Whenever things get too dark on TWD — usually when a main character dies — the show likes to follow up with a light-hearted episode. Case in point: While last week's episode was unbelievably brutal and horrific, yesterday's "The Well" was easily the most delightful The Waking Dead has ever been. But there was a lot more to it than just trying to cheer the audience up. Without getting into the issues of WhodoesNegankillgate for the umpteenth time, I can say that "The Well" was the real season seven premiere. Whether you loved it or hated it, last week's episode was a coda, an epilogue to the previous season. This was the beginning of a new chapter for the show, featuring a new community, a great new character and raising a ton of new possibilities for both Rick's group and the show itself — all very welcome after the sixth season put on the narrative breaks, scrambling to fill time until Negan's arrival in the season finale.
Also welcome: No sight of Negan or the aftermath, as the episode is devoted to Carol and Morgan, and what happened to them after they were found by the armoured men on horseback last season. After a zombie attack and a few hallucinations that zombies are actually living, breathing people (a very striking effect, by the way), Carol wakes up in a strange bed. As Morgan explains, they're in "The Kingdom", a community in a nearby city — an actual city, not the glorified suburbs of Alexandria. As Morgan wheels her around on a wheelchair, we see that the Kingdom makes Alexandria look like crap in pretty much every way possible: There are giant gardens, fruit trees, choir practice… more importantly, it looks happy and peaceful, presumably in the way Alexandria was before Rick and pals arrived. Then Morgan brings Carol to the leader of the kingdom, Ezekiel.
Ezekiel has a tiger. Ezekiel is awesome. The tiger is also awesome, but that probably went without saying. Ezekiel is king. He talks with a regal, broadly heroic English accent, he carries a sword, he sits on a throne, and when Carol discovers she's in the post-apocalyptic equivalent of Medieval Times it's all she can do to not to laugh hysterically.
If there is a polar opposite of seeing Glenn and Abraham get beaten slowly and graphically to death, it's watching Carol's face for her entire talk with Ezekiel (just watch the video above). The Kingdom is so weird, so shocking, so stupid to her that she's almost delighted at discovering something so ridiculous. Carol uses it to fuel her "cheery innocent middle-aged lady" act, but she still looks like she's humouring a bunch of adorable but extremely idiotic children. Add Ezekiel's right-hand-bro Jerry ("It's fruit time!") and the discovery that the Kingdom serves a cobbler with every meal (what in the hell is a lunch cobbler) and this episode was funnier than TWD probably has any right to be.
But alas, not everything is well in the Kingdom. Unlike the Alexandrians, the Kingdom hasn't just gotten lucky and avoided the copious murderous arseholes plaguing the land. The Kingdom pays tribute to the Saviors, an arrangement which Ezekiel is keeping secret from almost all of his subjects. Turns out the Saviors and the Kingdom get along great, because Ezekiel pays them what they want and on time. This time it's a bunch of pigs, although unknown to the Saviors, Ezekiel's trusted lieutenant Richard has fattened them up by feeding them zombies, because seriously, screw those guys.
Ezekiel may not have the power to fight the Saviors now — despite his "knights" he still doesn't have enough real warriors — but he knows the guns that Carol and Morgan brought with them are the Saviors', and thinks he's found someone who can help him finally fight back. Carol, still dealing with her emotional crisis and self-loathing from last season, just wants to leave and be alone. Morgan's first priority is taking care of Carol, but he's happy to help train one of Ezekiel's subjects, Ben, with a bo staff (after its determined the kid sucks with all the other weapons) while he waits for Carol to recover.
By making the Kingdom beholden to the Saviors, TWD obviously ties in this new community to its new overarching conflict, and gives it a flaw, which keeps it from being too silly. Still, Ezekiel and the Kingdom are a much-needed and much-appreciated counterweight to Negan and the Wolves and Terminus and… well, pretty much everything else in The Walking Dead. So much of this show is about meeting characters who have found new and creative ways to be reprehensible ("Hey, guys, let's carve W's on our heads and kill every single living person we see"). It's so gratifying to see one group of people in the TWD-verse get weird for a good cause. Ezekiel, his tiger and his kingdom help even the scales in a way the Hilltop Community didn't and couldn't. They're a sign that The Walking Dead is more than just torture porn — that there's more to the show than just gore and watching miserable people get more miserable. They're a positive reason to keep watching. They're fun.
I don't think it's coincidental that this is also the essence of Ezekiel's speech to Carol in the episode's final scenes. After catching Carol trying to steal a bit of fruit on her way out, Ezekiel drops his royal accent, and lets Carol in on his secret: He was a zookeeper who used to dabble in community theatre, he helped heal the zoo's tiger and became friends with it, and when the zombie apocalypse arrived he freed it. Having a tiger made him larger than life, and he used esteem to become the leader, to give the people he was with hope and direction, and create their community. It's all an act, but it's one for the greater good — and it seems to have worked. Carol, hilariously, informs Ezekiel she does not even slightly care about his backstory, and still just wants to leave. That's when Ezekiel replies with this:
I'm sorry. For whatever bad you've been through. There's so much of it out there now, you know? Too much. Out there, it feels like it's all bad. Especially when you're alone.
The thing is, though? It's not all bad. It can't be. It isn't. Life isn't. When there's life there's hope, heroism, grace and love. When there's life, there's life.
Yes, a character on The Walking Dead just said he believes there is some good left in this world. Ezekiel may be talking in general, but I think the show is speaking for itself. There are still truly good-hearted people in the world of TWD — genuinely, proactively good people. Negan might have killed Glenn and Abraham in a moment of total evil and wretchedness and nihilism, but there's still hope in this show somewhere. There are heroes, even if Rick doesn't seem to be one. And, uh, there's love, even if love sometimes gets beaten to death with a baseball bat. But there's actually a reason for these characters to keep living beyond mere survival, and for you to keep watching.
I love the idea of this message, but I'm not certain The Walking Dead can back it up. Mainly because the show's real trade has been in making its "good guys" compromise their principles to the point where their only morality is that they don't seem to take pleasure in murdering the people they have to murder. The fact that Ezekiel is so good-hearted — he's tells Carol he wants to help her, because helping makes him feel good, for God's sake — makes me think he's doomed morally as well as physically. But I would love for The Walking Dead to have a real hero again. I would really love for that hero to be Rick, but that's been off the menu because I don't anticipate Rick rediscovering his moral code any time soon.
Which leads to the second problem with Ezekiel and the Kingdom, which is that they're so much better than Rick and Alexandria, respectively. The Kingdom looks as secure as Alexandria, but seems to be much better organised, producing more food (Alexandria doesn't have a damn pomegranate tree, that's for sure), with happier people in it. And it seems like Ezekiel has achieved all this without proactively killing potential threats, without murdering a citizen in the town square and without Michonne needing to knock him out because he was screaming like a crazy person at all his neighbours. Yes, Ezekiel is kowtowing to the Saviors, but that just means he's handling a threat without getting his people killed (or having them live in fear, since he hasn't told them) — which is objectively better than Rick trying to murder them before they get a chance to try to murder the Alexandria group, and failing spectacularly.
As I watched "The Well", I kept thinking how I wish The Walking Dead was about Ezekiel and these people instead of Rick and the gang. This is good in that the show has brought us a great new character and storyline to get invested in, but bad in that I'd be so completely willing to abandon the main character and storyline if given the chance.
Since that's not an option, I will try to enjoy everything about Ezekiel and the Kingdom for as long as they both shall live — especially Ezekiel convincing Carol to move to a nearby house outside the Kingdom, so she's "left" the Kingdom and "not left". And how Ezekiel sidles up later to Carol's house, trying to get her to taste one of his pomegranates. And how in all ways Ezekiel is basically just the best.
All hail King Ezekiel. Long may he reign! With his tiger.
• I'm not sure I get the deal with the pigs eating zombie meat. I can't tell if Ezekiel is trying to achieve something beyond avoiding spending more of his food stores on food his people don't get and a secret "screw you" to the Saviors. If eating pigs that ate zombie meat caused any kind of physical issue, surely the Saviors would notice and retaliate; also it's implied this is not the first time the Kingdom has pulled this, so clearly it's not affecting the Saviors. Thanks to pop culture, I know pigs eat corpses. Obviously, eating very rotten flesh isn't optimal, but wouldn't they just digest that too?
• Carol made her bed before she escaped, because that's how Carol rolls.
• Zombie Kill of the Week: A knight (man, if they aren't called knights, they should be) cuts off a zombie's face. Nicely gruesome.
• If you found this episode to be too frivolous, next week looks like it's all about Daryl in Savior-land, which probably won't be a hoot.
• If Glenn and Abraham's deaths were the price we paid to discover Melissa McBride's heretofore-unknown comic reaction genius, I have to say I think it was probably worth it.