It’s somewhat ironic that The Walking Dead’s mid-season finale this past Sunday was titled “Hearts Still Beating,” since it seems quite questionable these days whether that’s even accurate of the show anymore. The once seemingly impervious and genuinely addicting zombie series took a hit this year, and no, it wasn’t from Lucille. The hit I speak of isn’t even just a numbers game, although the show did take its steepest ratings tumble since way back in season 3 after the seventh season opener. It’s a lack of quality that I foolishly came to expect after spending so many years with this often frustrating series. I’ll be the first to admit that consistency has never been The Walking Dead’s strong suit. From the musical showrunners that plagued the early years, to a constant struggle with tonality, steady deliverance of good television has never been something TWD has adeptly accomplished. But for the last few years I had at least been struck with the notion that showrunner Scott Gimple and the writers had a certain path marked out that would not only raise the stakes, but also provide an emotional payout.
Unfortunately, that no longer seems to be the case. From the moment that camera cut to black last season with Negan’s bat-swinging cliffhanger, I knew the show would be in trouble this year because it was the precise moment the writers traded genuine drama for cheap tactics. The drawn out cliffhanger ultimately lessened the emotional impact of Glenn and Abraham’s deaths in the season premiere, something I consider an even greater tragedy than losing two of the show’s finest characters. I, along with many other viewers who have since jumped ship, were forcibly so wrapped up in who Negan killed that when it finally happened, it was a relief in some ways to just know. I felt completely taken out of the moment and didn’t even really register the fact that we’d know longer be graced with Steven Yeun or Michael Cudlitz until well after the episode ended. The controversial cliffhanger, while part of season 6, resonated long past the finale and filtered into the new season, with skeptical and frustrated viewers chomping at the bit for resolution they deserved. It’s a shame that resolution was hollow and came through lacking, and that the season didn’t get much better from there.
One of the biggest pitfalls this season has been what I call “pulling a Lost.” Lost remains to this day my favorite show of all time, so I’m definitely biased when I discuss it, but frankly, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another show do such a fantastic job with a large ensemble cast. The flashback/forwards of solo characters and entire episodes devoted to them did such a great job of characterization it was truly miserable anytime one of them died. The show also frequently gambled by splitting up the characters into groups for long stretches of time and making reunions either near-misses or agonizingly overdue. But it worked! Anytime the characters did reunite, it felt earned. The Walking Dead has employed a similar tactic this season by devoting entire episodes to various spread out groups/characters. We’ve got Alexandria/Rick’s crew, Maggie and Sasha at Hilltop, Carol and Morgan at the Kingdom, Tara with the armed women in the forest, and Daryl at the Sanctuary. The problem here, however, is that devoting an entire hour to some of these people just isn’t that interesting. Some of these people have never quite landed as fascinating, so spending 60 minutes just with them felt like a slog and waste of time. The show needs to recognize its strengths and know that this method just does not work for them. The season would have flowed much better had the episodes hopped around to each group. I feel bad for some of the actors who only appeared in two episodes so far (then I think of their salaries though and feel less bad). Even the supposedly optimistic reunion at Hilltop felt cloying and cheesy with all the characters nodding their heads in agreement (although that Daryl/Rick hug was pretty great). It should have felt like a victorious moment; I felt bored.
And then there’s Negan. I’ve already written about Negan recently, so rather than retread completely, you can read my thoughts on him HERE. But to sum up, the writers would do well to keep him from becoming a one-note villain. This isn’t about Jeffery Dean Morgan’s performance; JDM is fantastic and is clearly having a blast with the role. But do I need more from Negan than just playfully sadistic pronunciations? Yes, I do.
At the end of the day, I’ve decided to hang with the show, at least until the conclusion of season 7. There have been times when I’ve wanted to stop watching before, but the show miraculously was able to pick itself up and I was glad to have stuck with it. Here’s hoping that Walking Dead can once again prove me wrong, or else I’m sorry to say, I’ll be the one doing the walking.