the walking dead, season 6, recap, hilltop, jesus, 611After last week's brief foray into the realm of romance, "The Walking Dead" returned to its roots tonight with the introduction of some new people, some new threats, and some new plans for ass-kicking, courtesy of Rick Grimes and co. For those keeping track at home, that makes three episodes in a row now that "TWD" has been firing on all cylinders. Can our survivors – and more importantly, the showrunners – keep up this pace for the rest of this back eight?

All signs are pointing to yes, what with tonight's introduction of the Hilltop community and some more revelations about mysterious big bad Negan, and his people, the Saviors. The episode's title, "Knots Untie," refers to Jesus's uncanny ability to escape any restraint that binds him, though the installment spends most of its time weaving together a complex backstory for the Hilltoppers, who look to our main crew to hold their settlement together in the face of Negan's looming presence. As Rick boasts of his group's ability to help, "Confrontation's never been something we've had trouble with," and that's certainly true. But based on what evidence we've seen of Negan and the Saviors so far, the constable's cockiness is undoubtedly a bit premature.

My prediction of Jesus raining fire and brimstone down upon the Alexandrians didn't exactly pan out, as he instead serves as the link between Alexandria and Hilltop (though that link will eventually lead to Negan, who has his own hellish designs), taking Rick and a small crew to the settlement to talk trade. "Your world's about to get a whole lot bigger," Jesus tells them, indicating that there are plenty more communities where his came from, all engaged in an ongoing exchange of supplies. The survivor says that Rick's people can probably swap some of their bullets for food – something Alexandria desperately needs – but unfortunately for our gang, the potential pact doesn't start off on the best foot.

Gregory, the Hilltop leader, initially balks at the request, noting that his community has all the leverage when it comes to trade (they have plentiful crops and lots of livestock), and doesn't want or need any ammo (Alexandria's only commodity, aside from Rick Grimes's fury). It's clear that Gregory's been holed up in the fancy Barrington House a bit too long: He sniffs at Rick's group upon arrival and refuses to even introduce himself until they've all washed up, explaining that it's "hard to keep this place clean." (Historical mansion maintenance must be a bitch.) It's also hard to keep myself from wanting to punch him in the face, a sentiment Rick seemingly shares, since he passes off negotiating duties to Maggie.

Gregory doubles down on the assholery by constantly referring to Maggie by the wrong name, and creepily indicating that she could perhaps stay behind in a trade instead, since he could "make it worth [her] while," an ambiguous request just oozing with sleazy undertones. But it turns out that big talk is really all that Gregory has working for him, since we soon learn that he and the rest of the Hilltop settlers have been living under Negan's thumb for quite some time. Jesus explains that the Saviors introduce themselves by killing a member of a community right off the bat – something Greasy Biker Guy told Sasha and Abraham back in the midseason premiere – and in Hilltop's case, it was a 16-year-old boy, who was beaten to death in front of everyone. Frightened, Gregory made the costly deal to let Negan's menacing crew take half of everything they have, in exchange for allowing the rest of the Hilltoppers to live, something the Saviors have repeated with other settlements, too.

But Negan wasn't pleased with the Hilltoppers' latest offering, killing two members of the community and capturing another, and sending the remaining party back with a murderous message for Gregory. One of the survivors, Ethan, thrusts a knife into Gregory's abdomen; Rick pounces, tussling with the attacker until he finally stabs the man in the neck, and Ethan proceeds to bleed out all over Rick's face. Rick springs back up as if this is a completely normal occurrence (and really, when you're Rick Grimes, it totally is), gazing around at the horrified Hilltopper onlookers and asking, "What?" If ever there were a quintessential Rick Grimes confluence of events, this would be it. (It also reminded me of the moment last season when he was ranting and waving a gun around Alexandria, and everyone but Rick himself thought he was crazy.)

The Hilltoppers proceed to pounce on Rick's crew (I loved it when Michonne protectively knocked out the woman who punched Rick), but Jesus plays peacemaker and persuades them to back off. He assures his people that the Alexandrians mean no harm -- aside from that whole killing Ethan thing, but apparently he was an a-hole anyway, so no big loss there -- and suggests that the Alexandrians can be a huge help with their Negan problem. Gregory, who somehow doesn't die after getting stabbed in the gut, is a harder nut to crack, but eventually caves, once again negotiating with Maggie over the terms of their new partnership. In an odd choice, Maggie, like Negan, also demands half of Hilltop's assets in exchange for their butt-kicking abilities, presumably to swing the power back in Alexandria's favor (though I'd argue that the Alexandrians' formidable weapons cache and extensive experience in combat already held the ball firmly in their court). Regardless of her specific motivations (no one calls her "Natalie" and gets away with it), Gregory agrees, and the plans are put in motion: Rick and his crew are going to defeat Negan ("He aint's s—t," Daryl boasts), and reap Hilltop's food benefits as a result.

That will be easier said than done, though, since we've already seen just how far-reaching Negan's tentacles can be. Based on the Hilltoppers' account, we now know that the Saviors are the nefarious group mentioned back in episode six, when Daryl was briefly captured by some Savior defectors (who later returned to their former ranks). Those people admitted that even they weren't sure how many members their own group contained; with so little information about the size of the threat they face, it's all but a foregone conclusion that Rick's crew will lose many lives on its quest to overtake them. And I certainly don't trust Gregory – whose self-importance, faux-genteel southern affect, and obsession with finer things give off some serious The Governor vibes – to remain so agreeable forever. (His willingness to simply write off his captured community member, Craig, also speaks volumes about his moral ambiguity.) Yes, "The Walking Dead" appears to be back in a great groove – but that can only mean that trouble is lurking around the corner.

Other thoughts:

- Another plot point from episode six also resurfaced tonight, as Abraham wrestled with his growing feelings for Sasha. Even after some sexy times with Rosita, he can't get the other woman out of his head, and he hears Sasha's voice when he's almost choked to death in the scuffle with the Hilltoppers. Smiling at the realization that he's head over heels for someone else, he leaves Rosita's carefully crafted necklace behind in the grass. I don't think that breakup is going to go well. (And here's hoping Sasha returns Abe's feelings, because I'm pretty sure he won't take kindly to rejection.)

- On the happy relationship front, new couple Rick and Michonne are immediately outed by Jesus, who busted in on them after their roll in the hay. Carl finds him in the hallway, where Jesus explains he's "waiting for your mom and dad to get dressed." Rather than being skeeved out by his father's sex life, Carl says he thinks it's cool that the sheriff is hooking up with Michonne; Rick in turn assures his son that this is the real deal, launching a million emoji-filled #Richonne Tumblr posts. The pair hold hands on the drive to Hilltop, grinning at each other, and the joyful feeling is infectious. Maybe I'm more invested in a fictional couple's happiness than I should be, but whatever, they're adorable. Let me have this before everything inevitably goes wrong.

- Maggie and Glenn finally spend some quality time together, after their long-awaited reunion in the midseason premiere fizzled thanks to the pressing issue of the zombie invasion. Now that that's out of the way, the pair have a chance to discuss Maggie's pregnancy, and with the convenient discovery of an OBGYN Hilltopper, also get to see a sonogram of their unborn child. (The second time this television season, after "The Last Man on Earth," that apocalypse survivors somehow procure a still-working ultrasound machine. Those things seem to be everywhere – and in excellent condition – when the world ends.)

- Abraham is unsure about this apocalyptic baby-making business, asking Glenn, "When you were pouring the Bisquick, were you trying to make pancakes?" (Glenn's reply: "Um, yes?")

- "I appreciate the cookie. My compliments to the chef." – Even Jesus loves Carol's baked goods. Maybe Sam's unhealthy obsession was warranted after all.

- So many people mentioned sorghum in this episode (the allegedly undersung wonder grain that also featured prominently last week) that I wondered if some mysterious sorghum conglomerate had somehow become an official sponsor of the show.

- "We're gonna make a pit stop. I'll pick up something then." "Like rabies?" I'm really enjoying Denise and Daryl's burgeoning friendship.

- I was a little nervous when the group going to check out Jesus's community included almost every survivor from our core gang. What if Jesus had turned out to be a Judas instead? Sure, you want some significant muscle when heading into an unknown community. But do you really want to risk losing Michonne, Abraham, Glenn, Maggie, AND Daryl while doing so? Why not take a few redshirt Alexandrians? (Or annoying characters like Spencer or Tara?) Something for the constable to consider next time, especially when going toe-to-toe with bloodthirsty Negan.

Photo credit: Gene Page/AMC
The Walking Dead
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Based on the comic book series written by Robert Kirkman, this gritty drama portrays life in the weeks and months following a zombie apocalypse. Led by police officer Ric... Read More