This season, THE WALKING DEAD has displayed a remarkable propensity for turning what should be exciting, fast-paced, suspenseful scenarios into dreary exercises in tedium and tonight's midseason finale, "How It's Gotta Be," has just become the standout example of this. What could have been a fairly taught hour-long tale is padded out to 90 minutes. The ep is full of slow-motion photography, long, meaningless montages of various characters' faces overlain with somber music, scenes that go on and on. Got to get those extra ads in there, if the show itself has to bust a gut to accomplish it.
Tonight's ep begins where last week's ended. Upon discovering the zombies are gone, Rick, ever the idiot, moves in for a closer look on foot across open ground and is, of course, immediately fired upon by Saviors inside. The Garbage People retreat and aren't seen again! They just disappear from the ep. Rick is in a pickle, pinned down and with no hope of escape, but then, out of nowhere, Carol and Jerry suddenly drive up and save him. They'd gone to what was supposed to be a meeting outside the Sanctuary of the leadership of the various communities, Ezekiel having declined to go, but like Daryl and his garbage truck last week, they show up just in the nick of time and are able to magically sense Rick's predicament and affect a rescue.
The Saviors are somehow free, they're going to be out looking for revenge and if one concludes this should be a real barn-burner, well, one may have the instincts of a quality dramatist but one hasn't been watching TWD this season. The writers manage to make the Saviors' campaign against the residents of the three communities pretty damn boring. It makes sense that the Kingdom could be subdued with minimal effort--its fighting force has been wiped out--and, in fact, this happens off camera. But the Hilltop's forces are also taken without firing a shot. Maggie and some of her troops are driving to the Sanctuary meeting. Absent the use of magic, the Saviors have absolutely no way of knowing the Hilltoppers will be coming up that road but they've used this magic power before, in the season 6 finale, and with this supernatural knowledge, they just put a tree across the road to stop the convoy then move in and disarm the fighters. Though the Hilltop forces are armed and they appear to significantly outnumber the Saviors, they just give up their guns without a fight. Simon tells Maggie she can cooperate or meet a horrible end. She takes the deal, he shoots a Hilltop redshirt then he orders her to return home and continue growing food for the Saviors.
This contradicts everything we've been told would happen. Negan has made it very clear he intends to kill the three leaders of the uprising and display their remains at his headquarters. Viewers who may have forgotten that from before get multiple reminders in this ep--Gavin, the Savior leader at the Kingdom, says he's taking Ezekiel back to the Sanctuary and Negan himself says he's taking Rick there. Besides that, Simon's course of action with regard to Maggie is some really horrendous writing. Hilltop has just taken part in an armed uprising against the Saviors. It has lots of guns and it must be disarmed. The Saviors disarm everyone. For all the Saviors know, these communities have the bulk of their arsenal based at Hilltop. If Maggie is allowed to simply return home, those guns could either be stashed for later use or used to carry on the fight that has just been taking place. The only reason Simon, having captured Maggie, doesn't continue with her to Hilltop and disarm the community is because the writers just didn't want him to do it. When Maggie returns home, she's no more gotten through the gates than she has a new gun in her hand. She kills one of her Savior prisoners with it (to make up for the Hilltopper shot by Simon), orders her people to begin fortifying the community against the enemy.
When the Saviors had been pinned down in the Sanctuary, they'd radioed another outpost to bring in a heavy machine-gun to clear the zombies. That outpost was destroyed and the machine-gun captured. Without it, they were considering increasingly desperate measures, such as sending dozens of workers into the zombie horde with melee weapons, sacrificing them on a suicide mission just to try to clear a path for someone who could lead the horde away. The entire season to date has been premised on the notion that the villains didn't have the means or the manpower to fight so many but tonight, they not only have enough to simultaneously go after all three rebel communities, Negan has among his own force what appear to be a dozen or more men armed with grenade launchers, weapons that would have made very short work of all those zombies but were never employed to that end and appear only now, as if by magic, to reign fiery destruction down on the Safe Zone from outside its gates. Once inside, Negan tells his men to blow up every house! It feels like Negan should not
have the strength to wage this sort of fight, a problem
that goes beyond that magic grenade-launcher brigade.[3a] Our heroes just spent much of this season taking out
Negan's outposts, killing or capturing everyone present in a series of lightning strikes. From the fact that
they stopped hitting outposts and spoke of no others, one can
safely assume there aren't any more. So from whence comes this
And is there even a reserve? None of the Savior forces
are shown to be particularly large. There are no Savior guards around the recently-liberated Sanctuary--until someone started shooting at Rick, it looked deserted. Both the Hilltoppers and the
Alexandrians appear to outnumber the fighters thrown against them. The Alexandrians kill several Saviors in an ambush (I'll get to that in a moment). Though
the Kingdom has few defenses left, we never see many Saviors there
either. One assumes there could be more present in all of these places,
lurking somewhere in the darkness in which most of this ep takes place, and that solves one problem but the more there
are, the bigger the other--the source of these fighters--becomes.
With some sort-of assistance from turncoat Savior Dwight, the Alexandrians sort of escape Negan's siege--it's all handled in a very sloppy manner. Dwight puts a slim force around the rear of the Safe Zone to create a weak spot. The Alexandrians inside have absolutely no way of knowing he's out there and has done that but fortunately, they coincidentally pick the right place to break through their own walls and escape. Our heroes proceed up the road a short distance then stop to create an ambush for the pursuing Saviors; Dwight leads his own people right into it and they're killed. He takes out a few himself then, wounded, leaves with the Alexandrians. I say "leaves" but they don't actually go anywhere. Instead of getting the hell out of Dodge, they just return to the storm drain that runs under the walls of the Safe Zone, a place that is in no way hidden and that the Saviors could easily investigate (and would investigate if being written at all competently). They're still there at the end.
Rick returns home to find the Safe Zone ablaze and goes in to check it out. He goes to his own house and finds Negan waiting for him. The villain knocks Rick's gun from his hand and the two briefly fight it out. Negan is doing his usual Adam West Batman villain routine and Rick in response, goes meta: "Do you ever shut the hell up?" Pretty much what every viewer has been thinking about Negan's camp antics. It's the only bright spot in this ep. It made me chuckle, anyway. Rick recovers his gun, Negan, who has no gun, pushes him out the window and rather than simply going right back in and shooting Negan, Rick just runs away! If our heroes ever get their hands on the technology behind Negan's plot-armor, they'll be unbeatable.
Other items: Between and in addition to all of that, there's plenty that is only present to add to that running-time. Aaron and Enid have gotten it in their heads to attempt a rapprochement with the Oceanside community, so there's 6 or 7 minutes of that mission near the beginning of this ep that look as if they were cut in from the beginning of an entirely different one, then the focus shifts elsewhere and we're never shown anything else of it. Eugene is again shown drinking and again feeling sorry for himself, then he facilitates
the escape of Father Gabriel and the Hilltop's physician (who has been
detained at the Sanctuary for some time now). When the Alexandrians are "escaping" down that storm-drain, Michonne stays behind, closing the man-hole and going back into the Safe Zone for no other purpose than to allow her to walk around a while then kill and mutilate a random Savior (said mutilation occurring below the level of the camera, in line with the show's recent tone-down-the-violence directive).
Coral suddenly gets an inordinate amount of screentime, which is TWD's usual set-up for an impending death. He's Wesley Crusher, planning the Alexandrians' escape and even having a parley with Negan in which he offers to let the villain kill him if it will allow the Safe Zone to survive. He staggers around in slow motion while the Safe Zone is being hit with all those grenades. All of this leads where one expects, to the scene that, last week, was teased as being so shocking everyone would be talking about it. And even adjusting for the writers' laughable overestimation of the esteem they've engendered in their audience for this particular character, it may have been too, if the entire ep hadn't been so heavy-handedly pointing to it from its opening moments. As usual.
 Rick, Carol and Jerry decide to take some vehicles, split up and
go warn the various communities. Jerry suggests the snipers' vehicles probably won't be where they were previously parked because the riflemen would have taken them to get away from whatever happened, Rick says he doesn't think they got away. Viewers are never shown whether the sniper cars are still there but it's very unlikely that random cars that are just sitting around outside somewhere and that haven't been maintained for two years would still be in working order, yet Rick and Jerry do pretty quickly find cars to drive. When one considers the mystery of what happened at the Sanctuary, this is another hole.
 She also tells her people to dump the dead Savior so the others can
find the corpse and posts a warning that she has others she can kill if they
don't stay away, guaranteeing they'll be there soon.
 Last week, Eugene pitched Negan on an idea for getting rid of those zombies. Off-camera, of course. Negan was concerned that the plan, whatever it was, would require seriously depleting the Saviors' ammo supply and secured assurances that Eugene could replenish that stock if given the equipment. While Eugene's mystery plan was put into effect and worked, any such mass reloading operation would take months to carry out. The incident just underscores that Negan should not have the ability to do what he did tonight.
[3a] UPDATE (11 Dec., 2017) - Discussing this ep on Reddit, poster "Serialnoymb63" points out that those grenade launchers "could have been handy" when the three communities carried out that bizarre "attack" on the Sanctuary in the first ep of this season. Back then, I'd noted that Rick had charged into that situation to boldly take the low ground and that the Saviors in the building could have destroyed our heroes with fairly minimal effort. Those grenade launchers would have made this task a lot easier. And if they exist, they pretty much have to have been there at the Sanctuary all along; all of Negan's other facilities were wiped out.
 I've spent some time in my recent TWD reviews noting the serious
dramatic problems that have arisen as a consequence of having the characters insist their
campaign against the Saviors was part of some master Plan while refusing
to share that plan with the viewers. It seems inconceivable there would be other outposts that just weren't hit but the writers have left a bit of a black hole here.
 While the ep dwells on such peripheral matters, Rick again disappears for much of the episode, present for only a few moments at the beginning then turning up at the end for that very brief dukearoo with Negan. Though the ostensible central hero of the show, Rick has been increasingly absent from it in recent seasons, often disappearing for weeks at a time. This season seems to be addressing fan complaints re:that development by including Rick in more eps but in what amount to glorified cameo appearances.
 At no point are we ever shown a large number of Saviors swarming over the Safe Zone after it's breached. Rick is able to enter it then leave unmolested. While wandering inside, Michonne only runs into that one Savior. I found myself wondering why the Alexandrians don't just go back and kill the Saviors who have entered their community, something they appear entirely capable of doing.