Monday, 12 December 2016

Review: 'The Walking Dead's' sluggish season 7A ends with a crawl in a more promising direction

A quick review of The Walking Dead's latest midseason finale - with some thoughts on the half-season as a whole - coming up after the break.

This season, The Walking Dead has struggled to maintain a foothold on any sort of competent larger storytelling. After a dire resolution to an absymal cliffhanger in the premiere, proceeding episodes have split the show's focus with three from the next six excluding Negan and only one having any kind of focus on Rick (*). We've seen hours with a tight look at other characters on the series - Morgan and Carol at the Kingdom, Maggie and Sasha at the Hilltop, Tara and Heath's adventures - but there has been very little attempt to try and cash in on all that was set up in the premiere.

(*) Last week's hour did feature Rick, but he appeared so infrequently with so little consequence to his scenes - which were dealt with here instead - that it's easy to forget he was even there. Certainly, there was no attempt to make any progression with him, which is the whole point.

Negan has been teased since the early parts of season six. We spent almost the entire year leading up to his big introduction ripped from the comics, only for the show to make us wait another half a year to find out who had their brains smashed in. Irrespective of Negan's characterisation, that was never going to be satisfying in any way. But Jeffrey Dean Morgan has been so cartoonish, so stunningly unintimidating in his goofiness, that taking him seriously as a villain is virtually impossible. Last week marked the first time I disliked Negan for his sadism rather than Morgan's portrayal; it's absurd that it took eight episodes for that to happen. Combine that with the fact that he is so one-dimensional as a character - aside from talking everyone to sleep before brutally mutilating someone, what is there to him? - and it's come to the point where the show is actually more enjoyable without him, which is not a position any series should be in.

"Hearts Still Beating" didn't really break that habit. Negan's justification for killing Spencer (*) made sense, but his continuing obsession with Rick is bizarre and will absolutely be his downfall. Morgan at least felt somewhat intimidatory, but his anger over Rosita shooting Lucille was excessive and ridiculous, even if it was in keeping with the character. (I guess that puts fault with the character, which is absolutely right.) Ordering Arat to kill someone was not, since Negan's taken it upon himself to personally deal with this group so far, and it felt like an excuse both to avoid killing Lucille and to avoid killing Rosita, a character who we have more investment in than someone like Olivia (**), who's ultimately shot.

(*) Spencer has never been a very good character, but turning him from the guy who's idiotic enough to nearly fall into a pit of zombies to the guy idiotic enough to think that becoming friends with Negan is a good idea was a new low, even if him basing it on Rick causing his mother's death and the fall of Alexandria makes sense. The idea of someone trying to usurp whatever power Rick still has is fair enough, but using Spencer meant that when he was disemboweled, Negan's explanation for the whole thing was the one I wanted to side with. Any potential sympathy went out the window, and while the show may not have intended for an emotional reaction to Spencer's death, it undermines the very point of Negan's killings: yes, this is a horrible and terrifying act, but he's done Rick - and the audience - a favour.

(**) Abraham and Glenn may have been killed off in the premiere, but The Walking Dead has a terrible habit of using supposedly big moments to remove the most minor of side characters from the fold. That would be entirely fine if it weren't handled in such a way that the audience are clearly intended to be shocked and/or saddened by those deaths - Spencer excepted - but that wasn't the case here.

Throughout this half season, the idea has been that Rick is so broken that he sees no hope of victory over the Saviors and believes the only option is to cower in fear and do what they want. Certainly, that's been achieved, despite the hiccups in getting there. But while that is a neat idea in theory, it kills any hope the characters - and, by extension, the audience - have of Negan and the Saviors being overcome. (Equally, excluding Rick for the better part of five episodes from eight breaks any momentum the show might have created with him in that regard.) If we're ever to move forward and have any sort of end point in sight, rather than just continue in the same circles as Negan keeps his thumb over the Alexandria group, Rick needed to swallow his guilt and fear and whatever other emotions he's feeling and decide to make a stand.

By the end of "Hearts Still Beating", that's where we were, with the core characters - Rick, Maggie, Sasha, Enid, Michonne, Carl, Tara, Rosita, Daryl, and Jesus - reuniting at the Hilltop and planning on finding a way to get out of this mess. While I appreciate the need for this new direction, and I'm much more interested in seeing them try and fight back rather than accept this as their new life, the episode did not for a second sell Rick's change in mentality, and it felt like a tacked on way to propel the second half of the season forward.

Honestly, though, I'm not certain I care. It's among the less bad pieces of writing The Walking Dead has done this season - which says a lot about the lacklustre quality of the rest of the season - and we may actually get something much more watchable out of it. Because, at the moment, watching a sadistic yet painfully annoying Jeffrey Dean Morgan extinguish all sense of optimism is boring.

Some other thoughts:
  • If Negan is supposedly the be-all and end-all of The Walking Dead's comic villains, that leaves us with one of two equally terrible options: either he remains on the show until its end, or he's killed and someone takes his place - and if he's the big one (a notion I vehemently reject), then what next?
  • It was nice seeing the group reunited. That's the first genuinely upbeat moment we've had all season, and it was refreshing.
  • Hey, remember when zombies were actually a threat? I don't. Aaron probably will, though. Not that they really seemed to be, given that they looked to have disappeared from the water entirely after he went under.
  • Spencer's blood ruined a perfectly good pool table.

What did everyone else think about the midseason finale, and 7A as a whole?

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