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The Walking Dead Review: "Hearts Still Beating"

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<i>The Walking Dead</i> Review: "Hearts Still Beating"

Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review   The Walking Dead   each week in a series of letters.

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Josh,

IT’S WAR.

C’EST LA GUERRE!

(Yes, I know “c’est la guerre” actually means “such is war,” and isn’t actually a rallying cry, but it sounded cool anyway.)

Look, maybe we had to sit through a really shitty half-season—and a pretty shitty mid-season finale—to get to the inevitable moment, but the inevitable moment was still kinda cool. And it was kind of promising, too, because next season we finally get to the rebellion in action, and it’s hard to imagine it won’t be better than the endless build-up we’ve sat through beginning at the end of last season. They’re finally going to fight Negan! They finally realized that being his indentured servant wasn’t a path to happiness, or even survival. Sure, maybe a rational human would have understood that the minute he took a barbed wire baseball bat to two of his friends, but at least they finally fucking got it.

And that’s the best thing I can say, really, because everything else has been garbage. I’m not sure if the past 12 or so episodes have permanently ruined the show, and I’m not even sure if it’s worth having that conversation, because if the next eight episodes are awesome, I’ll still enjoy them. But boy have they been godawful! I can definitely say that if we weren’t reviewing the shows every week, I would have happily stopped watching. And the problems with that stretch were echoed tonight, and can best be expressed in a paradox—somehow, this show manages to make almost no sense despite being totally predictable.

Let’s start with Spencer, Alexandria’s resident weak sauce fail son. Watching him get eviscerated—I wonder if people younger than us realize that the word has a literal meaning, and isn’t just a way for websites to describe what happens when Samantha Bee spends 10 minutes saying that Donald Trump’s energy plan doesn’t make sense—was the best thing I’ve seen all year. But holy shit, how predictable was it that he was about to die after that schmaltzy conversation with Rosita? We’ve joked before about the dumb trope of characters having obvious sentimental moments just before they die, but this was the most obvious of all.

And the funny thing was, they actually wanted us to feel sympathetic for Spencer, I think. Like, the writers clearly thought that the aborted promise of his dinner date with Rosita would lend some gravity and tragedy to his death. And in a nutshell, that’s everything that’s wrong with this dumb show—NOBODY GIVES A SHIT ABOUT SPENCER OR ROSITA, AND WE NEVER WILL. All I thought, after watching that scene, was “Oh man, Spencer is about to die. This rules.”

But it would have been way cooler if they had created some real suspense, so Negan’s “at least Rick’s a real man” monologue would have surprised us. In microcosm, that’s pretty much been this entire season. We know what’s going to happen well in advance, but they still take fucking forever to make it happen. That concluding moment, where they decided on war? That’s been coming since the moment Negan corralled them all in the forest that night. Why did we need eight episodes, some of which were 90 minutes long for no good reason, to get us there? Why did we need endless examples of Negan’s evil? Why was there such SHOCK AND HORROR when his henchwoman killed Lemonade Lady, or when he de-gutted Spencer? This is old news!!!!!!

Until the very end, this whole episode was another tour de farce. We had Carol being Carol, which means making some stupid inexplicable choice because the writers have decided to switch her personality again (she’s in her libertarian “I just don’t want to be bothered by big gubmint!” phase), Morgan being Neville Chamberlain, Michonne becoming the 90th character to learn that Negan has lots of men, Daryl taking a peanut butter break in the midst of his escape, Jesus just sort of aimlessly showing up in different places, Gabriel still saying things even though I swear he died three seasons ago, and Rosita and Sasha being boring assassins.

The only person who really interested me in this episode was Maggie. I like new leader Maggie. I’m good with this development, because she plays a convincing badass. I like that she ate Gregory’s apple, although it was weird to watch him polish it in a vaguely sensual way.

But the most annoying part of all is that, let’s be real, we know exactly what’s going to happen next season too. Here’s the rundown:

1. They have to King Ezekiel to join them, which will take an annoyingly long time, but he’ll eventually do it and bring Carol and Morgan with him.

They’ll need guns, so Tara will finally crack and tell them about LadyTown, and then they’ll have to go there and convince them to join the fight, and they’ll be reluctant and tough before relenting.

They’ll fight Negan, whose massive army will mysteriously shrink to about 15 people when the actual battle happens, or else they’ll use a big explosive to take out most of his men.

Someone we don’t care about, like Rosita or Tara, will die.

Eugene will do something heroic to assuage his guilt for being Negan’s ammo guy.

This new character with the boots will intrigue us for a while but then be totally boring like Morgan.

Negan will have one last ridiculous monologue before he dies.

Carl won’t die still.

I mean, can it go any other way? I’m not saying it won’t be fun to watch the fighting, but I prefer a bit of mystery in my dramas, and The Walking Dead has none. To hammer home my point one last time before I kick it your way, this show is baffling where it doesn’t count, and formulaic where it does. Do better, zombie show.

What did you think?

—Shane

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Shane,

“Hearts Still Beating” was a pleasant change of pace for The Walking Dead, meaning there was a pace to it. My biggest complaint is that anyone—not just readers of the comics—knew where it was all headed. But I’m just thankful we got there. Any more episodes of Simpering Rick would have been unbearable. The show has often ended seasons and even mid-seasons with big action set pieces. But seeing the family reunion with Daryl, Maggie, Rick and Michonne at the Hilltop, plotting how to kill Negan and the Saviors, was as satisfying as any zombie horde encounter.

I won’t argue that Season 7 hasn’t been a bust. Or even that the second half won’t follow a predictable path. But I do think it’ll get much more enjoyable from here. You might even start to enjoy Negan once he starts losing control of the situation. He lost his cool for a split second tonight when Rosita tried to kill him. He got it back too quickly and that shit-eating grin returned. But unhinged Negan could be much more interesting.

And the one wild card here that I have no idea about is the mysterious guy with the boots, who followed Rick and Aaron back from the zombie moat to Alexandria. The show needs more moving parts to complicate the plot you just laid out in five minutes.

Tonight still had some wheel-spinning, and was, once again, longer than it needed to be (did we need to see Richard have a break down in his hidden trailer?). But it left the show in a good place. Rick has his purpose once again. Daryl no longer has to endure the indignities of Dwight’s condescension and Negan’s punishments. Gabriel is no longer an insufferable schmuck. Spencer is dead.

My question for you this week is about Alexandria. Two more of the safe zone’s residents are dead: Spencer and Olivia. That leaves just 14 of the original 40-person community alive. Were there any characters, dead or alive, that you enjoyed seeing on the screen? Or was this just the least interesting settlement our band of survivors has encountered?

Also, Daryl beating Fat Joey’s brains in—intentional parallel to Negan? Is that going anywhere interesting? Daryl has been the character of the moment who still sees the good in humanity (a baton that got passed from Dale to Hershel to Tyreese to Bob Stookey to briefly optimistic Daryl), and now he responds to Fat Joey’s pleas with a vicious braining. What’s going on with Daryl?

—Josh

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Josh,

On one hand, Daryl had to kill Fat Joey, or he was doomed. There was no alternative, because the dude would have squawked the minute he got away. On the other hand, he really went all out, didn’t he? There’s a difference between a duty killing and a sadistic brain-bashing, but I suppose the psychological torment he’d suffered for the previous month (or more?) can bring a man to that violent sort of fugue state. In any case, he still had enough humanity in him to give Rick a hug at the end, so I don’t think all is lost. But woe unto Negan if he and Daryl end up in the same room together again…

As for Alexandria, that is FASCINATING. Fourteen out of 40 remain, huh…and I’m struggling to even think of who they are. I know one is that sort of bald-ish big dude who has a crush on Carol, obviously Aaron is another, and Heath is still probably alive, even though his zombie doppelganger is still on that bridge after that insanely dumb fake-out two weeks ago. And I guess Enid. But as for the other 14, it’s some collection of anonymous extras that probably make less per episode than the zombies. And of the people who died, only Deanna was really interesting. Beyond that, it was mostly a collection of incompetent middle-aged white dudes who are better off having died when they did, if only to avoid having to listen to Negan’s extended monologues.

As for our resident villain du jour, I think you’re right that he’s going to be way more fun under stress. Just like it’s better to see Hitler freaking out in the Fuhrerbunker at the end of the war rather than strutting around all cocky giving big speeches, Negan under attack will be far more compelling than the backward-leaning, bat-twirling, leering scoundrel who, as I’ve theorized before, definitely has a death wish. It’s hard for me to imagine that Rosita’s bullet is the first assassination attempt he’s survived, and as I noted last week, I believe that he was secretly disappointed when the bullet hit Lucille.

So here we are, at the end of the roughest half-season I can remember, with the show basically limping along. Can the war with Negan rescue TWD? That’s really the only question that matters as we head into the mid-season break, and even though we’ve suffered through a bit of a slog this year, I look forward to finding out. Until then, Josh, let’s get back to our roots:

Please don’t die, Daryl Dixon,

—Shane

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Shane Ryan is a staff writer at Paste and author of Slaying the Tiger: A Year Inside the Ropes on the New PGA Tour. Josh Jackson is founder and editor-in-chief of Paste.

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