There’s this ancient tradition called “flyting.” The word comes from the Old English, and we mostly associate it with England, but the idea is so basic that we have it in every culture.
Two people — often leaders or battlefield heroes — line up opposite each other, usually with some barrier between them, and trade insults back and forth. Each boasts of his own prowess and the weakness of his opponent. No blows are landed, only words. They trash-talk, essentially.
There’s more ritual to it than that — and once again, I’m greatly oversimplifying something in order to talk about it in the context of the effing Walking Dead — but that’s the idea. Insults. Verbal boasting. Cheers and jeers. We see this all over the place in our current world, whether it’s two athletes snapping back and forth or friendly wars of words on Twitter. Flyting can be driven by antipathy; usually is. But it can also break out between friends. It’s fun.
If there’s one thing I have never believed about The Walking Dead’s Negan, it’s that nobody really tries to give back what he dishes out. He tosses around insults like there’s no tomorrow, and for the most part the other characters stand there meekly and take it. Where’s the pushback? Where are the return boasts? Where’s the sarcasm?
As my colleague Aja Romano pointed out last week, Negan is just a bully, and not a particularly inventive one.
This has reduced the show to a rut. Negan says something, other people cower before him, and sometimes these encounters escalate to violence. Then Negan gets the best of everybody else. Over and over again.
“Hearts Still Beating,” the midseason finale of The Walking Dead’s seventh season, offers a few small steps in the right direction, but not nearly enough. Or, put another way, the show might not be out of the rut, but at least seems aware that it was in one.
Stories this baldly repetitive aren’t fun to watch, no matter their intention
At its best, The Walking Dead is a pulpy, involving show. There are series that can get away with long strings of repetition, because they have stronger storytelling or are more visually inventive or what have you. You might think of how Better Call Saul built much of its second season around the drudgery its main character felt while working at a big-ticket law firm, then explored both his anomie and his attempts to get out of a job he didn’t want.
The Walking Dead is not a show that can get away with repetition. It’s already pretty repetitive, in that there are only so many ways to stage a zombie attack. (“Hearts Still Beating” actually comes up with a pretty solid new variation, which I’ll get to in a bit.)
Add to that the fact that every new story arc is some variation of “a promising new settlement actually isn’t promising once Rick meets a new enemy (who is sometimes himself),” and you have a recipe for things starting to feel old, fast.
So the strength of the show — at least when it’s at its strongest — has always come from its examination of how the characters either strengthen or crumble in the face of this dark new world. It hasn’t always been terribly graceful at that, particularly when it comes to the endless wars about leadership the characters have, but when it works, that’s the space it lives in.
This made it slightly baffling to me to have Talking Dead — the post-episode talk show recap that AMC airs every week — on while writing this and hear Robert Kirkman, an executive producer of the TV show and writer of the comic it’s based on, talk about how we’d been watching a full season of Rick realizing he needed to fight, or that we should be freaked out that Daryl no longer wants to make peace. Both of those things seemed so deeply buried that I’m surprised the show wanted us to be cognizant of them at all. The Walking Dead is many things, but it’s not particularly subtle.
Instead, season seven has been the Negan show. He struts and preens and tells awful jokes, and we wait for him to do something bad to make the plot lurch forward again.
In the midseason finale, he kills Spencer by disemboweling him after Spencer tries to get Negan’s support in a coup against Rick. Then, after Rosita finally fires her single bullet and hits Lucille instead of Negan, the man has a follower shoot a random Alexandrian. (Said follower picks Olivia, which feels especially random, given how little time the show has devoted to her beyond “Negan made her cry.”)
“Hearts Still Beating” tries to make the argument that all of these events were enough to finally push Rick toward fighting back, toward drawing together with Hilltop in an alliance that will, presumably, eventually include the Kingdom and that community of Water Women with all the guns that Tara found a couple of weeks ago.
But is there anyone in the audience who didn’t get there ages ago? Is there anyone for whom this is a surprise? Rick’s alliance with Hilltop doesn’t carry the feeling of “Finally!” It carries the feeling of grudging acceptance of what’s about to come: more Negan.
Despite all that, there’s some pretty good stuff in this episode
And yet “Hearts Still Beating” has its moments. (I daresay that at a standard length, instead of an overstuffed 85 minutes, this episode might have been genuinely good.)
I loved Rick and Aaron’s adventure through the zombie-infested lake in a rapidly sinking boat, which felt like a challenge out of a brain teaser but made for one of the most purely entertaining action sequences the show has managed in a while. Michonne’s road trip with the abducted Savior wasn’t quite as compelling, but Danai Gurira sold the hell out of it.
It was nice to see Carol and Morgan again, and I’m glad Daryl is no longer a Savior captive, even if I have no idea what his story was supposed to be about. And there was some great cross-cutting between the Saviors beating the hell out of Aaron and Spencer trying to cut a deal with Negan.
If you’re going to do an episode whose entire point is, “Rick decides it’s time for the show to have a plot again,” there are probably worse versions than this. (There are also better versions.) There were some genuinely pulse-pounding sequences, and everything with Negan gutting Spencer, Rosita shooting at him, and things just getting worse from there finally gave the show the queasy sense of very bad things going south in a hurry.
That’s good, because The Walking Dead has struggled to truly convey any of the weight of what Negan does. Thanks to some combination of his jokey dialogue, Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s performance, and the other characters just watching him do his thing, he’s come to feel like an enemy in a video game cut scene — where you wait and wait for the screen to say “Press X to continue” so you can finally fight the dude.
My guess is that this is very much intentional. Showrunner Scott M. Gimple and his writers want us to feel like there’s no hope — Rick and company have even lost Eugene, their bullet maker! — before they offer the tiniest glint of a silver lining around that very dark cloud.
But it’s all miscalibrated and logy. Did we really need that lengthy, lengthy montage of the characters hugging at the end to know they were all glad to see each other? Nah. We probably could have figured that out on our own.
There’s been much written about how The Walking Dead’s ratings have sagged this season, blaming that on the grim hopelessness of the Negan storyline. I would quibble with this a bit. The show’s ratings were already down last season, by a bit, which those of us who follow TV ratings would tell you usually presages a steeper fall in future seasons. But even I’ll admit a show that was once kinda fun even when it was actively bad is now a slog.
We’re just wise to how this show works now. We know a battle with Negan is coming. We know Rick will win, and some of his friends will die. We know that good will triumph, until some new evil enters the story. We know, we know, we know. That’s usually an invitation for a TV show to push pedal to metal, but The Walking Dead shuffles more and more slowly with each passing year, just like one of the creatures in the title.