I know, it’s a bold proclamation, especially after the non-events of the first half of season seven. But last night’s mid-season premiere, “Rock on the Road,” contained pretty much everything those episodes lacked—the whole group (mostly) being together, significant forward progress in the story, and a ridiculous, hyperviolent zombie massacre—and I suspect things are only going to get better from here.

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As I said back in the innocent, carefree days of last December, after The Walking Dead has slows itself down, it always eventually kicks back into high gear. Granted, I can’t think of a less eventual streak of TWD than the fall’s batch of episodes, except maybe Herschel’s Farm in season two (although to be fair to season seven, Herschel’s Farm contained zero tigers). So it stands to reason—hopefully—that the remainder of season seven will be as exciting as hell.

“Rock in the Road” is an excellent start. At Hilltop, Rick and the group make their case for attacking the Saviors to Gregory, who is somehow ostensibly in charge despite the fact that no one listens to him. I love Gregory, as he even outdoes Spencer in the “technically right but is such an enormous asshole that people assume everything he says is garbage” category. Here, Gregory points out, in the smarmiest way possible, that: 1) Rick already screwed up attacking the Saviors once, putting Hilltop in danger; 2) Rick doesn’t have nearly enough men or weapons to take on the Saviors; 3) Hilltop has zero fighters anyway, and 4) please go away before the Saviors see you here and kill us all.

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Gregory is right on all counts, but is so wheedling and unctuous that you have to wonder why anyone even lets him sit at the big desk anymore. Certainly no one in Hilltop gives a shit about what he “orders”—the minute the Rick and the group leaves the mansion, there are a dozen Hilltoppers, sick of the Saviors and grateful to Maggie and Sasha for actually saving their lives, who are ready to throw in their lot with Alexandria (hopefully after a bit of training, though).

Next up: the Kingdom, which Jesus leads them to, having roamed there before. Richard the knight—the one who desperately wants to attack the Saviors before something inevitably awful happens—is the first to spot them. The like-minded Richard also gives Rick and the others the good news that the Kingdom has plenty of manpower and weapons. If the Kingdom joins the fight, they might actually win. Now they just need to convince King Ezekial. (And discover he has a tiger. It’s not on Carol-meeting-Ezekial level, but the look on everyone’s face when they enter the throne room is pretty outstanding.)

Rick makes his case, and asks for an alliance, but King Ezekial is more irritated that Jesus told anyone about his secret subservience to the Saviors, as he’s been hiding their existence from his people. Then the king asks Morgan, who spotted Rick on the way in (updating each other on the last nine or so episodes), for his advice; Morgan, man of peace, man who has not truly seen Negan and the Saviors first-hand, tells the king if they can figure out a way to stop the Saviors without killing people, they have to try. The King decides to sleep on it.

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Interestingly, I found Morgan’s call for peace this time to be a lot more irritating than when he did it before in season six, when he captured the Wolf. I’ve been trying to figure out why, and I think part of it is, of course, because the Wolf was just one post-apocalyptic nihilist; even if he couldn’t be rehabilitated, he could be contained (although Morgan messed that up by trying to hide his prisoner, causing Cold-Blooded Carol to get trigger-happy). Also, Morgan was pulling this right as Rick was trying to solve every problem he had by murdering someone, and it was refreshing to see someone, anyone, try to do something moral even if it wasn’t practical. Given that during most of Morgan’s experience with Rick, Rick has been terrifyingly trigger-happy; it makes sense that Morgan would assume there could be a peaceful way to resolve the situation that hadn’t occurred to Rick, or that he hasn’t bothered to think of yet.

But here, Morgan’s not being impractical as much as he is being stupid. It’s easy to see this as the audience, since we know the full scope of the threat and what they’re capable of. And we also know that Rick, instead of trying to preemptively murder some guys who might cause him trouble later (and get some free vegetables as well), is now fighting for the lives of the Alexandrians. Hell, he’s fighting for freedom from tyranny, which is as just a cause as it gets. Negan is a tyrant, who lives in luxury based on the suffering of others. He’s too powerful to be reasoned with, and his army, made up of mini-despots, would continue to terrorize the post-apocalyptic landscape even if he were captured. This is clearly not a fight that can be won without someone getting their hands dirty with blood. And brains, probably.

Anyway, King Ezekial passes on Rick’s offer, although he does offer Daryl sanctuary, since he’s just escaped from the Saviors’ compound and the Saviors are sure to come looking for him at Alexandria. This turns out to be a good idea, since Negan makes an announcement—which the group can hear thanks to a long-range Saviors-brand walkie-talkie that Jesus pilfered when he helped Daryl escape—to go turn Alexandria upside down to see if his former prisoner is there.

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Rick and the others race home, but discover that the road is blocked by a bunch of cars and explosives set by the Saviors. This scene almost instantly becomes ridiculous—the cars have to be moved, and then they decide to take the explosives to fight the Saviors, but the bombs have to be removed carefully but uh-oh the Saviors are on their way but not so close that they can be spotted and even more uh-oh a zombie horde is coming too!—but it all basically exists for one glorious moment, when Rick and Michonne drive two cars, connected by a steel cable and located on opposite sides of a highway, on opposite sides of the zombie horde and literally mow them down. I don’t know if I’ve ever cackled at The Walking Dead before, but I cackled last night. End result, they got some bombs.

They arrive back home at Alexandria maybe a minute before Negan’s head honcho Simon and several trucks of Saviors arrive, and conduct a joint manhunt/shit-breaking operation throughout the town. They don’t find Daryl, of course, but Simon does spot a number of completely barren shelves where the food used to be. Rick plays it cool, but the minute Simon and the Saviors are gone, he also asks where the hell all the food is. But as we saw at the very beginning of the episode, Gabriel had suddenly left his post on the wall, threw all the food in crates (along with some knives and axes and other tools), packed them in a car, and drove off.

The general consensus in Alexandria is that Gabriel ran off, but Rick knows that Gabriel, while insane, is insane on behalf of Team Alexandria. They search Gabriel’s room, where—and this is pretty weird, but I assume it’s supposed to be?—Rick discovers the word “boat” written down in a notebook, and Rick assumes Gabriel has gone to that houseboat full of supplies from the midseason finale, even though Gabriel shouldn’t know about it.

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Regardless, Rick brings a small posse to the houseboat, but when they’re trying to sneak around it they’re suddenly encircled by dozens, maybe hundreds, of incredibly grim-faced, heavily armed people. Rick and the others immediately have to surrender, as they’re surrounded by gun muzzles and very disapproving looks. Yet, in the episode’s final shot, as the camera closes in on Rick, he breaks out into a smile.

I’m not sure what’s happened—or if this group is somehow related to the mysterious boot-wearing person from the mid-season finale—but the grin on Rick’s face makes me think he has, in a single episode, amassed an army. He presumably will have the help of these very sullen people; he basically has Hilltop, regardless of what Gregory wants; and I think we all know that the Saviors are going to somehow screw over the Kingdom in the very near future, causing King Ezekial to lend his forces to the fray. Honestly, I’m glad Ezekiel held out; if he had joined up as well things would have been too easy for Rick—but that doesn’t mean I’m not thrilled to see The Walking Dead already pick up the pace.

“Rock on the Road” wasn’t the best episode of The Walking Dead ever—not even close—but it felt like more got accomplished last night than in the entirety of the first half of the season. And it was immensely satisfying to not only see Rick get things done, but do them for an objectively good cause, because it feels like it’s been quite a while since I felt good about what Rick’s choices. This is The Walking Dead I enjoy, and I’m glad it’s back. I am optimistic it will stay back, at least for the rest of season seven, after which I assume the Saviors/Everybody Else War will drag into a standstill.

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Now, “optimistic” doesn’t mean “certain,” and I fully admit I could be apologizing for being a dumbass as early as next week. But for the first time since Negan arrived on the scene, I have hope that things will get better. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Rick feels the same way.

Assorted Musings:

• Okay, I’ve got to talk about this insane fairy tale that Rick tells Ezekiel, which I am pretty damn confident is not a real fairy tale at all. As Rick’s mom told it, a road had some kind of big-ass rock in it, that people kept tripping over and breaking their legs on and having their property destroyed by. One day a girl and her parents were driving their cart over the rock, and it knocked a cask of beer off the cart, and it broke. This was the family’s only possession, and their last hope was to sell it. Apparently resigned to death the girl took it upon herself to finally get the rock out of the road. She dug with her hands until they were covered in blood, but eventually, she finally managed to remove the rock—and underneath was a bag full of gold. Because the king had put both the gold and the rock there, knowing that whoever removed the rock was a good person concerned for the welfare of others, and thus deserved a reward.

• I have some questions.

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• Where the hell were the mom and dad when their daughter was trying to dig up a rock with bloody hands?

• How has this family screwed their lives up so much that their last possession is a cask of beer but they somehow don’t have the ability to brew more beer? Also, did they sell all their furniture first? How did they manage to make a cask of beer literally the very last thing they owned?

• How big was this rock that it was almost a death trap for everyone who passed over it, but it was still able to be excavated by a little girl?

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• What kind of a king puts a rock in the road that injures hundreds of people and makes them miserable just to reward the one person with enough common sense/decency to dig up the rock?

• What was wrong with everyone in this kingdom that they couldn’t walk around a goddamn rock in the road? Jesus, no wonder Ezekial wasn’t convinced.

• I believe there is an unspoken rule in the Kingdom that if you are bringing someone to meet King Ezekiel for the first time, you are absolutely forbidden from telling them he has a tiger.

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• Ben, Ezekial’s… squire(?), is doing some training in the woods and comes across Carol, who of course has a gun on him long before he knows she’s there. The scene basically exists so Carol can make an appearance, and so Ben can tell Carol he carries two water bottles when he travels in case he runs into someone who needs it. Carol responds, “Why?” as if to say “helping people is for idiots.” No bags of gold under rocks for Carol.

• Sasha makes the mistake of trying to talk to Rosita, and Rosita is tremendously shitty back. Not cool, Rosita.

• After the bomb retrieval/zombie mowing experience, Rick and Michonne are surrounded by zombies for what seems like a full minute but manage to make it back to their car. Rick is upset he pushed them too far, and endangered everyone, but Michone comforts him, saying, “We’re the ones who live!” I feel like this would be incredibly ominous, except I sort of think she just recognizes that as the leads of the show they are genuinely invincible. Because they literally should have been bitten a million times on their way back to the car.

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• On the other hand, Rick watching the Kingdom’s gates close on Daryl gave off a real “this is the last time I’m going to see you alive” vibe.

• If anyone can make me an mp4 of Gregory sing-screaming “RHETORICAL” I would be most appreciative.

• Regardless of how the rest of season seven goes, I am hella excited for that crazy-ass Resident Evil spike zombie that’s apparently on the way.