Can you believe that The Walking Dead‘s winter finale is the first time this season that nearly every major character has gotten some screen-time in the same episode? The show has taken some chances with its storytelling this fall, by scattering the heroes and focusing entire episodes on small clusters of them in far-flung locations. At some point, these worlds were bound to collide; and in tonight’s episode – “Hearts Still Beating” – they all finally started moving toward each other. We caught up with Rick and Aaron on their supply run, and followed Michonne on her solo mission to understand more about the Saviors. We found out what Carol and Morgan have been up to in and around the Kingdom. We saw Negan making spaghetti for Carl and shooting pool with Spencer back in Alexandria. We watched Daryl escape the Sanctuary with Jesus, and Maggie, Sasha and Enid settle into their new roles as the queens of the Hilltop. And then most of these folks converged at the end, in one of the most satisfyingly hopeful scenes this series has seen in a good long while.
In a way, every storyline addressed the same problem: What the hell should be done about the Saviors? That’s something the show’s writers have been grappling with this entire season as well – and for the most part, quite well. If you’re producers Robert Kirkman and Scott M. Gimple, how do you keep your epic fantasy/horror narrative going once you’ve introduced seemingly unbeatable villains? How is this not Game Over?
For the showrunners and their team, the solution has been to spend hour after hour showing people enduring life under Negan’s rough thumb, and not quite giving in. Now at the season’s halfway point, the characters who’ve survived finally had a chance to talk about some of what they’ve learned from the worst weeks they’ve experienced since the dead started rising.
The key conversation happens early, when Morgan tries to stealthily drop a fruit-basket by Carol’s house, and the two of them get cornered by Richard, the Kingdom’s best soldier. He tries to convince them to join him in persuading the cautious, overprotective Ezekiel to fight their common enemy. During their little chat, our lone wolf reiterates her demands for solitude, while the peaceful warrior with the staff becomes tongue-tied by their guest’s insistence that sooner or later, they’re going to have to take lives to save lives.
This ends up being the crux of this episode – and even this half-season. Just keeping their heads down and playing along in a world where Negan is in charge is delaying one of two miserable ends: either dying at the hands of a demanding tyrant, or becoming one of his callous death-dealers. Even Daryl realizes this as he beats down a Sanctuary guard who asks for mercy. “It ain’t just about getting by here,” he growls. “It’s about getting it all.“
The bulk of “Hearts Still Beating” involves Negan’s visit to the ASZ, where he shaves (!) and then has a swell time sipping lemonade and enjoying the comforts of the suburbs … right up to the point where Spencer drops by, offering his services as the community’s new leader and liaison. The Saviors’ boss responds by suggesting that his new wannabe best friend is a weasel, who lacks the guts to kill Rick Grimes and take over himself. And then, to prove it, the bastard disembowels the man in the middle of the street.
This sets in motion of series of unfortunate events. Rosita wastes the bullet that Eugene made her, firing it at Negan but only scratching Lucille. The Saviors respond by killing a random Alexandrian, settling on Olivia (who honestly was doomed from the moment she told Tara that she wanted to stick near the Grimes house to keep an eye on the baby). Our mulleted hero then confesses to his ammo-making skills, and is taken into to custody as a result – presumably to become the Sanctuary’s new munitions-maker. Rick stumbles onto this whole mess belatedly and gets brought up to speed by on the events of the previous 24 hours by his enemy, who leaves him with the warning, “Whatever you scavenged is not good enough. You’re in a serious hole after today.”
All of that is some rough stuff for the good guys. In one of tonight’s more thrilling scenes, Rick and Aaron row a leaky boat across zombie-infested waters to find some bounty, and at the end of their trip they come across a note that in some ways reads like prophecy: “Congratulations for winning but you still lose.” (Cue a crudely drawn middle finger.) For a while, those words almost sound like an alternate title for this episode.
But unlike past half-season or season finales that have ended at moments of irresolution or mortal danger, “Hearts Still Beating” takes its cue from its actual title, and ends on a rousing note of “enough’s enough.” During Michonne’s reconnaissance trip, she learns that she and her friends are vastly outnumbered by the enemy. But that only strengthens her resolve to fight back, because like nearly everybody else in this episode (minus Carol), she’s comes to the realisation that the moment they even accept the rules of Negan’s game, they’ve already lost.
So for the first time in a while we go into a break on The Walking Dead without the feeling that all is lost. In the final sequence, Rick and the essential Alexandrians meet up with Daryl and Jesus at the Hilltop, where they’re welcomed by a fired-up Maggie and Sasha. The team has reassembled. Next February, the battle really begins.
Previously: The Boss Level