[The following contains spoilers from “Rock in the Road,” Sunday night’s episode of The Walking Dead.]
The local mayors on The Walking Dead are not the aspirational or inspirational sort. Hilltop Colony’s Gregory (Xander Berkeley) is an abrasive jerk and a whiny coward. King Ezekiel (Khary Payton) passes himself off as the wise and benevolent dictator of the Kingdom, but he’s as feckless as Gregory when it comes to dealing with outside threats. Both pay tribute to Negan and the Saviors rather than fight back.
Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), the leader of Alexandria, has a similarly coerced arrangement with Negan, but he and his group made the decision in December’s midseason finale that they’d had enough of oppression—give them liberty or give them death—and that they would come up with a plan to fight.
The biggest problem is numbers. Negan has a lot of people, and they’re hard to find and hard to attack because he scatters them at different outposts. Rick & Co. began the episode with a visit to Hilltop Colony to ask Gregory for his support. “Sometimes we don’t get to chose what our life looks like,” Gregory says. “Sometimes, Ricky, you have to count the blessings you have.” So, uh, no. Even without Gregory’s help, Rick picked up support from a dozen or so Hilltoppers willing to fight.
The group heads next to the Kingdom. “My people are strong, but there’s not enough of us,” Rick tells King Ezekiel. He needs more bodies and more guns. “We have people and weapons,” one of Ezekiel’s advisors tells him. “If we strike first, together we can beat them.” Ezekiel passes on supporting Rick on the explanation that the Kingdom has lost a lot already. As with Gregory at Hilltop Colony, Ezekiel is trying to preserve a fragile status quo.
Ezekiel says Daryl will be safe there because Negan and the Saviors never come inside the gates of Kingdom. “How long do you think that’s gonna last?” Daryl says. The implication is pretty clear: The Saviors are looking for Daryl, and they’re going to look everywhere. People around the Kingdom are preparing—running in formation, learning to fight—to defend themselves. Some triggering event will eventually bring them to the enough-is-enough point that Rick’s group reached earlier this season, and the people around Ezekiel are in fighting mode already. (The previews make pretty clear that Round One of Negan vs. King Ezekiel is imminent.)
This season of the series is based on stories from The Walking Dead comics that Robert Kirkman wrote four years ago, but the parallels to the present day are unmistakeable. Negan is a charismatic ruler with authoritarian tendencies. Rick is building a grassroots resistance. The autocrat is energizing the resistance, and the resistance is getting organized. There are similar parallels to be found in USA’s Colony and HBO’s The Young Pope, but The Walking Dead is more visceral because of the zombie gore and more resonant because it’s the most popular show on TV.
Rick is becoming a community organizer. This week, he made his rounds to the Hilltop and the Kingdom. The episode ended on a surprise encounter with (I’m guessing here) extras from Mad Max: Fury Road. The leader has an aggressively bad bowl-cut/mullet combo that I predict will not be all the rage this summer. Hairstyles aside, the encounter could give Rick another group to bring on board.
You want David to beat Goliath. You want a Cinderella team to make it to the Final Four. You want Rick to be the George Washington who takes on the tyrant, crosses the Delaware, chops down a cherry tree, kills Negan and becomes president of a post-apocalyptic version of America. Rick is a leader; his story is an underdog story.
And everybody loves an underdog story.