So far this season, the performance of The Walking Dead has taken precedence over what's happened on The Walking Dead. That's not necessarily a good thing; it's a sign that nothing much has happened on the show since Jeffrey Dean Morgan showed Steven Yeun and Michael Cudlitz the door in the season premiere. Aside from the nihilism of the season's opening salvo, the story has consisted mostly of setup toward an inevitable war between Negan's Saviors and the other communities cowed into submission by the group's oppressive tactics and (supposedly, though they never seem to be onscreen) sheer numbers. But before war can break out, the communities will have to come together, and one community in particular will need its leader to be pushed from his nest of enfeebled obedience to the much harsher environment of active conflict.
There's a clear indication of what's on the horizon, and that will ultimately give The Walking Dead plenty to do in the coming months, but it says little of what's come from the past seven weeks of television. The series has hit a nadir of sorts; it is breaking the cardinal rule of television: to always be moving forward. The series has had issues with this in the past. Every season plays host to a rough patch where the plot seems mired in the misery of its characters' existence, and the only hope for both the characters and the audience is the hope of eventually moving forward. But season 7 has been different. There is a clear roadmap of what's to come and yet The Walking Dead has seemed intent on pretending that roadmap will only appear after this one last piece of table setting is placed.
That has meant dramatically decompressed hours (or more) of television that have been reluctant to move the season's plot forward for reasons that may seem obvious but are nonetheless frustrating. That said, 'Hearts Still Beating' gives the season a chance to take a significant step forward by finally forcing Rick's hand (so to speak) after Negan spills some blood (and guts) in the streets of Alexandria. With that it seems like all-out war is inevitable between the various communities and the Saviors, and that Alexandria will have to do without Spencer and his obnoxious entitlement in the conflict to come – which means for the first time in a long time, things are beginning to look up.
And that's not just a dig on the general uselessness of Spencer; the show finally seems intent on moving past the point of repetitively telling its audience what they already know: Negan is a bully with an extremely limited imagination. But before we get to that, let's talk about Spencer and his guts. Now granted, Spencer was a lot of things and almost none of them were good, but he did get at least one thing right: Alexandria was made a demonstrably worse place to live once Rick showed up. Season 6 Rick was the destroyer of worlds. He was the worst enemy any of his enemies had ever met, and sometimes – okay, most of the time – he was his own worst enemy. That was until Rick met Negan and things went downhill rather quickly. There's a lesson there about the humbling of Rick, and to The Walking Dead's credit, the show manages to trace season 6 Rick to the Rick of now through Spencer's actions in the episode.
It isn't the most elegant of moves for obvious reasons, but for the most part it works because the entire point of 'Hearts Still Beating' is to see Rick finally decide that it's time to fight back. That doesn't necessarily justify the plodding nature of the past few episodes but it does, to a certain extent, explain them. The sense of hopelessness is alleviated quite a bit when Rick and Michonne have their heart-to-heart and it's decided that Alexandria will be in servitude to the Saviors no longer. For a show that's been playing the same storytelling routine over and over again for six-and-a-half seasons now, demonstrating to the audience just how bad things could get sure makes the return of an actual plot and sense of progression feel like some sort of epic turnaround.
'Hearts Still Beating' is essentially a series of tiny victories that, over the course of its 85-minute runtime, accumulate into something that seems bigger than it actually is. The show has been through a drought of character moments about anyone other than Negan for so long now, the weirdness of Rick and Aaron paddling a leaky boat to reach their video game-like objective is kind of fun to watch. So is seeing Daryl and Jesus find each other in the Sanctuary and escape. And again, Maggie getting Gregory to give her his apple works as further evidence of her ascension in the ranks at Hilltop, but it's also a fun moment. They're not particularly meaningful moments – though some do promise an end to storylines that didn't seem to have any point to them whatsoever – but after so many weeks with nothing to go on, these morsels almost feel like a full meal.
What that means for the second half of season 7 remains to be seen. There's a hint that The Walking Dead will begin to pick up the pace. That sounds like a proper goal for when the series returns with eight brand-new episodes, but it also sounds like the most reasonable thing for an aging series experiencing a viewership leak to do. Just like Rick and Aaron, The Walking Dead needs to paddle as fast as it can from here on out; the series can't afford to get pulled under by its own plodding repetitiveness.
The Walking Dead season 7 returns with new episodes in February 2017 on AMC.
Photos: Gene Page/AMC