Warning – FULL SPOILERS for Tonight’s Midseason Finale “Hearts Still Beating”:

There’s a moment among tonight’s 90-minute finale that crystallized for me how The Walking Dead fundamentally misunderstands cliffhangers, and the value of secret-keeping. The sight of Spencer’s guts oozing into the street leads Rosita to boil through whatever peace Gabriel managed to instill over her thirst for vengeance, produce a hidden gun, and fire her lone bullet at Negan. Bang! Cut to commercial.

Gunshots are a powerful tool in fiction, and often used to literally and figuratively punctuate a scene, but what information information is genuinely withheld here? Your audience knows Negan isn’t going to die over a commercial break, and we’re made to wait for the revelation either that Rosita missed, wounded Negan (or implausibly, the bullet hit, and failed to penetrate a baseball bat). So why does “Hearts Still Beating” value this reveal as information to be stretched over a brief cliffhanger?

Obviously, that same writing attitude produced the now-infamous cliffhanger that stretched the wrong* information over an entire summer, and perhaps even gave us last year’s midseason cliffhanger of the walk through town, but also fits a broader sense of Season 7 overall. We knew Rick needed to be pushed to the point of fighting back against Negan, and The Walking Dead thought that revelation worth a full eight episodes; that two more deaths, the brutal beating of Aaron and another Alexandrian taken prisoner crystallized something for Rick that Glenn and Abraham apparently didn’t.

*Imagine, for a moment, that The Simpsons’ famous “Who shot Mr. Burns?” cliffhanger was instead constructed as “Who did Maggie shoot?” There has to be value to the information you withhold, as part of a fair bargain with the audience. “Who must I watch beaten to death to confirm which actor leaves the show” is not specific information that altered or enhanced our perception of Negan in any way.

Speaking of Maggies about to shoot the town curmudgeon.

“Hearts Still Beating” treats Rick’s decision as some sort of triumph, worthy of an extended congratulatory reunion at the Hilltop, and there’s enough hugs and meaningful glances to suggest we’re witnessing the mythic history of a new rebellion. It’s a sweet, if unfocused scene that brings with it some very real catharsis of Rick’s reunion with Daryl, but not exactly an earned payoff. As “Hearts Still Beating” suggests, Rick just needed a few more helpings of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s grinning, murderous thuggery to get there.

And that’s probably Season 7’s biggest issue to date, that reverence for Robert Kirkman’s comic takes all the air out of these grand moments. Negan spouts near of the exact same dialogue as the books, leaving little room to recognize that Morgan’s take comes across far more comedic than convicted. Spencer’s grisly fate feels so telegraphed by the buildup, that the final moment barely registers. Then, poor Olivia gets thrown onto the heap as an afterthought, since Season 7 has reached its quota of expendable regulars, and had to spare both Rosita and Eugene.

I’m glad that Season 7 finally seems to have gotten the band back together with an aim to move forward. That Daryl actually succeeded in the escape, and might have a screw or two loose, while Maggie seems ready to supplant Gregory. And Morgan and Carol … well, they’ll get there. The Walking Dead Season 7 was in desperate need of a goal to strive toward, and seems fundamentally to misunderstand the problem with taking eight episodes for such a foregone conclusion.

AND ANOTHER THING …

  • I really did like that moment of Maggie guilting Gregory into giving up his apple.
  • In case you missed it, that post-credits scene showed whoever watched Aaron and Rick raid the boat made it to Alexandria. Okay! Worth noting, that kind of introduction more or less matches how Jesus first appeared in the comics.
  • If nothing else, female Saviors are just as uncomfortably aggressive as their male counterparts. That’s … oddly refreshing?
  • Still not really certain what the purpose of Michonne’s side-quest was. She wanted to confirm the Saviors’ numbers, but did that quick glance from the car really reveal anything?
  • I have learned that the Kingdom guard’s name is Richard. Carry on.
  • This is two weeks in a row Gabriel has actually seemed like a sensible human being!
  • Is it me, or did the Hilltop reunion scene feel like it was scored and lit like the end of Inception?

The Walking Dead Season 7 will return in February, airing Sundays at 9:00 P.M. on AMC.

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