As the front-end of The Walking Dead’s average seventh season comes to an end we get another glimmer of hope on the horizon, but those small sparks are still overshadowed by a script that leans a bit too heavily on Jefferey Dean Morgan, overindulging in Negan’s affable sociopath shtick. The showrunners are so confident in their new big bad that they have pushed for 90-minute run times for each episode in which he dominates the screen, and only once – last week – has this been justified. Thankfully, “Hearts Still Beating” is just as good as “Sing me a Song”, though we still need a better showing from this series if they are going to atone for how horribly inconsistent it has all been since they killed off their most likeable character.
If I may repeat an example of said inconsistency: The Kingdom. We were introduced to King Ezekiel and his fantastical community in the second episode of this series and then the story was abandoned completely, only to be picked up briefly this week. Still, we got absolutely no time with the fascinating King, but we did catch up with Carol and Morgan, as Kingdom resident Richard tried to convince them to rally troops and push back against Negan. Carol wants nothing to do with anything and Morgan is still sticking to his pacifistic ways, so Richard goes to some poorly hidden hideout, smashes a bottle and cries. It’s not as riveting as it was perhaps intended to be.
After waiting weeks to revisit Carol and Morgan that’s about all The Walking Dead can give us right now, as they tuck The Kingdom back up their sleeves for when the show returns in February. Mystery? Nope, just the best example of how imbalanced the show has become.
It’s as much of a rush-job as Daryl’s too-easy escape from The Sanctuary, where all he needs to do is eat peanut butter, steal clothes, and beat poor Fat Joey to death before riding off with Jesus. Daryl receiving a note with “GO” on it last week promised something a bit more exciting than this.
The show is somewhat more successful with brevity when the episode opens at The Hilltop, reiterating the tension between Maggie and Gregory through the simple use of an apple. They even bluntly throw in a random resident to talk back to the gutless leader for Maggie’s sake (“dude, you know she’s pregnant…”). That little slice of insubordination wins Maggie an apple, a piece of fruit that could very well symbolise leadership. Fresh, juicy leadership. The only other thing to play on here is how protective Sasha is as she discourages Enid telling Maggie about the real reason Jesus is out scouting (for Negan’s base), otherwise the episode rightfully moves away and focuses on Alexandria.
Of course there are the Alexandrians who are out running their own little errands before we get into the really meaty part of the episode, threads that need zipping up from last week. Michonne’s journey to Negan with a captured Saviour runs into a road block when she realises just how much of an army they are up against, forcing her to shoot the no-name and return to base. Then you’ve got Rick and Aaron, who like Daryl had a really exciting situation set up for them last week only for that set piece to be killed with quickness. There’s a thin attempt at creating tension when a walker unbelievably pulls Aaron into the water (instead of biting him, unless they are willing to do another Bob and reveal a bite later) but for the most part the lake of walkers is over in a heartbeat and our heroes head back to Alexandria loaded with supplies, and a mysterious pair of boots following them.
The way in which these potentials fizzle out are disappointing in a way but they do give us a more time in Alexandria, where a clean-shaven Negan is enjoying life in the suburbs. It seems Spencer is enjoying having him there too, channeling all his anti-Rick hatred into a hopeful bromance with the sadist, even practicing in the mirror and dressing like it’s his first tinder date before walking up to the modern day Fonzarelli and offering him a drink. It’s almost too easy to hate Spencer but you’ve got to give him some sympathy here; he has lost three family members since Rick came strolling through those gates, and now he is naively thinking Negan will somehow develop a bro-bond and help Spencer overthrow Rick. Wrong.
Though Negan has become entirely predictable in his supposed “unpredictability”, it was exciting to watch him berate Spencer and then act like he was doing Rick a favour, gutting the poor guy right in front of Rosita who then feels incensed enough to take her one shot right then and there. This is where action ramps up but also where the episode begins to fall apart as far as logic goes.
Rosita missing and hitting Lucille instead, while that close? Yeah, no. That’s not going to work and is a thinly veiled way to get Negan really angry, which ideally should thicken the tension in the air, but it doesn’t. Rosita is likeable enough, but her character has been greatly weakened this season first by bullying Eugene into making her a bullet, and then attempting – even after Father Gabriel’s excellent words of advice – her stupid plan with the full knowledge that Negan punishes other people when someone does something wrong. Besides, if Rosita had just looked at the damn bat in the premiere then maybe Glenn would still be alive. Now she has two protagonist deaths on her hands, and Eugene is now a prisoner.
Quite swiftly, Negan demands that Arat pick someone to kill in the face of Rosita lying about who made the bullet. Of course it has be someone who was given an ample amount of screen time in the past few weeks so the tomboyish Saviour shoots Olivia in the head. That’s two Alexandrians dead in one episode, upping the body count without running the risk of dividing fans. It’s also a cruel way to wave goodbye to Olivia, who up until this point has had to endure a strange blend of body shaming and flirtation from Negan; he even gets in one last body-shaming jab after she is killed – ice cold.
These deaths alone aren’t enough for us to believe Rick’s transformation from whipped to vengeful but Michonne coming back and having a heart-to-heart with him is. The couple, who still share very little on-screen chemistry, come to a turning point before the episode’s end which brings them and a bunch of other Alexandrians to the Hilltop to visit with Maggie and unite the two communities against Negan. That’s obviously not going to go down well with Gregory but the show has already established that for some reason Jesus decides who is in the charge and who isn’t, so the odds aren’t looking good for Xander Berkeley.
For that, we have to wait until the show returns in February but we do get a nice little melodramatic piece to end this year’s wishy-washy run, centered around Rick’s romantic reunion with Daryl as the two share what is perhaps the most loved-up bro-hug in television history. That’s the big moment from a fan perspective, but the real significance is that Daryl hands Rick his signature Python pistol, and like the apple it’s an object which represents leadership and cements the message that the old Rick is back and once again willing to take a proactive – hopefully smarter – approach to the issue of Negan.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
- “And, I fed him spaghetti”
- Negan guts Spencer
- Aaron and Rick share great chemistry
- Daryl back in the fold
- Rick ready to fight
- Father Gabriel’s words of wisdom
- Rosita’s dumb plan
- Script still overindulges in Negan
- Aaron and Rick’s mission over too soon
- Any tension fizzles out rather quickly
- Dull scenes on the outskirts of The Kingdom (too little, too late)
- Negan’s men allow a pretty sizable crowd of Alexandrians to just randomly all show up to witness the pool game – like it really interests them. That’s just bad security.
- Hate him all you want, Spencer used Latin powers to find Negan a crossbow and other goods, so the big bad’s “Rick is out there, you are here” speech doesn’t make to much sense.
Episode MVP: Rick
The Walking Dead will return to FX on February 13th, 2017