Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Walking Dead Review: ‘Hearts Still Beating’

(Photo Credit: AMC)
The Walking Dead
Season 7 Mid-Season Finale
By Garrett Yoshitomi

The Walking Dead kicked off its seventh season with an episode that shook the series to its core, killing off two beloved characters (one especially beloved), and introducing Negan, our heroes' most dangerous foe, yet. Every piece of season seven promotional material promised that things were “just getting started,” implying that Negan’s reign of terror would only continue to escalate after the chaotic season premiere. But, while Negan has quickly become The Walking Dead’s most hated villain (a distinction he has surprisingly little competition for), the only thing that’s really “gotten started,” so far, has been the half-season long separation of our main cast, and the frustratingly stagnant plot that comes with it.
 
(Photo Credit: AMC)
This season hasn't been all bad. There have been a couple of gems along the way- Carol and Morgan’s Kingdom episode, and last week’s coming out party for Carl, in particular, have been my favorites. But the show took way too long exploring the aftermath of the narratively impactful season premiere. We didn't get a follow-up episode with Maggie until almost a month after Glenn's head got bashed in, and right after Jesus and Carl hopped aboard a Savior supply truck, and the main storyline finally looked like it was about to take off, we were sidetracked by a quintessential Walking Dead filler episode, centered around Tara and *yawn* Heath.

So how does ‘Hearts Still Beating’ play into these season-long trends? Unfortunately, it errs more on the underwhelming side, as most of the storylines that were built up last week culminate in relatively disappointing endings. I guess if you look at things from a broader perspective, we get a pretty good setup for season 7B’s “March to War” arc, but it’s getting harder and harder to overlook The Walking Dead’s perpetual inability to deliver on these promises of delayed gratification. At some point, pretty good setups just aren’t enough, and this show will need to create storylines that are both compelling in their own right, *and* serve as useful lead-ins for future episodes.
 
(Photo Credit: AMC)
Let’s start with the man of the hour, and the highlight of what’s been an otherwise uneven season. I’ve spoken at length praising Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s portrayal of Negan, and how the leader of the Saviors checks off every box as the bad guy you just love to hate. Things are no different in the mid-season finale, as he continues to creepily settle into suburban living, making life extremely uncomfortable for the Grimes family and the rest of Alexandria. After going several episodes without turning anybody’s brains into literal oatmeal, it would’ve been surprisingly easy for Negan to slowly lose his threatening aura. Sure, he did burn some dude’s face off last week, but when his victims are just “some dude,” and not a character we actually care about, it can be hard to internalize the fact that Negan is still supposed to be incredibly dangerous, rather than just a cheap one-liner in a leather jacket. However, despite this episode’s low stakes, the writers manage to keep Negan menacing, for now. But, as the winter months pass, and Glenn and Abraham’s deaths get farther and farther away in the rear-view mirror, it will be interesting to see if Negan is able to maintain this- especially once the tide starts turning against him, in favor of Rick and co.

‘Hearts Still Beating’ starts to lay the groundwork for this eventual turning tide, with a focus on the leadership emerging from the main cast. Maggie has stepped up nicely into a leadership role; at the Hilltop, and has been welcomed with open arms by its residents. It’s probably just a matter of time before she usurps Gregory as king of the Hilltop, though, it’s clear he won’t go down without a fight. Meanwhile, Rick continues to struggle with regaining the confidence he lost during his initial encounter with Negan; and yet, he still manages to inspire loyalty and trust within characters like Aaron and Olivia, who both follow and support him, despite the immediate danger it puts them in. On the flip side, Carol makes it very clear that she wants nothing to do with the Kingdom’s potential revolt against the Saviors, regardless of how valuable her murdering skills would be to their cause. Carol’s been on a pretty frustrating trajectory since the second half of last season, barely recognizable as the no-nonsense badass that made her one of the series’ most popular characters. What’s worse is that her screen time this season has been limited to an episode and change, leaving her with little opportunity to inch forward into her next arc.
 
(Photo Credit: AMC)
As for the bad, the mid-season finale certainly has its fair share of disappointing and seemingly misplaced storylines, no different than what we’ve seen on a wider scale throughout season 7A. I really thought Rosita’s quest for bullets, first introduced back in episode four, had some potential as her first, and so far, only major arc. But, its conclusion is bizarre and somewhat hard to take seriously- the consequences trivial when compared to the seriousness of her actions. At the end of the day, I suppose it’s better to have Rosita do something, anything, rather than stand in the background with her hands on her hips, but I do wonder if her bullet storyline would have been better served with Michonne at the helm. Michonne’s short attempt to find Negan is, well, short. And unfulfilling. It does help her come to terms with just how powerful Negan and his forces are, but I believe this could have been similarly achieved had Michonne suffered a re-worked version of Rosita’s defeat, instead.


And so, with that The Walking Dead slides into its winter hibernation. In just a couple of short months, a little zombie groundhog will emerge from its hole, declare that the second half of season seven is right around the corner; and just like that, the gang will be thrown back into it, for another eight episodes that will hopefully ramp up more quickly than the eight that preceded them. If there’s any hope for a faster paced end to the season, it’s season six. After a winter run of episodes that were bogged down by Glenn’s fake death, season 6B was like a day at the races, and probably would’ve ended as the show’s best half-season, if not for that disastrous finale.

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