Today’s mid-season finale, titled ‘Hearts Still Beating’, leaves a lot to be desired. The bitter taste in my mouth is not just from this episode, but from all episodes in season 7. While they’ve varied on the spectrum of good to terrible, the past eight episodes have been plagued with problems of pacing and consistency. Five of the eight episodes in this half-season have stuck to the one-storyline-per-episode format, cramming multiple storylines into the past two episodes. And while a multi-layered form of storytelling is the one I would prefer, it felt forced and confused after the season we’d been given.
In ‘Hearts Still Beating’, we check in with all of our locations and our heroes: Maggie, Sasha and Enid in the Hilltop; Daryl in the Sanctuary; Carol and Morgan in the Kingdom, and Rick and the rest in and around Alexandria. Negan, too, is in Alexandria, sitting down to dinner with Carl where he last left off. In a season absent of character development, Negan and Carl’s relationship stands out as one that is making progress towards something strange and interesting: Negan is bastardising the fatherly role, bonding with Carl by (in this instance) cooking with him. We have never seen Carl and Rick in this sort of domestic setting before, for they bond in rather mature and violent ways, and so it will be interesting in the next half-season to watch if Negan grows in Carl’s estimation. In a show about life after the zombie apocalypse, the scene between Negan and Carl cooking in the clean, modern kitchen almost feels like it belongs in another show.
The reappearance of Carol and Morgan onscreen is a welcome sight since their notable absence after episode 2. It’s difficult, while in the moment, to remember to care about them, though my mind is racing—trying desperately to recall what happened to them in episode 2. They’re so removed from the central plot that simply shoving them into the mid-season finale feels unbalanced and forced. The one-storyline-per-episode format produces average television, but at least when they stick to it, it’s consistent (e.g. the second half of season four, leading up to the arrival Terminus, was slowly paced but well executed and consistent week-to-week). Furthermore, I believe that this format makes characters seem ignorant in their actions, as we (the audience) know things about The Walking Dead universe that they do not know. The one-storyline format creates character assassination, where viewers like me end up thinking that Sasha is stupid for not assuming that her other friends want revenge on Negan, especially as we know that Rosita is planning to take him out with a home made bullet.
When Rosita makes her assassination attempt on Negan in this episode he survives, and remarkably, so does she! Negan, dubbed the greatest comic book villain ever in The Walking Dead, survives the shot and doesn’t order any of his Saviors to murder her. After the explosive season 7 premiere, there have been no surprise deaths that would have a way of impacting any serious fan of the show. On today’s episode, Negan murders Spencer and Olivia, two minor characters in Alexandria, but neither of these deaths provoke even the vaguest sensation of a tear welling up in the eye, for they are minor characters that nobody honestly cares about. Without killing top-tier cast members every week to elicit the same shock as with Glenn and Abraham’s deaths, I’m skeptical about how the show can continue to use murder and death as a way of shocking and upsetting fans.
So, where to from here? The episode ended on an emotionally charged and optimistic note: Rick and company arrive at the Hilltop to find Maggie, Sasha and Enid, as well as Daryl who has escaped the Sanctuary with Jesus’ help. There are lots of hugs and tears before Daryl wordlessly hands Rick his revolver, which Daryl stole before escaping the Sanctuary. The background musical score is optimistic as the gang plough towards the building at the Hilltop, looking for allies and preparing for war.
Honestly, The Walking Dead have a lot of ground to cover in order to right the wrongs of this mid season episode. The stakes need to be higher and top-tier characters like Michonne, Daryl or Carl should face death at any moment and by any means. The pacing must be fixed, and we must get the opportunity to see our favourite characters consistently throughout the season, rather than waiting episodes on end to find out what happens to them. On the top of my wish list is some more nuanced scenes with Negan. He’s played the showman well, but what’s underneath that? And when will we learn the origins of Lucille’s name? There’s only one way to find out if the show can redeem itself, and that is to tune in in February when it returns.
Episode Score: 7
Season Score to date: 5.5