I think what frustrates me about The Walking Dead—okay, there are a lot of things that frustrate me, but what frustrates me the most is that this show doesn’t have to be like this. Tonight’s episode is needlessly long, sacrificing tension (even as it desperately tries to convince us that we should be scared with some of the most hilariously over-sold music cues in recent memory) for, I dunno, extra commercials, but even with that, there are good bits. And the show generally has at least a few good bits, even at its absolute worst. That almost makes it harder to watch. This isn’t something with no potential being done poorly; it’s something that probably could’ve been the kind of gory, white-knuckle ride it’s trying to be if it just stopped being such a damn mess.

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We’re getting into “How I, A Person Who Does Not Write For Television, Would Fix A TV Show,” which is dumb of me. But “Hearts Still Beating” is such a slog—the few good scenes are dragged down by a lot of nothing, and the scenes where the show decides it needs to start turning the screws again are simultaneously pointlessly cruel and boring as hell. Also just plain old goofy. We’re not quite at the point where camp takes over, but the fact that Rosita misses her one shot at Negan from, what, ten feet away because she hits his baseball bat is just sloppy as hell. Unless Negan is secretly a mutant with the power to control bullets, that isn’t great writing.

That whole scene worked so hard to be suspenseful, and yet really only succeeding in being mean in a clumsy, dull sort of way. Poor Olivia, after suffering through a half season of dopey fat jokes, gets a bullet in the head for her troubles, and Negan still manages to get one last kick in as her soul leaves her body (and the actress hopefully parlays her guest spot here into better work). Spencer, who is a dick, tries to sell Rick out to Negan, and Negan guts him for his troubles. It’s not hard to feel bad over Olivia’s death—the character didn’t do much more than serve as a living symbol of Alexandria’s former weaknesses, but she was still trying, and she even got to be a bit brave before the end. But Spencer? Is there anyone who’s going to miss that guy?

Really, that goes back to what we were talking about last week; the subtle shift towards Negan as, well, not hero, but something like an anti-hero. Because he doesn’t just kill Spencer, he kills him for pretty much the same reason the show has encouraged us to despise him: because he’s a faithless traitor fixated on getting rid of Rick. The fact that plenty of what Spencer says isn’t entirely off base (when Rick’s in charge, people tend to die a lot) is neatly undercut by the fact that there really isn’t a single likeable thing about him. He was less a character than a straw-man created to once again re-enforce Rick’s apparently untouchable heroism, and his death, far from being a shock, was a relief, gore and all. I mean, he wasn’t ever going to win anyway. Negan was just putting him out of our misery.

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Apparently all of this was enough to finally convince Rick that he needs to make a stand—but before we get to the “hugging it out” portion of the episode, we should probably deal with everything else that happened before it. Of the bunch, Daryl’s escape attempt was the most satisfying, in large part because he actually does escape; for all its brutality, “Hearts Still Beating” finds us on an upswing in the narrative, and Daryl getting free is a big part of that. The fact that he also beats Fat Joey to death maybe doesn’t say a lot for his mental state, but he’s had a rough week or so (I honestly have no idea how much time has passed since the premiere), I think he gets a freebie.

Other than that, well, Rick and Aaron crossing Zombie Lake was at least fairly novel, and one of two times the episode actually made me worry a character I liked might get killed. (The other time was when the Saviors started beating the shit out of Aaron, so apparently, I only worry about Aaron anymore.) It also introduced some new person I’m sure comic book fans instantly recognized, a person with wire-wrapped boots who may or not have some connection to the goods Rick and Aaron salvage from the island. That person doesn’t have much to do with anything in tonight’s episode, but he or she did get a post-credits scene (proving they know where Alexandria is), so that’s something to look out for.

Michonne’s hostage trip to Negan ends abruptly when her hostage shows her a whole lot of Saviors, thus convincing Michonne of… something. It feels like the writers are struggling a bit with Michonne right now, in large part because she’s one of the most competent, effective people on the show, probably up in the same range as Carol and Daryl. These are people who have seen and dealt with serious shit, and Negan’s cartoon sadism isn’t enough on its own to cow them. Carol has her refusal to fight (a refusal that, while still making little sense as a character choice, makes a whole lot more sense now in retrospect; it’s basically a way to keep her off the board until the real battle begins), and Daryl was a temporary sacrifice to try and fool us into thinking that Negan really was as dangerous as he claimed. Why, if Daryl could get captured, that meant the Saviors were capable of anything!

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But Michonne is with Rick now, so she can’t just disappear. Something has to be done to show that her natural inclination to fight hasn’t left, and I guess this is it—giving her this weird little plot cul-de-sac whose only real purpose is to reassure us once again, yes, there are a lot of Saviors and no, Rick and his team alone aren’t going to be enough to cut it. The scene with Rick and Michonne in the jail cell near the end was decent, and while the final burst of optimism at Hilltop pushed too hard on the “let’s show everyone smiling at each other” card, it’s still good to finally feel some forward movement again. But that doesn’t really explain the Savior Michonne found, or why that Savior was alone, or why that Savior encouraged Michonne to kill her. We learn just enough about the character to make her more potentially interesting, and then she’s gone.

Then there’s Carol and Morgan. Remember Carol and Morgan? It’s been a while, but Carol seems to have settled into her house quite nicely. Richard’s efforts to convince her and Morgan to talk Ezekiel into fighting back against the Saviors is really just a foreshadowing of what’s inevitably to come: Rick is going to need help, and the Kingdom would make a good ally. But that’s not till next year. For now, we’ll have to be contented with the hilarity of Richard assuming Carol’s never been in a fight before.

All things considered, this was too often a chore to get through—not as miserable as the premiere, but still one of the weaker entries of a so far not-so-great season. Part of the problem was the excessive running time, but there was also the fact that the whole “mid-season finale” thing has created yet another arbitrary structural restriction on the show’s writers, forcing them to hold back on big moments and narratives shifts for eight episodes instead of allowing those shifts to happen organically. “Hearts Still Beating” did a decent job getting interest up for what’s to come, but it was also stuck paying off plotlines that really had no point in lasting as long as they did. Right now, it’s possible to be optimistic about what comes next—but only by some very careful forgetting of everything that’s come before.

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Stray observations

  • Negan was kept, if not to a minimum, than at least not as dominant in the episode as he has been in the past. He’s not really scary at all anymore—his biggest act of terror this week was stabbing a dude no one liked. Hell, Olivia’s death isn’t even his fault, exactly. Whatever extra threat the guy might have presented (in that he killed a character who’d been around so long we assumed he was untouchable), it’s pretty much gone now.
  • Eugene gets taken away by the Saviors because he can make bullets. He doesn’t seem happy about this.
  • Aaron getting the shit kicked out of him was probably necessary, in that it at least provides Rick with some reason to finally change his damn mind, but the set up was so clumsy. Aaron, who was the only Alexandrian who actually seemed to know how to take care of himself, immediately loses his powers of speech when the Saviors start threatening him? I get that they’re bullies and don’t really need a defensible reason to attack, but the scenario was overly engineered. It would’ve been better if they’d started punching just because they decided he looked at them funny.
  • “Carol, I imagine that violence and fighting is something you haven’t been a part of.” Oh god, it’s still funny even now.

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