Since at least the middle of the show’s fourth season, The Walking Dead’s M.O. has been to divide and conquer. As the show’s cast of characters has grown, more and more often its episodes focus on just a handful of individuals, typically separated from the rest of the group. That makes the series’s season premieres and season finales (or mid-season finales), where everyone joins back together, feel almost like crossover episodes.
But it also makes them feel like reunions. The time apart for these characters doesn’t just give us a thrill when they link up once more, but makes us miss their interactions and shows us the value of their cooperation, and even their mere shared presence, through its absence. That fits the theme of “Hearts Still Beating,” which shows any number of survivors attempting to solve the season’s big problems on their own, trying to carry the entire load on their backs, only to realize that what they hope to achieve can only be accomplished by working together. “Hearts Still Beating” is not a great episode of The Walking Dead, but in this vein, it works for what show’s going for.
Checking in with nearly the whole cast (including the first appearance of Carol and Morgan since “The Well”) also helps to justify the episode’s extended runtime. Previous extra-length episodes like “Service” have struggled to come up with enough worthwhile material to fill those additional minutes without devolving into stultifying repetition. “Hearts Still Beating” does feel ungainly at times, jumping from one character’s perspective to another with moderate connective tissue at best in a way that can make the episode seem jumbled. But the number of characters and stories involved at least provides enough incident to fill the episode’s runtime, even if many of those stories have a “Well, we need something for this character to do until they show up at just the right time” vibe.
The majority of the stories in “Hearts Still Beating” are connected thematically, if not directly. Each features one of these characters trying to act on their own, coming with a plan to take out or at least blunt the impact of Negan and The Saviors, until each realizes that a united effort is the only way to accomplish this feat. As is The Walking Dead’s wont, this is naturally preceded and followed by any number of tortured, overwritten colloquies about broad ethical and moral issues, the sort of grandiosity TWD has never really been able to pull off. Spencer and Rosita’s exchanges are particularly painful, and Father Gabriel’s sitdown with Rosita isn’t much better. But they’re all in service of that same idea — that going it alone isn’t enough.
So we see Rosita telling Father Gabriel that everyone else in the camp has a reason to stick around or people they care about, and the lack of these things makes her a perfect martyr. We see Rick trying to scavenge supplies on the other side of a zombie-infested lake without Aaron in a well-meaning attempt to spare him. We see Sasha try to keep Maggie from trying to take on the Negan problem and Enid responding that Sasha isn’t “the only one.” We see Michonne continue her one-woman crusade to eliminate Negan. We see Richard, the Kingdom’s top lieutenant, retreat to his isolated camper when his pitch for Carol and Morgan to help him persuade Ezekiel to fight The Saviors fails. We see Carol try to tell her visitors that she wants to be left alone. And we see Spencer attempt to be a one-man diplomacy team. Everywhere in “Hearts Still Beating,” people are trying to work in isolation, disconnected from one another.
It’s Spencer’s efforts in this regard that go the most poorly. As I discussed in connection with “Service,” his ploy to get Negan to make him the leader of Alexandria and eliminate Rick in the process was both predictable and doomed to fail from the beginning. It runs entirely contrary to Negan’s “might makes right” philosophy, and his natural respect (albeit the kind that usually comes with barely-repressed anger) for people who stand up to him or take matters into their own hands, as opposed to his disdain for people who won’t do the dirty work themselves. So in the mandatory Shocking Death™ in a Walking Dead finale, Spencer gets a knife to the stomach, coupled with a corny “you don’t have any guts” line from Negan for his troubles.
It’s tense in that manufactured Walking Dead sort of way, but it’s also one of the weaker parts of the episode, if only because Negan almost always comes off like a bear trap that could snap at any minute, and from the getgo, Spencer seems like a hapless cub wandering into it. The show hasn’t given us enough reason to care about Spencer, so his death carries little weight, and the way the show telegraphed Spencer’s feelings about Rick and Negan’s likely response makes his treachery seem inevitable in a way that also makes it unexciting.
This killing does spur Rosita to use her one bullet, which, in the episode’s most convenient narrative development, only hits Negan’s barbed-wire bat rather than the dastard himself, thus teaching Rosita that she too cannot see these grand plans through on her own. It also leads to Rosita having her face cut for the attempt on Negan’s life, Negan using his Sherlock Holmes-esque powers of deduction to determine that the bullet was homemade, and a hostage situation where he attempts to find out just who made it. Of course, the result of all of this is the death of a tertiary character Olivia (who’s barely had enough color for the audience to remember her name) simply to up the episode’s body count and a brief game of “I Am Spartacus” before Eugene announces that he made the bullet to end the bloodshed.
It’s the high stakes climax that’s supposed to give the finale its juice, but it sinks into convenient plot twists and less-than-impactful deaths. For as much as fans complain about the slowness of some character-focused episodes, those installments are at least taking the time to develop and add depth to the show’s survivors, so that if and when they die, it means something. In the more plot-heavy premieres and finales, the show often stumbles and feels compelled to keep up its “anyone can die” cred by knocking off characters who were forgettable in the first place.
So when Rick shows up, surveys the carnage, and hears from Negan that he should get a “thank you” for not killing Carl and for removing a couple of mouths Rick would otherwise have to feed, it’s anticlimactic despite the intensity Rick shows in the moment. We’ve already witnessed the major fireworks of the episode, and while seeing Rick and Negan face-to-face always works at least a little bit given the barely-restrained tension between the two of them, it still leaves a sour taste in the viewer’s mouth.
But then, in the second half of the episode, “Hearts Still Beating” slowly but surely closes the loop on why no one can take down Negan or The Saviors by themselves. Rosita’s and Spencer’s attempts obviously fail. Michonne sees the scope and the number of Saviors and abandons her solo mission. Carol and Morgan shoot down Richard’s plan for The Kingdom to attack The Saviors before they attack first, knowing the problems inherent in kicking that particular hornets’ nest. With the exception of Daryl (whose adventures I’ll talk about more in his next focus episode), everyone learns that going it alone isn’t an option.
The most prominent of these lessons is delivered by Aaron to Rick on their scavenging adventure and later confirmed by Michonne. Aaron preaches the idea that gives the episode its name — that as long as the Alexandrians’ hearts, and the hearts of those close to them, are still beating, then it’s all worth it. Aaron survives a cheesy fake out in a zombie-infested lake and a brutal beating from The Saviors in Alexandria, and he repeats the line when Rick helps him up, reminding Rick and showing him, that everyone’s in this, everyone’s ready to make sacrifices for the greater good. (Everyone, that is, except the guy in the hose-tied shoes who we only see from the ankles down. Elementary TV-logic suggests he’s a familiar character from the comic book who’s being teased.)
Michonne tells Rick the same thing in different terms. After confronting the enormity of the task before them, realizing the difficult choices that lie ahead, Michonne continues her season-spanning arc of slowly but surely allowing herself to connect to the rest of the world again. Fighting The Saviors is something they all have to do together, for the future, for Carl and Judith and for Maggie’s child. It requires a group of people willing to fight, but willing to fight with each other and for each other. It’s an impassioned performance from Danai Gurira who, as usual, rises above the material she’s given.
It all culminates in the final scene at The Hilltop, where the bulk of the survivors that the audience knows and cares about come together once more. The moment is a little saccharine, and the cuts to everyone’s glances and smiles at one another seem overwrought at certain points. But it’s also a warm reunion, one given weight by the fact that these individuals have been scattered to the winds, having to overcome their own individual struggles, their own states of not knowing if everyone else was okay, for what feels like so long. They come together and see that they’re all still alive, all still there, hearts still beating.
The images of reunion and embrace point us in the direction for the next chapter in this Saviors-focused story arc. Just as the survivors whom we know have been off on their own adventures, concerned with their own individual fights, start coming together here, we’ve also been introduced to more communities within range of Alexandria: the Hilltop, the Kingdom, and the Pescatarians. The critical mass of Saviors and these experiences have taught our heroes that no one person, no one group, and no one community can overcome these challenges alone. It will require a union, a collective effort, a unified front of those with different interests and different concerns coming together, joined by a desire to keep those close to them safe and healthy and well.
The show as a whole has been about individuals finding themselves scattered in chaos, but then slowly coming together once more and trying to find out whether trust and cooperation can bring a return to something approaching normalcy in this brutal world, as they once did before. In the swelling tones of this mid-season finale, The Walking Dead offers hope that together, even the harshest of threats can be overcome.