Monday, December 12, 2016

THE WALKING DEAD's Hearts Ain't Beatin'

There's a moment in "Hearts Still Beating," tonight's midseason finale of THE WALKING DEAD, when Negan becomes rather disgusted with Spencer. The alcoholic half-wit had been trying to convince the evil overlord that he should bump off Rick and put a new guy in charge of the Safe Zone--none other than Spencer himself, of course. Negan didn't like that. Rick, said Negan, has guts. While Rick is out there in this zombified world risking his life to try to scavenge supplies for the Saviors so no one in the Safe Zone will die, Spencer had been there sucking up to Negan behind Rick's back and talking this smack. You've got no guts, says Negan. And then he guts Spencer. If viewers were concerned about the big hole the writers put in Negan's reasoning here--Spencer himself had, only moments earlier, returned from a supply run laden with choice goods he'd turned over to the Saviors and they'd been so pleased, they'd made some overtures toward eventually recruiting him--it was no doubt overawed by their delight at finally seeing the obnoxious Spencer ended.

Spencer's death conformed with the usual conventions. He was a redshirt and so a prime target in a finale ep. He was a character written in such a way that no viewer could possibly be upset if he went away and most would be far more likely to be pleased by the development. His death was heralded by his sudden decision to really start hating on Rick. As longtime viewers of TWD know, that last is an even shorter path to an early grave than being the established black guy character when the new black guy shows up. The writers play a rather silly game here. They consistently write Rick as a dangerously incompetent leader--I've covered that point here since my very first article on TWD--then to try to compensate--because it isn't really cool if your lead alpha-male hero is a dimwitted buffoon--they have the other characters speak of his leadership in glowing terms, trying to cut a dodge around their own work and convince viewers to share such a view, rather than the one suggested by what they've actually written into the show. Believe the words of praise offered by these characters, this says, not your lying eyes. This eventually took an ugly turn: any character who was written as criticizing Rick was suddenly signing his own death warrant. This is a ridiculously overly defensive reaction to critics who question how they handle Rick and it can't help but beg the obvious: If they're so bothered, why not just write Rick as a good leader, for a change?

Tonight was another 90-minute ep--85 minutes, actually, just as was last week's. Something I wrote about that previous ep:

"Negan is sitting on the front porch with Coral and a sleepy baby Judith, sipping lemonade, waiting for Rick and grousing about how maybe he should move to the suburbs, then the ep just stops, in a way that makes me think there's some heavy editing going on. There's no ending, no dramatic capper. It feels like we're right in the middle of an ep and it's suddenly over. The obvious dramatic conclusion, Rick returning home, won't be happening for a while yet--he still has to try to navigate that zombie water-hazard. The end credits tonight informed viewers that next week's midseason finale will be another 90-minute ep, which makes me wonder if the extra half-hour in this ep had originally been part of the subsequent ep then had been edited into this one, either to greedily suck up another hour of commercial time or because they just didn't like what they had with the originally-shot eps. Given the extraordinary amount of filler this season, it seems incredible to me that TWD would do this--basically assemble an extra ep worth of material when they're barely even filling the eps they have--but this one left me somewhat convinced that's exactly what has happened. If that's the case, I guess we'll learn of it eventually."

Still no word on whether anything like this actually happened but several plotlines from roughly the first half-hour of tonight's ep seemed to wrap up stuff launched in the last half-hour of last week's.[1] In the aired versions, these are half-plots that seem to belong together but that have been divided. Spencer, as noted, returns with his supplies and turns them over to the Saviors, who are pleased. That hole I mentioned in my own opening above--Negan's faulty rationale for eventually killing Spencer--would be more explicable if both of those moments were originally the work of different writers working on different eps and just not really reaching harmony. Negan, who had been hanging around Rick's house, finishes preparing a meal. At first, he's waiting for Rick to return so they can all eat together. Then at one point, he just decides to go ahead and eat--a beat that feels very much like a finished-for-now moment. Rick and Aaron complete their adventure through zombie-infested waters to a boat full of supplies, load up said supplies then leave, only to have the camera reveal that some mysterious figure has been watching them. That feels like the conclusion of an ep--a final scene--and the rest of the material tonight, in turn, feels like one cohesive hour-long ep. The idea that these were originally three eps instead of two is speculation on my part and perhaps a bit of an aside but I am curious about whether this was the case and if so, why? TWD airs half-seasons in batches of 8 eps but if these were originally three, that could mean the stuff from the first half-hour tonight was originally the end of the midseason finale. Was the intended conclusion of the midseason ender, that mysterious figure, judged to be an insufficient note on which to end? Doesn't seem likely. TWD's creators have never been troubled by their own serving up lame-ass finales. Here's one better (and more likely): Maybe these were three eps and all were meant to be shown in the first half of the season then, for some reason (probably greed having to do with ad revenue on two half-hour eps), they were combined and a new ep was cooked up (probably at the conceptual stage), shot and inserted earlier in the season to fill out the half-season order (similar to what happened in season 2). The obvious choice for the extra ep in such a circumstance is, of course, "The Cell," a filler ep which covered nothing of any import and that replicated some things that happened in last week's ep, making it entirely redundant, as well.

One of those things it replicated was Daryl's predicament, which was another of those half-plots continued tonight. Daryl is locked in a room at the Saviors' compound when someone comes to him with a message, just as happened in "The Cell." In that earlier ep, the door to his room was left unlocked; tonight's message came accompanied by a key to open it. And Daryl goes through trying to escape again, just as before (though this time, he succeeds). The dramatic problem involved in this particular bit of Xeroxing is that, the first time around, the business of leaving his door unlocked turned out to be a trap and Daryl took a beating for it, yet only a few eps later, he's faced with essentially the same situation and does the same thing again, as if the first time had never happened. Mind-numbing repetitiveness, characters failing to learn and plot progression being made dependent upon them acting in incredibly stupid ways are all hallmarks of TWD, so it may be a mistake to read too much into this. Still, food for how much ever thought one wants to expend on this matter.[2]

Michonne hijacked a Savior last week--still another half-plot--intent on forcing the woman to take her to Negan. Tonight, in an utterly bizarre twist, she tells her captive that she isn't going to kill Negan. She's taken an action that will mean her death in order to get to Negan and she isn't even intent on killing the man once she gets to him? None of this leads anywhere either. When the pair get close to the Savior's compound, Michonne just turns around and leaves, apparently liquidating her hostage. Perhaps this will leave some viewers wondering what in hell was the point of any of this but seasoned viewers will recognize what this subplot brings to the ep, the most valuable things in the world to TWD's writers: it eats up screentime.

Other items: Ezekiel's right-hand man, whose name escapes me, is still trying to get Ezekiel to fight the Saviors, more material we've already seen. He tries to recruit Morgan and Carol to his cause. Morgan is back to his peacenik routine, while the writers' character assassination of Carol continues as she declares she wants no part of it or of anyone either. Both refuse to help, making this yet another meaningless screentime-consuming subplot. When Negan kills Spencer, Rosita draws her gun and shoots at him with her only bullet.[3] It hits his baseball bat instead. He isn't pleased. For no reason other than one of those idiotic fiats of the writers, Negan picks up and examines the shell-casing from this single round. He decides it was home-brew and demands to know who made it. Of course, even if Negan could determine the round had been reloaded at some point, there's no reason at all to assume this was done either recently or by anyone in the Safe Zone and, indeed, the fact that Rosita had only one is enough to make that an entirely counter-intuitive assumption--no one would bother going through the trouble involved in reloading ammo just to do a single bullet--but this is TWD.[4] When no one will tell him who made the bullet, he has one of his underlings shoot Olivia, another redshirt to fill out the finale-dictated death-quota that seems to be the only reason TWD's fans follow this series.

In the comics, Rick was only pretending to go along with Negan while secretly working against him. TV TWD has opted, instead, to do yet another tired version of Broken Rick, wherein Rick is the milksop with the blank stare who entirely gives in to Negan--more of those stellar leadership qualities. In discussing last week's ep with Lebeau over at Le Blog, I wrote:

"It wouldn’t be TWD if it didn’t have all the subtlety of a jackhammer. I think something will happen next week that will set Rick on the path of opposing Negan. Maybe that’s even how the ep--the midseason finale--will end, with Rick giving one of those patented TWD speech about how they’ll overtly play along for now but they’re secretly a’ gonna’ be workin’ against Negan fer however long it takes. 'We survive everything. We’ll survive this!'"

And that's pretty much how it played out tonight, except it was Michonne giving that speech. Negan's killing of Spencer and Olivia proves to be the miracle cure that unbreaks Rick's back. Most of our major characters go to Hilltop and are reunited--lots of hugs and semi-teary smiles set to emotional music--and decide they're going to find a way to take the fight to Negan. Just as soon as the next tv ratings sweeps period comes along.



[1] It isn't as mathematical as that--there's plenty of editing going on.

[2] The awful soap material with Dwight and his former wife was also repeated between those eps.

[3] Last season, Rosita, in the emotional backwash from Abraham's so cruelly dumping her, slept with Spencer. She never seemed particularly fond of him and this season, Spencer has gone out of his way to alienate her. In still another example of the writers trying to convince viewers of Rick's great leadership, she became furious with him for his ranting against Rick. If Spencer had been some little glimmer of hope on to which she'd been holding, she'd clearly lost her grip--she spent the entire ep plotting to kill Negan, knowing this would mean her death. Tonight, as Spencer was on his way over to kiss Negan's ass, he stopped and talked with Rosita for a while and they ended up flirting and parting on good terms, with the suggestion of dinner later, which didn't make a damn lick of sense. Spencer not only hasn't done anything to smooth over their divide, he immediately went to Negan and tried to convince the villain to bump off Rick and make him the leader, while Rosita watched.

[4] In another amusing bit of nonsense, the single shell-casing that Rosita recovered and that Eugene reloaded came from a Desert Eagle fired by Negan himself--probably a .44 Magnum round--yet the gun Rosita uses is a Beretta 92, which is a 9mm. Not compatible. Negan's bat stopped the bullet, which is credible in the case of a 9 (but wouldn't be credible at all in the in the case of a .44).

Twitter: @jriddlecult

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