Warning: SPOILERS ahead for The Walking Dead season 7 midseason premiere
The Walking Dead returned with gusto last night, giving audiences a midseason premiere that wasn't an hour-plus of our heroes wallowing in total despair. There was actual levity in "Rock in the Road," and moments where characters were clearly joyful. Not to mention - the series hasn't produced anything as fun as a whole herd of zombies getting clotheslined at high speed in quite some time.
One character who was certainly in a good mood last night was Rick Grimes, with the episode's final shot focusing squarely on him as a huge smile lights up his face. Rick breaking out in a toothy grin is weird enough (especially this season) but making it all the stranger were the circumstances he and his merry band had found themselves in: completely surrounded and held at gunpoint by a whole new group of scavenging survivors. Not the worst situation they've ever been in by a long shot, but it isn't the sort that usually evokes such a gleeful look - least of all from Rick.
So why was Rick smiling at the end of last night's episode? And what could it mean for where The Walking Dead goes in the coming weeks? Let's break it down.
To Defeat The Saviors...
Negan's arrival completely upended The Walking Dead's status quo, sending Rick into a panic as he scrambled to keep his people safe and avoid incurring more of Negan's wrath. For the first half of season 7 Negan was backing Rick into a corner, but now that his back is up against the wall, Rick is ready to fight back.
"Rock in the Road" is the first step towards the coalition-building needed to defeat The Saviors. But after having their offer rejected by both Gregory and King Ezekiel, Rick and co. return to Alexandria to regroup, needing to figure out a way to rally more people to their cause. It's there, after an unexpected and unwelcomed visit from The Saviors, that Rick notices that Father Gabriel has fled and taken a bunch of supplies with him. The whole scenario is suspicious, prompting Rick to look for clues as to why Gabriel would run off. It's then he discovers Gabriel's note - BOAT - and though it's unclear just how Gabriel knew about the houseboat he and Aaron discovered, Rick takes a group there to go looking for him.
They arrive at the boat, discover some tracks, follow the path and... are immediately surrounded by the Junkyard Gang - a new community that has seemingly managed to keep their existence a total secret. It's then that Rick's face lights up with that smile; he doesn't see this large group of strangers as a setback, but an opportunity.
...They'll Need An Army
While most would consider being surrounded by a group of armed strangers a pretty bleak situation, Rick doesn't see it that way. "Rick sees soldiers," says director Greg Nicotero when discussing the midseason premiere's ending in an interview with EW, "that’s why he smiles." Nicotero goes on to explain Rick's thinking as: "I need a win here, and there are a lot of people here, and they have weapons, and this is what I need." Needing and receiving are obviously two different things, but if Rick can convince the Junkyard Gang to join him in fighting The Saviors, then he's one step closer to having that army he so desperately needs.
"That smile has a lot to do with the next episode," says exec producer Scott Gimple in an interview with THR, "all these people aren't just a threat; they're an answer." How Rick can convince these total strangers to join their ranks is still unclear, but Gimple promises not to "leave the audience on pins and needles about it," saying the series gets, "right into what that smile means in the next episode." And judging by what we see in the preview for next week's episode - which just so happens to be titled "New Best Friends" - Rick appears to immediately open up to the Junkyard Gang about the threat The Saviors pose, hoping to strike up an alliance before there's even a chance to become enemies.
Again, we won't know until next week if his plan actually works, but there's still the mystery of what Father Gabriel was doing? And seeing as following the path he set led Rick right to the Junkyard Gang, we have wonder if and how the two are related?
What is Gabriel's Role?
"Rock in the Road" opens with Father Gabriel patrolling the walls of Alexandria, but he very quickly abandons his post, steals a bunch of supplies, packs them in a car and drives off. It's a bizarre series of events and there's never any explanation given for why he does it. But if you watch that scene very closely there is a clue -- he isn't alone in the car.
Don't just take our word for it, Nicotero even confirms this to EW, explaining that "as soon as he [Gabriel] drives away, you see somebody sit up in the car next to him." There's never a good opportunity to see just who his passenger is, but a smart bet is on it being the same mysterious person in those boots seen outside Alexandria in the midseason finale. Gabriel was patrolling the walls that evening as well, meaning the two may have been in communication on multiple occasions before Gabriel leaves.
But why steal the supplies? Gabriel should have known someone would notice, and with his sudden disappearance, be able to put the two together. He must have known they'd come looking for him -- maybe that's why he did it. That would explain why Gabriel left the note behind, hoping that Rick would make the connection and come looking. But how did Gabriel know of the boat? It doesn't appear that Rick told him since he's just as confused as Aaron is over how Gabriel could know about it. But recall an earlier episode this season in where Gabriel walks back to Alexandria after an argument with Spencer. What if during that sojourn, Gabriel stumbled upon the boat? Or the Junkyard Gang? Or both!?
Nicotero seems to also suggest something along these lines, saying in those final moments "they realize that they’re following the scent backwards and that Gabriel’s clue sort of leads them to believe that whoever was essentially watching them may have made a move." If Rick had suspicions someone was watching them, then Gabriel's actions just confirmed them. He also is almost certainly involved in forcing the meeting between Rick and the Junkyard Gang, either by planning it or being made to do it by that mystery boot-person.
Rick trusts Gabriel, that much is clear. The two may have gotten off on the wrong foot, but between helping protect Judith during the herd attack and digging Maggie's fake grave, Gabriel is now a close confidante of Rick's. That's why Rick is so quick to defend Gabriel, insisting he wouldn't have run off on them without good reason. Staging an elaborate plan to lure Rick in to a meeting with a potential new ally could be that reason -- and him realizing what Gabriel has done might also be a reason for Rick's smile.
The Walking Dead continues with "New Best Friends" on February 19th on AMC.