“You did have guts.”
The mid-season finale of The Walking Dead is always a big deal, some of the most important moments have happened in these episodes. There was the huge Sophia moment and barn shootout in season two’s ‘Pretty Much Dead Already’, the assault on Woodbury in season three’s ‘Made to Suffer’, the exceptional attack on the prison in season four’s ‘Too Far Gone’ (which is still the show’s finest hour). Then there was Beth’s death in Season 5’s ‘Coda’ and the frustratingly tense cliffhanger in last season’s ‘Start to Finish’. Luckily there are no cliffhangers in sight this time around, and ‘Hearts Still Beating’ is an excellent episode.
First up and most importantly, Rick is back! Picking up with him and Aaron facing the lake full of walkers from last week, we get some of that Rick badassery as they attempt to row a slowly sinking boat across to the supplies that are stranded at the centre. It’s an original undead set-piece and it’s cool to see the survivors tackling something unusual. And the ship slowly filling with water adds a sense of constant dread as they paddle across. Of course they won’t die, Rick at least, but they have to get the supplies to give to Negan so it’s really a question of will they get there or give up. Once they get there we get a few more clues about the guy who occupied it. He had lots of guns but ran out of ammo, and he has a sense of humour, leaving Aaron and Rick a sarcastic message. Could the guy who owned the houseboat be the one watching from the treeline? We’ll have to wait until February to find out.
One very frustrating thing this episode (intentionally so) was watching Aaron getting beaten and seeing Rick so unable to help. He had a gun in his face and was surrounded by Saviors, so it’s up for debate if old Rick would have done anything. But I like to think that old Rick would have found a way to help Aaron, biting someone else’s throat out perhaps. As it stands it was a difficult watch. But it seems Negan’s trip to Alexandria this time around was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Rick, with war more or less being declared at the end of the episode. It might be frustrating but it’s building up to something, and the payoff and the hint at things to come make it worth it.
The real key moments of this episode were concerning Negan and Spencer back at Alexandria. After finding a tonne of supplies last week, Spencer is congratulated and praised by the Saviors for being so obedient. It seems like this goes to his head a bit and before you know it he’s dressed in a smart jumper with a bottle of whiskey, ready to woo Negan. Spencer thinks he’s doing the right thing and because of this he isn’t completely insufferable. He’s doing what he thinks his Senator mother would have done; sitting down and talking it out. He even gets as far as having a friendly game of outdoor pool with Negan. But then Spencer oversteps his mark and says how he thinks Alexandria would be better off without Rick Grimes leading them. This has been building up since Deanna died last season, and it’s not a surprise that Spencer is willing to get rid of Rick, although not with his own two hands. This gets him gutted by Negan, in a brutal scene that many fans have been waiting years for. It didn’t disappoint and the shot of Spencer collapsing to the floor holding his insides was as shocking as when I read it in the comics.
Negan has been brilliant since he was introduced, and he has been especially brilliant these past two episodes. Even when he’s killing Spencer he’s hilarious! But this is one of the rare times we actually see him lose his cool. After killing Spencer, Rosita decides to go through with her plan and take Negan out. It doesn’t work (obviously) and he blocks the shot with Lucille. Or she missed and hit Lucille. Either way, Lucille taking a hit is a big moment from the comics and I was looking forward to seeing how pissed Negan would be afterwards. Jeffrey Dean Morgan shows that he can do scary all over again, as he hasn’t really been ‘scary’ since the premiere. After his beloved ‘vampire bat’ takes a hit he starts screaming about Lucille’s smooth skin and he’s the weird, creepy Negan from the comics again. Then, after dealing with that, he’s straight back to fun Negan again, talking about how’s he’s been taking care of Carl and feeding him spaghetti. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing a hell of a lot more of angry Negan during the latter half of the season.
This season (and the past two episodes in particular) has been really good at fleshing out the characters on the side-lines. After getting some key moments last week, it’s Rosita who takes a shot at Negan. And although she hits Lucille it’s a pretty ballsy (if a little self-centered) thing to do. Rosita isn’t scared of him or his Savior’s so he can’t really threaten her either. Instead he gets his goons to kill someone else instead, as punishment for shooting at him and Lucille. Olivia is the unfortunate one here and takes a bullet to the eye. We’ll see in the next half of the season how this affects Rosita, but now she will have a similar feeling of guilt to Daryl so maybe they can bond over that. The conversation Rosita has with Gabriel earlier in the episode is excellent too. It addresses her position as a supporting character and gives her some real depth she’s been lacking. She doesn’t feel like an essential member of the team, but Gabriel assures her she is. When things hit the fan at the end of the episode, Gabriel’s reaction is heart-breaking. He is a character that has improved tenfold in the past two episodes (he’s a million times better than his comic counterpart too) and I can’t wait until February to see more of him.
The episode (and this half of the season) ends with the gang heading to the Hilltop. Rick admits he was wrong to Maggie, and that they should fight back. Then there is the world’s most emotional hug as heterosexual life-partners Daryl and Rick see each other again. Joking aside, it’s very emotional and makes the splitting up of the group so worth it just for this ending. Some people are pissed that the episodes were split like they were, with character-centric episodes taking up a lot of the time. But I am sure in the months and years to come, when people binge-watch this season, they will not notice anything wrong with it. But I admit, having to wait two weeks for a glimpse of Rick and the guys was difficult.
As it stands this was a near perfect end to a divisive half season. But we should wait and judge the whole thing when the rest of the episodes have aired. I can’t wait to see Rick back in action with the Python. It’s going to be a difficult wait, see you in February!
Reviewed by Jack