force the former priest to empty the city’s pantry and then to come with them back home to the junkyard.
When Rick sees the word “boat” hastily scribbled in Gabriel’s hand, he thinks he knows exactly where the man has seemingly run off to with the meager rations that were meant to keep everyone in Alexandria alive – and the Saviors at bay. The group’s arrival at the booby-trapped area, of course, leads to last week’s big climax: dozens of Mad Max-esque survivors surrounding our band of heroes, leading to a surprising smile on Rick's face.
It is in “New Best Friends” that the Alexandrians learn of the truth behind Gabriel’s “abandonment” of them – and, of course, where they get to meet Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh), the leader of the junkyard settlement. After some post-apocalyptic gladiator games against a wicked-looking walker, Rick proves himself, a (tenuous) alliance is formed between the communities, and Gabriel is allowed to return home.
There are many remaining unanswered questions, some of which the former sheriff’s deputy attempts to make Jadis answer, though unsuccessfully: why did they take Gabriel in the first place? What was their plan for him before everyone else arrived to rescue him (even if they didn’t know that he, in fact, needed to be rescued)? It’s possible that such information will come later on down the line, but the fact of the matter is that such considerations are secondary to the necessity of their military partnership, and such plot-related questions are often left unanswered in the name of the overarching narrative.
Was the “twist” worth it?
Such a short-lived story arc – the rest of our main characters believing that a recurring character who has been on the show for two whole years now has suddenly and uncharacteristically stabbed them all in the back – simply didn’t have enough time devoted to it to explore all of its dramatic potential, despite the writers attempting to build up to it two months ago. This is actually for the best, since any more screentime would have substantially upended the development-to-payoff ratio. Besides, not all throughlines need to be the end of the world in their stakes or in their resolutions, even in a series that is all about the end of the world.
More than advancing the plot of having a unified alliance form up against the existential threat that is the Saviors, what the writers attempted to get out of such a “twist” was an emotional payout: Father Gabriel, we learn, has been having (yet another) crisis of faith, losing the conviction that our band of characters is capable of taking down the despotic Negan. When he sees them all arrive at the junkyard for him, however, he realizes that Rick never stopped trusting him to be the reformed individual who has rightfully earned his place in the group and to do whatever is necessary to protect Alexandria’s inhabitants. Seeing such unbridled faith is enough to rekindle his own, allowing him to meet the impending showdown with the Saviors with full confidence.
It’s nice to see some screentime be devoted Gabriel, a character who, more than most recurring figures throughout The Walking Dead’s seven-year run, has received precious little in the way of exploration (though his transformation from the craven he was to the soldier of God he now is is arguably more development than many others have received). And it’s even nicer still to see such a beautiful moment between the priest and Rick – a pairing that, again, is consistently underserved.
However, the resolution to the two-episode-ending mystery (who’s watching Gabriel? Why is he turning tail and fleeing?) still can’t help but feel a little flat. In a show that has infamously been keeping so many balls in the air at once since the start of the current season, devoting only one or two episodes to any given character or location, the audience’s intimacy with any one member of the cast is significantly diminished; the revelation, ironically enough, is too small to be a satisfactory agent of either the plot or of character.
And, besides – as noted before, when Walking Dead starts to pull the trick of deliberately and conspicuously excising pertinent information from the viewer time and again (such as leaving the identity of Negan’s victim from the sixth-season finale unknown for the entire off-season hiatus), it can’t help but wear thin.