In a better season “Hearts Still Beating” could have been an episode of The Walking Dead that played off better structuring and worthwhile main and subplots. As it stands, the need to have supersized episodes and a mandated half-season structure in the midst of a creative rut made this episode feel like a series of solid events packed into a mediocre mid-season finale. It’s not as if I want to come down on this show, but even with the flaws that have plagued The Walking Dead since the start, this show has done better.
If it hasn’t been clear, this whole “Negan and the Saviors” era has been something of a non-starter. The group went from a bunch of dummies Rick kept getting the upper hand on to a malicious group of skilled tacticians led by a goofy cartoon villain. Regardless of its comic origins, the move into this territory could be working better, but it seems like the show went a certain direction with this group and stayed the course in a way that has felt dramatically unsatisfying.
Rather than key into what is scary about Rick and the gang’s latest adversaries, we got a lot of moments that are used for shock value. Instead of telling a more coherent story, we’ve splintered off many of the characters and allowed for overlong episodes with focus spread all over the place. There has fortunately been some exploration of who this Negan is and how his sanctuary functions, but that came towards the end of the first half of this season. And how did this first half end? With a lot more setup for the future, some big moments and a bunch of hugs.
Now the hugs, while a tad maudlin, was at least a sign that things would be moving forward. Also, given how bleak this show can be, getting all mushy on the audience is not the worst thing that could happen. Before we get to all that though, there is an episode to go through.
We get to check in on Maggie at the Hilltop and Carol and Morgan in the Kingdom. There may have been no sign of Ezekiel and his tiger (drats!), but the situation is made clear. While Maggie is dealing with her position and being celebrated by some who know she has leader potential, Carol and Morgan are now aware that a war is brewing.
Richard comes to visit and try and recruit the two for a first strike at the saviors. It allows for a hilarious moment of Richard assuming Carol is not well-versed in battle, but it also gives Carol a chance to once again strengthen her argument against fighting. As irritating as it was to see this get poorly developed last season, Carol’s two appearances this season so far have done well to justify her current position. Clearly we are just raising the tension for the time she finally does get back into action, but at least it is working well.
To finish off the scavenger hunt, Rick and Aaron get into a boat full of holes and face off against water walkers. It leads to an actual tense moment where Aaron is dragged underwater, only to survive. This makes it all the more sad when Aaron is beaten up later for his troubles. Nevermind that one of Aaron’s defining qualities is being able to talk himself out of rough situations, he is all mumbles when it comes to Saviors, apparently. Still, the whole boat mission leads to some thrills and a satisfying conclusion.
Speaking of satisfying, Daryl escapes from his prison. This can’t bode well for others, once Negan finds out, but Daryl actually gets out (and kills Fat Joseph in the process). Given how rough the man has had it, the chance to see Daryl do more than just eat dogfood (he gets peanut butter) works in making us hopeful once again.
A little less inspiring was Michonne, as her subplot isn’t really connecting all that much. After taking a Savior hostage and going for a ride, it leads to some cryptic dialogue and an artfully shot kill scene, but feels like we were just killing time with her. It likely stems from Michonne being too good of a character to make submit to Negan’s silly threats and a necessity to involve Danai Gurira in these episodes in some way. Fortunately the scene in the prison between her and Rick did allow for some good exchanges.
What could be seen as the main plot is the fate of Spencer. The guy has been unlikable and useless for a while now and it shouldn’t be much of a shock that he met his end this week. The problem is how this show wanted to handle him. Given how he is technically right about Rick (people die because of his ego), there would be a way to better support him, but the show is on Rick’s side. As a result, the character really is irritating and so watching Negan do his Negan thing and eventually gut Spencer sends me mixed feelings.
On the one hand, this was a good example of how to properly utilize Negan. I’ve been missing out on seeing a proper way to balance this character with the rest of the show, but this episode does him justice. We get just enough of Negan and his swagger is utilized appropriately. Still, because Spencer has been painted into a corner as a useless character, his death feels satisfying in an ugly sort of way. The macabre thrills of seeing his guts pour onto the street are another example of a shock death, rather than one I felt connected to.
Similarly, the extra moment of seeing Olivia get killed also felt wrong. Sure, she was someone an audience could care about more, based on familiarity, but that connection mainly comes from having to hear her suffer through fat jokes and then get a random bullet to the face for her troubles. Why did that happen, by the way? Because Rosita somehow shot at Negan and hit Lucille (his bat) in some kind of magical coincidence instead. There’s a way to make that work, but this whole scene just felt clumsy and cutting to a commercial in this moment certainly didn’t help.
It’s moments like this where I just have to wonder if the show can get back on track in February. Clearly The Walking Dead has plenty of ideas for what to throw at these characters, I just wish it knew how to properly handle them better. Juggling these storylines better and doing justice to the characters would certainly justify the long running time of these episodes. Choosing to do more than just allow us to sit and stew in Negan’s nastiness would also go a long way.
I guess that’s why the ending works. It seems like a sign of change to come. More deaths will likely come with it, as this is The Walking Dead, but it can also hopefully give us a chance to see the group shine. We’ve dealt with 8 episodes of suffering with Rick and the gang in ways they seemingly haven’t before. While the nature of the show is to continually introduce these sorts of threats, this latest one really has not been my favorite. Maybe now that the sulking seems to be at an end, Rick and get it together and win back this show with help from his zombie apocalypse family.
- Zombie Kill of the Week: Spencer was an irritating presence and Rick went ahead and finished off his walker form, so that’s all wrapped up now. Or maybe water walker deaths were better…
- Negan, Carl, Olivia and Judith had a nice supper together.
- Eugene’s cry face has been in overdrive this season. He’s also heading out with the Saviors (he left crying).
- As far as new characters go, I’m happy to see these Kingdom folk, like Richard, being developed more effectively.
- I pretty much assumed Spencer was done for when he started practicing how to say hello to Negan in the mirror, but the show really likes to overdo it anyway when we see Rosita make nice with him on his last day of life.
- “Ain’t just about getting by. It’s about getting it at all.” – Daryl still has his bits of wisdom on him.
- Negan’s idea to bring the billiards table into the sunlight was a good idea. It is a waste in a garage.
- “And I fed him Spaghetti” – I laughed out loud at this Negan line.
- A hint in the episode and in a post-credits scene of something to come in the form of someone stalking Alexandria. Comic fans may have an idea of what’s going on with this, but just keep that talk at a whisper for now.
- I’ll be back in February. Let’s see if this show comes back strong as well.
- Thanks for reading and feel free to hear what myself and a few other fans of the show have to say about the series on the The Walking Dead TV Podcast.