Season 7 has been a rough ride.
The Walking Dead’s attempt to build a larger world has resulted in a deeply lethargic run of episodes that have leisurely strolled from location to location, pushing out the frontiers of the show without actually progressing the plot in any meaningful way.
It’s a pleasant surprise, then, that this week’s midseason finale showed some signs of encouraging progress, setting up some genuinely intriguing stories for the season’s back half.
The comparative success of ‘Hearts Still Beating’ can be summed up by its choice to intertwine multiple stories in multiple locations as it nimbly hopped between Alexandria, Hilltop, the Kingdom and the Sanctuary.
It’s amazing just how much more momentum an episode gains when it’s pushing forward more than one story at a time, and the interweaving events finally provided a convincing depiction of a vibrant, multi-faceted world that this season has been aiming for.
It also helps that ‘Hearts Still Beating’ commits to substantial changes to the status quo season seven set up and then studiously stuck to regarding the Saviours’ domination.
Finally, our heroes are pushed out from their place of inaction, whether it’s with Daryl’s choice to escape, Rosita’s attempted assassination attempt or Maggie’s increasingly meteoric rise to influence within the Hilltop, and it all results in a feeling of change – a shift in power from total subservience, which has proved to be difficult to dramatise, to the much more cathartic and entertaining position of quiet rebellion against their oppressors.
‘Hearts Still Beating’ builds a much more dynamic and exciting framework for the final episodes of the season to play with, and it’s part of the reason why I came out of this episode more optimistic for this show’s future than any other episode in season seven.
The Walking Dead in its current incarnation if nothing but fond of big shock moments of gore, and they’re not lacking in ‘Hearts Still Beating’, with Spencer’s death by gutting a primary example of these Big Moments that have defined the last couple of seasons. Yet in another sign of improvement, Spencer’s death actually works for the story.
It gives us a concrete sense of just what Negan’s perverse moral compass is as he condemns Spencer’s specifically cowardly and duplicitous actions, and it creates a sense of hostility within Alexandria that fundamentally changes the relationship between the group and the Saviors.
Their master-slave dynamic is now tainted by mistrust and has become a ticking time bomb, ready to explode at the slightest provocation, and that provides an innate urgency to the story that this plodding season has sorely been lacking.
Granted, all of these points of praise have to be qualified. The Walking Dead has set profoundly low standards for itself this year, and ‘Hearts Still Beating’ undoubtedly benefits from these lowered expectations – solely by merit of being an episode where things happen, it’s automatically a standout entry.
And there are plenty of familiar flaws here that weigh the episode down. For one, it’s hampered, like the other extended episodes this year, by an overly generous running time of 60 minutes. The extra minutes are barely needed for the story, and as a result there are plenty of scenes and interactions that feel extraneous and devoid of any real dramatic value – the resurrection of Spencer and Rosita’s half romance, for instance, or the directionless scenes near the Kingdom whose only purpose seems to be a reminder that Morgan and Carol still exist, and still feel exactly the same way as we do than when we last saw them.
‘Hearts Still Beating’ is the most exciting episode in a while, but it could still have done with substantial tightening, as it can often meander and lose the momentum it’s built up in certain plotlines.
And there are some moments here that are just a little sloppy. The culmination of Rosita’s assassination plot is hopelessly lazy, for instance culminating in a dull fakeout in which Rosita, after a cheap ad-break cliffhanger, inexplicably misses Negan from a few feet away and gets resident red-shirt Olivia killed in a way that’s needlessly exploitative and cruel in a way that’s all too familiar.
Likewise, while Negan as a character is developing some interesting idiosyncrasies to distinguish from the standard bullying villain, Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s performance is feeling increasingly thin. Morgan’s interpretation of Negan oscillates between exaggerated anger and pronounced exuberance, and that binary performance means that the nuance of some moments can be lost.
Throughout a scene where Negan is meant to shift from complacent domination of his environment to a recognition that his authority has been fundamentally undermined, Morgan keeps the same laboured delivery, shouting every now and then to let the viewers know he’s angry, before shifting back into exactly the same persona he’s assumed all season.
It’s a simplistic performance, and that’s affecting a character who has potential to really grow.
By the end of ‘Hearts Still Beating’, Rick is ready for war, finally shifting out of his fear for the Saviours and proactively moving to draw up plans to rise up against Negan.
While we’re not wholly done with the set-up for the eventual battle against the Saviours – there will be a lot of community-hopping and negotiating before that – there is a sense that ‘Hearts Still Beating’ has set this march to war in action, finally beginning to move forward into new and exciting stories.
This was a flawed midseason finale, but it’s accomplished something important for the future of this show: to finally provide a reason to be optimistic about what’s coming in 2017. Let’s just hope that Season 7 can deliver on this and up the ante when it returns in February…
Aired at 9pm on Monday 12 December 2016 on FOX.
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