You don’t need a thousand zombies to have a tense-as-hell episode of The Walking Dead. As last night’s episode proved, all you need to do is upend everything we thought we knew about the post-apocalypse, make the fights political instead of physical, and have Abraham obsess about unprotected sex… a lot.
Last night’s episode, the intriguingly named “Knots Untie,” was definitely good, but even more than good it was pivotal. I’m hard-pressed to remember an ep where TWD gave us so much information, an almost all of it monumental in how its going to affect the survivors in Alexandria
The revelations start when Rick and Michonne hastily put on clothes and have their talk with Jesus, as he requested last week. Jesus reveals he’s from another community of survivors—not just a group, but a large, (reasonably) self-sufficient colony called Hilltop. They too are hurting for certain supplies—which is why Jesus tried to grab Rick and Daryl’s truck—but when Jesus figured out they were good people, he decided to try and broker an actual alliance between the two “towns.”
Rick and the others’ minds are blown, as well they should be. Suddenly, they’re not just the only group of people who managed to survive this far, build a community, and not turn into sarcastic cannibals along the way. Discovering another town is huge enough, but Jesus is also presenting them an offer to work together, for two separate groups with their own interests to work together for the benefit of both. This is something akin to civilization, and I don’t think Rick and the others had ever even thought it was possible.
Obviously, Rick et al. are still plenty skeptical—what seems too good to be true in the post-apocalypse invariably is—but Jesus has had oodles of time to kill them all in their sleep, so they’re willing to give him a chance. It also helps that Alexandria’s food supplies are running extremely low, and Jesus’ colony Hilltop has plenty of crops and livestock. It’s definitely a risk, but it’s a risk they have to take. So a surprisingly large contingent of main characters in including Rick, Michonne, Daryl, Glenn, Maggie and Abraham get in a Winnebago with Jesus and it’s road trip time.
They don’t get too far before they see a recently wrecked car, and Jesus recognizes it as one of his people’s (apparently 65% of zombie apocalypse drivers cannot drive for shit). Rick and the others are basically almost totally certain it’s a trap, and are about to call the whole thing off until they see how genuinely upset Jesus is. They track them down to the nearby building where the survivors are hiding, kill a few zombies and save the day. Thus they and we learn two very important facts: 1) Hilltop has a doctor, who is also an obstetrician, and 2) the Hilltoppers cannot fight. They’re all basically cowering in fear from a half-dozen zombies, which literally any one member of Rick’s posse could handle (and that was before they pushed their kill counts to triple-digits in the mid-season premiere).
So when they all arrive at Hilltop, they’re coming with a lot of good will… from Jesus and the other people they saved. The inhabitants of Hilltop are more skeptical, which might be nervewracking except that Rick’s team are all carrying guns, and Hilltop’s guards have wooden spears. Yes, spears. Not only are the Hilltoppers lacking fighters, they’re lacking weapons. But they seem to have lots of everything else—crops, livestock, medicine, people with OB/GYN training, etc.
Actually, everything about Hilltop is fascinating. It appears to be a Fort So-and-So-type historical re-enactment town; I think was an honest-to-god blacksmith’s. Its walls are made of giant logs (which supposedly came from nearby, but just adds to the classic American fort vibe). In the center is Barrington House, which is kind of a colonial mansion-turned-historical museum. I fully expected a schoolbus full of 4th-graders to pull up at any moment.
The leader of Hilltop is Gregory, and he’s an asshole. He’s not evil, like pretty much everyone else Rick’s crew has met over the years; he’s just a smarmy dick. When Rick and the others arrives, he tells them they have to wash up before he’ll even talk to them. Rick—in an uncharacteristically self-aware decision—decides he better not even talk to the guy.
Instead he asks Maggie to negotiate for them. As you’ll recall, the show has been positioning Maggie as Deanna’s second-in-command; here she gets to show off her leadership qualities as she deals with the smug, sexist Gregory, who basically tells her Hilltop doesn’t need anything. Jesus apologizes for his leader, but asks Rick’s group to stay to give him a chance to talk sense into Gregory—because whatever Gregory may say, Jesus know things are more complicated at Hilltop than he’s letting on.
As if to prove Jesus’ point, three Hilltoppers return home… from making a delivery to a man named Negan. Turns out Negan didn’t think the offering they brought him was enough. Turns out Negan killed a few of them and kept one named Craig for safe-keeping. Turns out Negan also told Craig’s brother Nathan if he ever wanted to see his sibling again, he should stab Gregory in the gut. Nathan stabs Gregory in the gut. Chaos ensues.
This is to say Rick’s group is more than happy to throw down. Rick tries to prevent Nathan from killing Gregory, but Nathan is quite willing to kill Rick to complete the job. He actually manages to get a knife to Rick’s throat when Michonne’ threatens him—without even taking out her katana—which is literally all the distraction Rick need’s to cut Nathan’s throat. Jesus finally manages to calm everyone down and stop the fight; no small feat when the Hilltoppers see Rick Grimes, covered in blood yet again, and being super-nonchalant about it. (If The Walking Dead was set in Hilltop, and we saw the post-apocalypse through their eyes, Rick would be utterly terrifying.)
While the doctor works on Gregory, Jesus confesses about Hilltop’s real problem, which is Negan, a name Rick’s group knows from the thugs that Daryl turned into bouillabaisse back in the mid-season premiere. Negan and his Saviors are running an old-school protection racket: pay them, and they’ll “protect” you by not destroying your crap themselves. They take half of everything Hilltop produces, and clearly they are very happy to murder people, as examples, to keep things running smoothly. In fact, upon their first arrival, they murdered a 16-year-old boy to make their point “right off the bat” (pun eventually intended).
Rick suggests—and Maggie eventually negotiates—a deal: Hilltop gives Alexandria some much needed food and supplies, and Rick and his Murder Force will take care of Negan and the Saviors for good. Gregory is forced to capitulate, and it looks like next week Rick and the others are going to finally take onthis mysterious villain. All that’s left is to take their new stuff back to Alexandria. Oh, and for everyone to happily (and/or uncomfortably) look at the ultrasound photo of Glenn and Maggie’s baby that the Hilltop doctor gave them. It’s such a happy, simple moment for them. They’re at peace. They’ve just had a big win. They’ve made friends! (Well, business associates.) Could there be a more pure, more obvious metaphor for how good things are going?
There isn’t, which is why I am completely filled with dread.
The Walking Dead seems to be raising up our heroes more than it ever has before—which means the fall is going to be unbelievable. And that’s even before you factor in the hubris of Rick actively looking for trouble by volunteering to take out Negan and his men. Actually, not only are they picking a fight with a foe of unknown strength, they’re shockingly overconfident they can win. None of this is going to have a happy ending. In fact, I’d say odds are this is going to have the unhappiest ending possible.
Which is why “Knots Untie” is such a tense, riveting episode despite the almost complete lack of fighting, zombies, or brushes with death. The Walking Dead is back to building that slow, inescapable feeling of dread it does so exceptionally well. Enjoy this second episode of calm, my fellow viewers, because the storm is coming, and it’s going to hit hard and it’s going to hit fast. And we can only hope someone will be left standing once it’s over.
• I almost forgot about Abraham! Man. Abe starts the episode crashing-and-burning with Sasha. He then has apparently high-quality sex with Rosita. But mainly, he spends the entire episode boondoggled that anyone —Maggie and Glenn in particular—would have a baby right now, given how screwed up the world is. He brings up the baby-in-the-apocalypse subject with more than a few people (shockingly, Glenn is for, Daryl is against) but somehow the combination of nearly getting choked to death during the Hilltop brawl and seeing Glenn and Maggie’s ultrasound causes him to come to some sort of conclusion. We’ll see what that is.
• “When you poured the Bisquick, did you mean to make pancakes?” Abraham asks Glenn, making the world’s most horrible insemination metaphor and possibly putting me off pancakes forever.
• When Carl asks Jesus what he’s doing in his house, Jesus says, “Waiting for your mom and dad.” It’s a nice touch. For the record, it doesn’t seem as if Carl had any idea what was happening before his dad and Michonne either, but when he finds out about it, he’s cool.
• I found when Carl decided to stay home with Judith because he figures the Hilltop people would be freaked out by seeing a 16-year-old kid with a missing eye, potentially jeoparding their diplomatic mission, to be completely heartbreaking. It’s extra heartbreaking that he was probably right.
• Jesus explains why he tried to steal the truck from Rick and Daryl at first instead of talking to them: “You two look like trouble.” YOU ARE NOT WRONG, JESUS.
• Speaking of Jesus, without his hat on, his hair looks like a wig that a small community church might use during a play about Jesus, which is to say it is very long and looks completely unnatural. In that sense, it actually looks very Jesus-like.
• Baby Judith has a baby habit of looking directly at the camera when she’s on-screen, as if she knows everyone around her is insane and she’s asking the viewers, “Can you believe these crazy assholes?” It’s hilarious.