It’s been a difficult time, to say the least, for Rick Grimes and company on The Walking Dead. For fans of AMC’s #1 hit show, it has been a frustrating season as well. After a season 6 cliffhanger that left some viewers dissatisfied (though such cliffhangers have been a time honored tradition since serials, like Flash Gordon, ran back in the 20s and 30s, on through TV soaps like Dallas and Dynasty, and with practically every show today). When season 7 began in October, two beloved characters were brutally killed, fan favorite Daryl was captured, tortured and humiliated, others ended up wounded in different communities, and Rick was left a shattered relic of his former self, no longer the man in charge as he now had to answer to the new sheriff in town, Negan. This was not the band of take charge, walker-killing survivors we had grown to root for. With everyone spread out, this first half of the season would often spend an entire episode introducing a new community and/or centering on a single character or two, at the expense of all the others. While this technique was employed effectively during the second half of season 4, where the survivors were scattered in different directions after the destruction of the prison, this time it was less successful as everyone was so beaten down and shell-shocked. The producers, though, had a plan, setting things in motion, and now it’s beginning to hatch in the latest episode, “Hearts Still Beating.”
With a close to 90 minute episode (albeit including commercials), the show was able to delve into pretty much every main character, not an easy task when there are so many. HBO has always been masterful at this, from hard-edged shows like Oz and The Wire to the current Game of Thrones. But where those shows would never dare do a single episode on a single character, The Walking Dead has no such fear. That said, it was good to see everyone get their due in one episode, and that looks to continue when the show resumes in February. For now, though, Rick and the others are still gofers for Negan, risking life and limbs in search of supplies and anything useful in exchange for, well, their lives. Rick and Aaron endure a harrowing journey though a walker-infested pond, while, unbeknownst to Rick, Negan is back at the ranch literally holding the fate of his daughter, Judith, in his hands. While a majority seem to have come to terms with this new arrangement, others have not, and are ready to fight to get their lives back.
One of those is Michonne, who has never been one to back down from anything. Having disagreed with Rick relenting to Negan’s wants, she goes off on her own, ultimately capturing one of the saviors and forcing her to take her to where Negan is. (It’s interesting to see Michonne being the one doing all the talking, remembering how little she spoke when we first met her.)Upon seeing what they truly are up against, Michonne is offered some sage advice by the red-headed woman she’s kidnapped, and given a safe method of ending the Savior’s torment under Negan’s regime. It’s a subtle, yet very powerful and effective scene as we see Michonne take out her captive in an extreme long shot that is almost indiscernible. It also brings home the fact that life under Negan is so oppressive that some might choose death rather than return to it.
Meanwhile, one who has seen firsthand what the world of the Saviors is like, Daryl, is plotting his escape. After gulping down some peanut butter and changing out of those wretched clothes, Daryl unleashes some pent-up fury on a hapless Savior, and with the aid of Jesus, who has infiltrated the compound, finally finds freedom. Other than the third episode of this season, we have seen little of Daryl, and what we have seen hasn’t been good, for him or for viewers. Daryl is arguably the show’s most popular character, and to see him treated so mercilessly hasn’t been easy. Now that he has a bike back, and has returned to the group, all he needs now is his crossbow to be the bad-ass Daryl of old. It should be pointed out once again that since Daryl doesn’t exist in the comics, he’s a total wild card, and his storyline could go anywhere, but things are looking up for him now that he’s free of Negan’s leash.
Another one who hasn’t given up on fighting back and seeking vengeance for the killing of their friends is Rosita. Last we had seen her, she had belittled Eugene into making her a bullet with which she could take out Negan. After what seemed to be a successful speech by Father Gabriel (who has become a strong, likable character after an inauspicious start) to get her to postpone her plan of vengeance, Rosita is suddenly forced into action. Instead of prevailing in ending Negan once and for all, all she manages to do is take a nick out of Lucille, get an innocent Alexandrian killed and have Eugene taken prisoner. It certainly looked like Rosita would see her demise this episode, and end up on The Talking Dead couch later on, so it was nice to see her survive, though battle-scarred nonetheless. It’s interesting that those who have stood up to Negan and showed some backbone – Rick, Daryl, Carl, and now, Rosita – have been allowed to live, though not without some consequences, while those showing little spine or guts have not been so lucky. Speaking of guts, we learn that while Spencer has never been one to show any, he did indeed have them after all, as we seen them spill out onto the street upon Negan’s disembowelment. It would seem that while attacking Negan gains his respect, trying to cut a backroom deal and undermine the hero, ala Ellis in Die Hard, will get you killed. Alas, we also had to say farewell to loyal and trustworthy Olivia, who Negan wryly concluded left them with one less mouth to feed, and one of the larger ones at that.
Back at the Kingdom, remember that place from five episodes ago, with King Ezekiel and the tiger?, we see Carol living her quiet and solitary existence, when she is visited by Morgan, and, also Richard, one of Ezekiel’s warriors. He’s trying to convince these two who have given up on killing, to convince Ezekiel to take up arms and strike at Negan before he inevitably strikes at them. As we’ve seen before with Rick, this may not be the best idea, and Carol and Morgan have no desire to join the fray. Will they change their minds once they learn of everything that has happened to their friends?
At the Hilltop, where Maggie has been showing the leadership skills that so-called leader, Gregory, has been lacking, it is a welcome and heartwarming sight for her, and us, to see Rick and some of the others pay a visit. Daryl and Jesus have also found their way to the Hilltop, and watching a bedraggled Daryl and Rick hug it out is a tear-jerker for all. With Sasha and Rosita sharing knowing looks at each other, and Carl and Enid doing the same, Rick lets Maggie know she was right, that they have to fight back, and that’s he’s ready to do so now. It’s what we’ve all been waiting to hear, and it sets up the second half of the season on a very uplifting and exciting note. With Rick’s group and Alexandria, the Hilltop and the Kingdom banding together, though they are still probably outnumbered and outgunned, war seems inevitable.
Will these disparate groups coming together be enough to take on and take out Negan? Might some within the Saviors have had enough and be willing to break ranks and join the battle on Rick’s side? And whose boots were those of someone spying on Rick and Aaron during their dockside raid, and again during the show’s post-credit scene? We’ll find out come Feb. 12th on AMC!
— review by Brian de Castro