Let’s talk about the confounding, compelling and extremely ridiculous King Ezekiel. His “throne room” is, as best I can tell, a middle-school auditorium. His pet tiger is ferocious but one he raised as a zookeeper before the zombie apocalypse. His patrician accent is 100 percent invented, and he says eyeroll-inducing things like, “And what plans have you, Rick Grimes of Alexandria?”
Most of King Ezekiel’s followers, his “subjects,” don’t know that he made the same protection deal—go scavenge shit for us and we won’t kill you—that Alexandria, Hilltop Colony and other communities have made with Negan and the Saviors. He has been able to maintain the irreconcilable truths that the Kingdom is both sovereign and Negan’s colony, but the challenge of simultaneously running a community, protecting it from the dead and giving half its GDP to Negan probably isn’t sustainable.
There is method to his myth-making. “People want someone to follow,” he said at the beginning of the season. “It’s human nature. They want someone to make them feel safe, and people who feel safe are less dangerous.” His kingly airs are propaganda, which is to say that he is lying. That’s a dangerous foundation for power—unearned and prone to corruption—but Ezekiel has succeeded because of those lies and not despite them: He is a stabilizing force in dire times.
The Walking Dead is set in a world where people can and do reinvent themselves, where Negan can go from gym coach to ferocious dictator and Ezekiel from zookeeper to king. If you strip away the regal trappings around King Ezekiel, he’s got the moral compass, the cautious wisdom and the respect of his community that a leader needs whether he calls himself mayor or president or, in his case, king. It’s discomfitting to know that his authority is built on sand, but he has built out the legend with moral authority. The fact that it’s working is icky, but it is working.
In last week’s midseason premiere, “Rock in the Road” (read our review here), Ezekiel politely declines Rick’s entreaties and the urging of some of his closest advisors to make the Kingdom part of a supergroup to take on Negan, but he doesn’t close it off. In the opening scene of this week’s “New Best Friends,” Ezekiel and Negan’s people nearly come to blows during the weekly tribute drop, and two of Ezekiel’s group are deprived of their weapons. Negan has already banned firearms at Alexandria, and there’s every reason to think he’ll do the same at the Kingdom.
“You are a trifle too quick,” Ezekiel tells Benjamin (Logan Miller), a young follower on his security detail. “Just because you now know how to fight doesn’t mean you should seek one.” In a story-dense episode that features the Kingdom’s efforts to move Ezekiel closer to war, the long-awaited reunion of Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Carol (Melissa McBride), the introduction of a new group led by the peculiar Jadis (a delightfully deadpan Pollyanna McIntosh) and Rick taking on a spiked-up walker gladiator-style, the best performance was Khary Payton’s deliberate, measured take on Ezekiel.
In the first half of this season, I wasn’t sure whether to take Ezekiel as comic relief—Carol all but laughed in his face during her introduction to his highness—but he’s quietly getting shit done. The Kingdom is full of trained, battle-ready warriors, and he has their loyalty. He’s proving that leadership is less about the machinery of ascension than what you do with it.
The Walking Dead has increasingly become a story about the art of governing with its communities as laboratories for varying approaches. Where Game of Thrones is about clashes of leaders that largely move along axes of personality and zero-sum power, The Walking Dead is more mindful that the source of a leader’s legitimacy is the consent of the governed. Rick has earned it, Ezekiel has earned it, and Negan—through fear and intimidation—has earned it.
In back-to-back episodes where Negan has been absent from the story and Rick has been consumed by giant, zombied-out set pieces, Ezekiel has moved closer to an alliance with Rick in the war to come. That’s plot. What the series has shown about Ezekiel’s character as a leader is that setting an example matters, moving with caution is better practice than undoing mistakes and biting your tongue counts more than running your mouth.
In the episodes to come, I think we’re going to see Ezekiel put that wisdom to use.