This post contains spoilers for the second episode of The Walking Dead Season 7, "The Well."
The Walking Dead returned for a seventh season last week with an inauspicious premiere. It answered the long-awaited question posed by the previous season’s much-loathed finale cliffhanger — namely, who would be the victim of new villain Negan’s baseball bat? — with exactly the sort of audience-punishing sluggishness and cruelty even the most patient fans have come to expect of this show. It teased the terror of Negan’s reign to come, and gave Jeffrey Dean Morgan further occasion to theatrically glower. And it left our heroes in the most unenviable state we’ve seen them in over the course of The Walking Dead’s seven years: shaken, defeated, and utterly hopeless. The only interesting question left to ask was where the series could possibly go from here.
This week's episode, "The Well," provided an unexpected answer -- in the form of a new location, a new group, and at least one major new character. The setting is a bucolic agrarian community many miles from the Alexandria Safe Zone called The Kingdom, well fortified from walkers and amply provided for by a community garden. (The pomegranate supply is off the charts.) The Kingdom’s residents seem -- refreshingly! -- peaceful but well armed and well trained; they travel mainly by horseback, in uniform and a kind of walker-bite-preventing body armor, and have a robust system down for hunting and gathering beyond the community’s walls.
The major new character is the most "comic book" character in this comic adaptation's history. Ezekiel, or, as he calls himself, "The King," talks like he’s a fixture at a Renaissance fair. His Lordship rules the Kingdom with imperious flair. He’s regal. He’s outrageous. He has a pet tiger.
From the moment he’s introduced, Ezekiel seems like a mistake -- a flagrant conceptual error that should never have made the leap from page to screen. A character this ridiculous, this over the top, might work in a comic, where things can stand to get a little cartoonish. But on TV? It will be next to impossible for anyone to take a guy with a pet tiger and community-theater grandiosity seriously. Ten minutes into "The Well" and I was ready to declare it: The Walking Dead wasn’t likely to recover from that season premiere followed by this.
Except it was all a ruse. The Walking Dead wanted us to greet Ezekiel with healthy skepticism, if not outright hostility — because it happens that Ezekiel isn’t as ridiculous as he appears to be at first.
This we discover through the incredulous eyes of our most reliable audience surrogate. Carol, recovering from the injuries she sustained at the end of the last season, in the bed Morgan procured for her at the Kingdom, finds herself face to face with this new community’s grand leader and can barely stifle her laughter. Carol feigns amazement and gratitude, once again slipping into the role of ineffectual suburban mom for the sake of self-protection. But she’s as appalled by the notion of this guy’s thespian panache as we are. “It’s make-believe,” she scoffs to Morgan after the meeting. She’s long-ago accepted -- as indeed we have -- that only the ruthless and realistic are suited to the world as it is now. As far as Carol is concerned, these people are about as safe here as if they’d holed up in Disneyland.
It’s when Carol makes to abscond from the Kingdom in the middle of the night that we find out the truth. Ezekiel corners her and makes it clear that he knows she’s putting on an act: "Don’t bullshit a bullshitter," he explains, before dropping the act himself. Ezekiel confides to Carol that all of this -- the pet tiger, the kingly air, the pretensions, the grandiloquence, even the voice -- is mere showmanship, smoke and mirrors affected as a leadership strategy. The Kingdom needs a ruler, and King Ezekiel, however how authentic he may be, is the best man for the job. What he’s doing isn’t much different from what Carol does when she acts meek in front of people she doesn’t know. He’s being tactical. He’s being smart. Ezekiel’s doing what he needs to do to survive.
That revelation transforms Ezekiel from a conceptual mistake into a creative windfall, and on the whole, "The Well" suggests that this fascinating leader may be The Walking Dead’s most promising character — its first opportunity in a long while to show us things we haven’t seen before and, after last week’s dire premiere, a glimmer of hope for the direction of the season.
Ezekiel is already serving Negan and the Saviours: no real surprise there, given the location of the Kingdom, and relations between them seem about as smooth as one can hope for. (Ezekiel also seems preternaturally adept at diplomacy: not a bad skill to have when you’re under the thumb of a group like the Saviours.) But perhaps Ezekiel and his people will become the right allies -- especially once word reaches him of the recent losses and how desperate the situation has become -- for Morgan, and a multi-community alliance is the solution to everyone’s Negan problem. Meanwhile, Carol was more or less won over by her newest confidant. She’s left the Kingdom to establish more private quarters not far off the lot, but it looks like Ezekiel will if nothing else be a frequent visitor -- and very possibly something more. But that’s just one more layer of intrigue in a character who’s quickly looking like The Walking Dead’s last best hope.
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