The seventh season premiere of The Walking Dead was hard to watch. No matter how you actually felt about it, it was a slog. Downbeat, emotional, violent, nihilistic… it was every complaint every critic has ever had about the show, put into the same episode at essentially the same time. This isn’t a world with a lot of humour or colour, especially not these days, but when The Walking Dead pauses long enough to allow the home viewer to take the world in and crack a smile, it’s very effective.
Witness Carol’s introduction to The Kingdom. Watching Morgan try to prepare her for what she’s about to face is amusing enough, but when Carol gets rolled into an audience with King Ezekiel and his pet tiger Shiva, it’s hilarious. She’s trying her best to put on the Carol face, all smiles and humbleness, sweet as pie, but her eyes say otherwise, and the moment they roll out of the hearing of Ezekiel, she lets Morgan have it. Just watching Carol, the least hopeful and yet most grounded character on the show, interact with a guy who fancies himself King George Clinton is just hilarious at every turn.
It’s a great performance by Melissa McBride, the show’s best actor and best character by far. Carol’s got such a great poker face, and yet… this is straining her ability to act undisturbed. Wouldn’t you be a little confounded by a crazy man with a tiger who everyone treats like an honest-to-goodness king? However, when Ezekiel finds Carol near the end of the episode and the two sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk, the secret of Ezekiel’s madness makes a whole lot more sense. It’s a brilliantly written scene from Matthew Negrete, and Khary Payton’s background as a voice actor makes the transformation from King Ezekiel to Ezekiel the zookeeper work brilliantly. The way he slips into and out of the voice is effortless, and Payton’s able to pitch it so that it’s a lot less goofy than it has any right to be.
The fact that Ezekiel is able to keep the Kingdom running and happy is one thing, but as he shows himself to the outsiders—revealing the arrangements to provide fresh pork to the Saviors to Morgan and revealing that he’s putting on an act to Carol—not everything is great. There are flaws there, and while he’s clearly made things functional, mostly due to his ability to read people and give them what they want, he has bigger concerns, and he needs people on the inside he knows he can trust. Carol and Morgan are hardened survivors, which is what he needs at his side to replace the core of people he’s already lost. He knows there’s a real threat out there, and it’s a threat that can’t be defeated just by putting on a good show and rallying the people around a strong symbol like, say, a tiger on a chain.
One of the most troubling aspects of the King Ezekiel character isn’t the fact that there’s a Renaissance Faire king running around, but that said renfaire king has a pet tiger. Game Of Thrones spends $100 million dollars on a single season, and the crew actively avoids showing the dire wolves whenever possible because it’s so much more expensive and complicated to combine CGI and practical animal effects. So if the most expensive show on television is hesitant to start making animals, there’s no way a network like AMC is going to pay through the nose to have a great-looking CGI tiger. However, Shiva isn’t as bad as I expected. Apparently the crew has been working for months to get the tiger locked down, and it’s a pretty effective combination of CGI and puppetry.
It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough that someone like Greg Nicotero, director of this week’s episode, can make it believable. The episode’s other effects, particularly Carol’s hallucinations of zombies turning into humans and vice-versa, are much more accomplished, if only because they’re done with more traditional makeup and editing effects, blending one zombified twin with a normal twin actor in concert. Is that merely an effect of Carol’s wounds and infection, or is she starting to lose her grip on sanity? From the way she responds to Ezekiel, she’s perfectly sane, but so is he once you dig under the layer of theatrics—Ezekiel’s background in community theatre is really, really funny and it makes perfect sense for the character.
After last week, there needed to be some relief. Another down episode would have probably been too much for the audience, and a little levity with Carol struggling not to laugh at Ezekiel is a breath of fresh air. When he drops the act and the two characters connect on a real level, and when Ezekiel shows up at Carol’s house with a pomegranate, it’s a brand-new ship launched with only a conversation about a tiger and a piece of tropical fruit. King Ezekiel is as much a performance for his people as Negan is for his people, just in a different way.
Carol needs understanding, Morgan needs a purpose, and The Walking Deadneeded to take a few minutes to make the world smile. The Kingdom works because it’s so overboard good that it counteracts the bad out in the world. Where there’s life, there’s life, as Ezekiel so eloquently states, and given that his character is set up to be Opposite Negan, it makes sense that The Kingdom will be as sweet and light as The Saviors are dark and crude. The Kingdom is a fiefdom, but a powerful one, and when the various forces start working together—Alexandria has guns, Hilltop has a forge to make bladed weapons, and The Kingdom has literal knights in hockey pads—The Saviors might need a little saving of their own.
The fact is, good things are happening to Carol for the first time in a long time, and while she can’t quite accept it right now, she seems like she’s coming around to it by the end of the episode. So am I. Whether it’s a faux king bullshitting a bullshitter or Jerry (Cooper Andrews) making every pun he can, the fact that smiling and laughing with an episode of The Walking Dead is even possible is a nice feeling. The misery will be back next week, but for now, exhale and enjoy.