The Walking Dead midseason seven premiere means business, busying itself with not only ingratiating our characters with much of what they’ve been kept apart from for half a season now but tantalisingly book-ending it with an unforeseen turn of events involving a character you wouldn't expect. It's in this way that the show manages to keep you on your toes even when much of the episode is comprised of a story strand you're not that fussed about.
'Rock in the Road' may the biggest case in point of this the show's yet had. It begins where the previous' post-credits scene left off - Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) on night watch at Alexandria as a hooded figure watches on. Only this isn't exactly where the episode picks up; we see the holy one looking anguished as he raids the group's pantry and armoury and, after tanking up the car with petrol, takes off into the night - but just as the screen smashes to credits, a second figure eerily appears in the passenger seat.
Despite its broadened scope, this episode felt much more like The Walking Dead of old, flitting from location to location, propelling the story onwards in unprecedented - if convoluted - manners. In many ways, it seemed like three differing episodes rolled into one which is the antithesis of the unfairly maligned Part A which spent each instalment languorously honing in on specific factions forcing different characters to the forefront.
Rick's attempts to sign up the surrounding clans to his war against Negan saw us return to the Hilltop Colony as Rick, Daryl, Maggie and co tried to convince the petulant Gregory (Xander Berkeley) to assist them. Having shown redemptive signs previously, he's back to his borderline unwatchable self, deflating the fist-pump morale ratcheted in the previous episode's powerful final scene. Thank heavens for Jesus, then, who decides it's high time for Rick to meet King Ezekiel (Khary Payton).
Seeing our characters in new environments we've only briefly glimpsed is always going to prove exciting, and The Kingdom was no exception if only for providing characters who have been apart with the opportunity to catch up on events they don't yet know about. It would be easy for the script to pass over certain moments in favour of the matter at hand, so it's commendable that writer Angela Kang paid time and attention to Rick and Daryl's concern for Carol (Melissa McBride, briefly glimpsed in one scene here) once reunited with Morgan (Lennie James) and the latter's shock when he learns of what Negan did to Abraham and Glenn.
The most shocking Walking Dead moments
The most shocking Walking Dead moments
1/10 Sophie's a walker (season 2, episode 7)
Much of season two's opening half is spent looking for Sophia, the missing daughter of Carol (Melissa McBride). Turns out she was locked up in Hershel's barn as a zombie all along.
2/10 Shane reanimates without being bitten (season 2, episode 12)
When Carl (Chandler Riggs) guns down a deranged Shane (Jon Bernthal) to protect his father, the shock arrives when he manifests into a walker despite not being bitten; turns out everyone's infected with the virus and will turn whichever way they die.
3/10 Axel's bullet to the eye (season 3, episode 10)
A character introduced in the show's prison arc, Axel is a reformed prisoner who strikes up a friendship with Carol - until he's gunned down mid-sentence.
4/10 Carl kills Lori after she gives birth (season 3, episode 4)
Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) goes into labour at the very moment a zombie siege breaks out at the prison. Unfortunately, she doesn't make it through the procedure with her son Carl being the one to put a bullet to her head.
5/10 The Governor slays Hershel (season 4, episode 8)
The Governor makes his dramatic return for a showdown at the prison after he captures Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Hershel (Scott Wilson). Rick reaches out, attempting to reason with him - but The Governor starts a war when he proceeds to decapitate poor old Hershel instead.
6/10 "Look at the flowers" (season 4, episode 14)
In a standout episode from the show's fourth season, Carol is forced to take drastic measures when young teenager Lizzie murders her sister Mika in the belief that she'll live on as a zombie. Realising Lizzie's depraved mind would endanger those around her, Carol puts a gun to the young girl's head and, telling her to "look at the flowers," pulls the trigger, fighting back the tears.
7/10 Carl's bullet to the eye (season 6, episode 9)
Season six returned from its mid-season break in typically dramatic fashion when an iconic moment from the graphic novels came to life: Carl takes a bullet to the eye.
8/10 Beth is killed (season 5, episode 8)
Upon being kidnapped, Beth (Emily Kinney) is taken to Grady Memorial Hospital managed by Atlanta Law Enforcement. Forced to reside there against her will, the group - including Rick and Daryl (Norman Reedus) - eventually find her - only for her to be accidentally shot in the head by her captor. The worst thing? Her sister Maggie (Lauren Cohan) had just arrived outside.
9/10 Negan kills Abraham
Season seven opened in brutal form as we discovered it was Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) at the opposite end of Negan's baseball bat. "Suck my nuts," the soldier growls as the Saviours' leader brings Lucille raining down on his head until nothing remains but a pulpy mess.
10/10 Negan kills Glenn
Negan decides to punish the group once more after getting clocked round the face by Daryl. Without expectation, he thwacks Lucille round the head of poor Glenn. With his eyeball popping out of his head, he manages: "I'll find you, Maggie before Negan proceeds to finish the job ending the former pizza delivery boy's life.
The episode's peak arrived in a sequence where our group comes across Saviours-laced explosives across the road with an oncoming horde of walkers making its way towards them. Deciding that, if they have any chance of defeating their enemies, they need the dynamite for themselves, the group - led by Rosita (Christian Serratos) - begin defusing the sticks in a scene that should probably have seen somebody blow up Lost style (here's looking at you, Dr. Arzt) for any sense of realism credibility.
The scene (forgivably) culminates in an uproarious moment where both Rick and Michonne drive two cars attached to a steel line directly through the horde, slicing them in half. It's a visual treat and one that you know director Greg Nicotero couldn't wait to get his hands on; brilliantly conceived and expertly captured, this set-piece will certainly go down in The Walking Dead history books.
The show's final scene sees Rick - with the majority of the group - return to the lake where he and Aaron (Ross Marquand) went on their last supply run (the one where they were spied on by the mysterious figure who most likely lured Gabriel away from Alexandria). Sure enough, they soon come across not one hooded figure but an entire collection of them who surround our characters poking all kinds of weaponry in their face - guns, hatchets, knives.
It may be exciting to see our group collide with another altogether more mysterious one, but there's no denying The Walking Dead is in danger of becoming top-heavy. Had Greg Nicotero opted to swoop the camera up to Rick's concerned, devastated, 'holy-shit-what-now?' face before cutting to black, it may have seemed like rehashing previously trodden formula - however, Andrew Lincoln's witty delivery of the least unexpected emotion of all - a smile - is a witty move. He's become so obsessed with Negan's comeuppance that he's lost his fear. In that respect, Rick is not only back - he's stronger than ever.
Buckle up - the next seven episodes look to be quite the ride.
The Walking Dead returns tonight at 9pm on FOX