Be warned! This review will cover aspects of the episode. Spoilers will lurk like groaning walkers.
We're still in breathing room mode for the show in the wake of the breach of Alexandria. But, having just met Paul "Jesus" Rovia, and now being shown the settlement he's from, you can feel the accelerator being nudged down as we head towards a confrontation with this season's next big bad.
Still, before any of the real tension, it's time for quiet reflection and some of the character work the show still doesn't quite do so well in Knots Untie, which could also be called "Abraham wants to know about babies and has someone on his mind". Yes, despite a seemingly settled and satisfying relationship with Rosita, poor old Abe just can't stop thinking about his regular patrol buddy Sasha, who announces that she's switched shifts and that Eugene will be patrolling with him from now on. Well, that should lessen the sexual tension. Probably...
Maggie, meanwhile, is on farm duty, looking at ways to expand their crop growth. She's worried about their supplies running low, but Glenn has confidence in her. Well of course he does. He can't die, can he? He could probably go for years without food and still survive somehow. But a disturbance at Rick's place cuts short their discussion. Despite the massive plot bombshell of Rick and Michonne taking their relationship to the next level (sheathing the katana?), we're only now checking in on them, showing the aftermath of Jesus slipping away from his guards and paying them a visit. He's marched at gun point to the kitchen table, where he explains that they're all on the same side and he's from another settlement that Rick and the Alexandrians could trade with. "Your world," says the longhaired new arrival, "is about to get bigger." After a brief discussion, our heroes decide to go and scope out where Jesus lives.
Rick, Daryl and the rest are packing up the camper van to take Jesus on a little ride (though Jesus won't be getting to take the wheel this time). Rick offers to let Carl come with the small group headed out, but Carl demurs, saying his eye-patched appearance wouldn't go over well with the other settlement and he wants to stay behind to guard his sister and the others. With Rick and some of the others – Maggie, Glenn, Daryl, Michonne, Abe and now Jesus – on the road again, Abe takes the opportunity to talk the possibility of children with Glenn. Well, talks to him about the decision making progress that went into Maggie and Glenn getting pregnant. There is a lot of talk of pancake batter and galoshes. It's awkward. And fortunately interrupted by a crashed vehicle up ahead.
Turns out it's from Jesus' settlement, and the vehicle has ended up on its side on the road, with walkers around it. Fearing a trap, Rick and the rest show major caution, and leave Jesus under guard as they take out the walkers and hunt for potential survivors in a nearby building. A few offed zombies later, and four of Jesus' comrades have been rescued despite Abraham nearly killing one of them.
With the new people on board the camper van, the vehicle once more heads out. Glenn and Maggie get to talking with one of the people they saved and it turns out he's a doctor! His name is Harlan and he was an obstetrician before the zombie holocaust. Which will come in darned useful for the expectant parents. The camper van gets stuck in mud, but it's no biggie because they've arrived... at somewhere called Hilltop.
After the usual bit of posturing from all involved at the guard wall, Jesus leads Rick and the rest of the travelling team into Hilltop, which is dominated by an old stately home that was being used as a museum before the world fell. Barrington House and its grounds are now home to what looks like a thriving community, with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency, acronym fans!) trailers dotting the compound, a blacksmith's forge, a small farm and other structures. The inside of Barrington makes it look like the show is about to do a crossover with Downton Abbey, which we would actually watch (and yes, we realise Pride And Prejudice And Zombies beat us to that). Inside, our group is introduced to Gregory, played by genre stalwart Xander Berkeley, who seems to be a well-fed, smug type who hides his more negative ways in charm.
Maggie is delegated to talk with Gregory as Rick worries he won't react well. It's probably a good call as even Maggie gets frustrated with Gregory's attempts at leveraging the supplies that Hilltop has for the Alexandrians "working" for them. He keeps calling Maggie "Natalie" and pisses her off before shutting her down and showing her the door.
Jesus argues that he can talk Gregory around and asks for a few days to make his point. But they're interrupted by some Hilltop residents returning from what we initially think is a supply run gone bad. Turns out it wasn't a supply run exactly; they've been forced to trade with Negan and his "Saviours". And the latest delivery was, in true mob protection style, short. So Negan has killed several of the party, kidnapped one and sent the rest back. One of the Hilltop survivors, Ethan, explains the terms and then tries stabs Gregory in the gut. Rick and some of his gang intercede, but it ends up with Abraham nearly choked to death and Rick in a sticky situation until Michonne provides a distraction so he can kill Ethan.
With the fight over, Jesus explains to Rick and the rest how the Saviours arrived shortly after Hilltop was established and demanded half of their supplies lest they destroy the place. So the Hilltop folk have been forced into this situation ever since. Rick and the rest explain how they've had dealings with Negan's men once before, with Abraham and Daryl leaving them in "parts and puddles". The Alexandrians go all Seven Samurai and offer to take down Negan in exchange for supplies.
Maggie is once more meeting with the now slightly humbled Gregory, who has been patched up and medicated. She stays tough and negotiates a big deal with Hilltop – half their current supplies in exchange for the previous promise to wipe Negan off the map. Now who has leverage? Soon, the camper van is being packed with supplies. Jesus and one of the other Hilltop residents - who has been on runs to Negan's before and knows the layout of his compound - agree to go with them. But there's time enough for Maggie and Glenn to get an ultrasound in Harlan's doctor's trailer (the Hilltop folk really are well supplied!) and warmly pass the resulting picture around the camper on the way to... where? Alexandria to tool up? Straight to Negan's? We'd guess the former. Abraham is the last one to look at the picture, and his face lights up in a smile. He's still got babies on the brain, then.
Though not everything about Knots Untie works – the Abraham plotline in particular – it shows that the creative team is more willing to keep the peace for now and let the characters have a little extra calm than they're used to. But it's not all quiet reflection: the confrontation with the returning Hilltop members is a well-staged little fight and there are one or two neat walker moments. Still, the "new world" everyone keeps talking about is a lot more about human interaction than a lot of zombies, which is a helpful change of pace (and likely useful on budgetary terms too.)
Hilltop is an impressive piece of design and set construction, something the show is usually great at, and it's nice to see someone like Berkeley do what they do best... be slightly condescending and then put in their place. But really this is all about getting us ready for the mysterious Mr. Negan, a character that comic book fans have been waiting to see. Can he live up to the hype? That remains to be seen, but you can't help but think some of the little moments shared between characters here are building us up for heartbreak when things go badly wrong for our heroes again.
In the UK, The Walking Dead airs Mondays at 9pm on Fox.
Who the hell is Negan, anyway? Read our definitive guide to the character in the comics.