The Walking Dead fails at clock management. If Season 7 of the show is about Rick and the rest of the survivors figuring out how to rebel against Negan and his death eaters — and this would appear to be the arc — then it is a truly bizarre decision to have the first eight episodes take place over the course of a week. Some members of their group die, others feel helpless, then some more people die, then the story goes back to the beginning with our heroes spoiling for a fight. That’s several episodes signifying nothing more than a few character intros and some decent location scout. How much filler can there be before we get to the promised war?
The short answer to that question may be “a lot.” As expected, the hastily concocted setup for the show’s mid season finale, “Hearts Still Beating,” crumbles. Rick and Aaron ford a pond full of zombies in the episode’s only decently suspenseful scene. Then they come back to Alexandria, where Aaron becomes the victim of the most embarrassing bit of Savior viciousness yet. The show is actively undermined by the fact that the bullies in it seem to have strolled out of a 1990s high school soap. It’s appropriate that they repeatedly proclaim “I/We am/are Negan,” because they’re all doing bad impersonations of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s bad impersonation of the Joker.
Thankfully, Negan’s screen time is kept to a merciful minimum in this episode. Still, as befits his status as the new lead character of the show, he gets to advance his transition from “That Bastard Monster Who Killed Glenn (And Also Abraham, Thats Bad Too, I Guess)” to congenial antihero. I mean, is the audience truly meant to do anything besides grin when he guts Spencer? Despite continually making excellent points about what a shitty leader Rick is, that guy was only ever set up as his cowardly foil, and Negan states as much as he ends Spencer for trying to ingratiate himself to the Saviors and unseat Rick. It’s a total cheer moment, and between this and Negan palling around with Carl all last week, any cred he gained from his initial appearances is now long spent.
Still, the plot dominoes fail to make contact with each other. Michonne’s slapdash assassination plan has her literally driving nowhere, which teaches her … something? It gives her a thing to do anyway and, once the thing is over, she can circle back to the rest of the group. And the pointlessness of that errand has nothing on Daryl’s escape from the Savior compound. The series had at least built up enough on this subplot for some catharsis to be possible, but Daryl and Jesus end up leaving with stunning ease. There isn’t even a money shot of Daryl getting to enjoy his first breaths of freedom. He beats that one guy to death, and the next time we see him, he’s in Hilltop. It’s like Shawshank Redemption if that movie consisted of 45 minutes of Andy Dufresne in jail crossfaded into 45 minutes of Andy Dufresne going fishing set to an annoying soundtrack.
Of all characters, Rosita’s subplot pays off with the most consequence. In a scene that will get plenty of replay in “Dumbest Walking Dead Moments” listicles for years to come, she somehow manages to miss a headshot on Negan from like five feet away. This leads to Olivia getting offed (farewell, you were the butt of fat jokes and nothing else) and Eugene getting taken captive by the Saviors, since he’s the one who made the bullet used in the assassination attempt. (Maybe, and this is a stretch I know, she should have asked for more than one?) The only genuine surprise this episode offered was that Rosita was allowed to live — sure, Carl got away with worse last episode, but he has way more plot armor than she does.
Once again the frustration is compounded by the fact that these events are stretched out over an extended running time. The show itself is already bloated with padding must individual episodes also wear themselves out? This is the nadir of serialized plotting. “Hearts Still Beating” has no story; it merely checks off boxes that earlier episodes have drawn, and does so without any sense of rhythm or satisfaction. In writing about the season premiere, I spoke of how The Walking Dead builds itself around “big moments” to keep the audience invested in the long term and help them overlook all its boring parts. But now it seems to have become something else, because outside of the premiere, it put forth zero big moments in this half-season. The show truly seemed at a loss for what to do, as if Negan shredded its very foundational fabric with that bat of his. The series best characters have been severely marginalized, appearing in a mere episode or two. (Remember Morgan and Carol? This show doesn’t most of the time.) Not only is nothing happening, but the idea that something could happen in the future is hazy, at best.
We know where this is going. The back half of Season 7 will be war with the Saviors. But even if that arc is wall-to-wall greatness, that won’t retroactively justify this morass of episodes. If the second half turns out to be something the fans love, then this block of episodes will be skipped many a time on future binge-watches. “Oh no, were at this part. Lets stop here for the night, and next time we can just start up where it gets good again.” I am honestly hoping that when it comes back in February, The Walking Dead can at least get a boost of energy from the conflict it’s now spent so very long setting up. But I can’t say I’ll feel too let down if it doesn’t.