Sunday night's episode of The Walking Dead was the first truly good episode of the season since the opening two episodes. Still, even though tonight's episode, 'Hearts Still Beating,' was a definite high point for this season, it felt extremely uneven, alternating between really tense, engaging drama and totally bizarre scenes and editing.
The midseason finale brings all the disparate narrative threads from season 7 together into one whole, wrapping up the first half of this season's story and preparing us for the next chapter in Rick's war against Negan and the Saviors. On one level, it does this very well, bringing our cast of characters---separated for the bulk of the season---back together with a shared purpose. On the other hand, the showrunners achieve this by killing off throwaway characters nobody cares about, using what amounts to cheap tricks to motivate Rick and his group to finally stand up to their enemies and fight back.
One of the biggest problems with the midseason finale was just how much it attempted to achieve after a season of filler episodes that focused on one or two characters at a time. This week we wrapped things up with an episode that covered all the bases, from Negan's uninvited sojourn in Alexandria to Michonne and the random Savior lady, to Maggie and Gregory, to Rick and Aaron, to Spencer, to Daryl escaping, and more. In other words, all of a sudden we have over half a dozen stories to follow and we have to follow them all at once. Sasha, Enid, Eugene, Rosita, and so on and so forth. Everybody has lines, everybody has a moment, and it's all packed together.
Many of the episodes this season seemed starved for meaningful content; tonight's was bloated.
In some ways, this worked in the show's favor. We saw Rick finally resolve himself to fight. The end of the episode, when Rick and company show up at Hilltop and meet up with Maggie and discover that Daryl has escaped, is a really great moment. We see everyone's resolve solidify.
In other ways, this felt like a huge misfire. Daryl's entire escape sequence was castrated. He sees a room filled with guards and rather than having to find some clever way to get past them he just...runs past them. An escape from the arch-villain's lair could be half an episode worth of content, but because everything was stuffed into the midseason finale, Daryl's moment of victory was almost an afterthought. What a waste!
I will admit that I liked Negan more tonight than I have at any other time. His shaved face was way more creepy, for one thing. And he was almost likable at times. I even laughed at some of his bad jokes. I wish that the show hadn't spent so much time on Negan before this episode. There's really no way to top his earlier atrocities, for one thing. We're so used to him being really, really bad that when he does really, really bad stuff we feel a little numb.
I am a bit conflicted, however. Negan kills Spencer for being a weasel and that's gratifying. When Negan later tells Rick that he A) brought Carl home even though he tried to machine-gun him and B) killed the guy who was trying to get Negan to kill Rick, I had to agree with him. Negan could have just killed, captured or tortured Carl but he refrains. He could have taken Spencer up on his offer and put him in charge, but he doesn't. These actions give Negan a little bit more mystery and depth than I've given him credit for, granting a touch of complexity to a black-and-white villain. I still think he's mostly annoying, but I liked him more tonight than I have previously.
And yet...killing off Spencer is kind of a cheap move. Nobody likes Spencer, so seeing him gutted does very little other than bring us a mild sense of satisfaction---and one of Negan's best lines. (He accuses Spencer of having no guts, then cuts his belly open and watches his guts fall out. "Oh there they are!" he jokes...) Killing off the lady whose name I can't remember that Negan keeps making fat jokes about is also a cheap move. These are characters we either dislike or don't care about---their deaths don't inspire us, so how do they inspire Rick?
Negan might be a little better after tonight, but there was nothing bold or interesting about his choice of victims.
When Rosita tries to shoot Negan---thank god someone actually made an attempt!---she hits Lucille instead. This is a great moment because we've been asking why nobody just takes Negan out and finally when someone tries, we discover that Negan has uncanny luck. Maybe that luck is one reason he's in charge. Lucille saves his life, and much like Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King, this small miracle makes him more god-like than ever. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is at his best in this scene, his jovial animosity shattering for a moment into something more like rage, and perhaps a little like fear.
A serendipitous moment for Negan results in Eugene being taken captive. So we trade the beloved Daryl for the largely irritating Eugene as captive of the Saviors, which also feels a bit cheap. Everybody loves Daryl, and he escapes, while Eugene, who nobody really cares about, is taken hostage to become Negan's Court Bullet Maker.
Oh well, at least Rosita continues to be pretty awesome. More Rosita, please.
Finally we had a weird scene between Carol, Morgan, and one of Ezekiel's lieutenants who wants the two of them to help convince Ezekiel to attack Negan. He doesn't have much success in this (though I think he's absolutely correct) and mostly we glean from this exchange that Carol is seriously selfish and annoying now.
She just wants to be left alone in the house that was provided for her, eating the food that was given to her and reaping all the benefits of community without having to contribute. Way to go from being one of the most compelling, badass character on The Walking Dead to being utterly intolerable, Carol. Maybe you can go full Andrea in the back-half of season 7.
I'd rather see Season 5 Carol return and go full Rambo.
All told, this was the best episode in weeks, but it still left much to be desired. The weird, random, brief scenes of Daryl escaping felt more jarring than anything and I wish we'd seen more of his escape rather than just the cliff-notes. Michonne's story could have been told in a completely different episode, especially since it had some good moments that were just glossed over. And killing off second and third-tier characters just feels like a cheap way to pull at heart-strings.
Still, it's good to find some momentum in the show once again. I'm glad that Rick isn't just taking it all lying down anymore, and that the good guys (or "better" guys anyways) are going to fight back at last.
There's a lot that AMC needs to do to get The Walking Dead back to the kind of tense, compelling zombie drama it used to be, but at least tonight's midseason finale kindled a little hope that the next half of season 7 will be more interesting. Maybe Gregory will get eaten by Ezekiel's tiger or something in the midseason premiere or something. That would be fun.
What did you think of tonight's episode? Let me know in the comments or on Facebook and Twitter.
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