The threads are all pulling together. The different communities we’ve been glancing at all season are now headed towards a common goal: taking out Negan and ridding themselves of the yoke of Savior service. For a winter finale, Hearts Still Beating was oddly subdued, but the pot it stirred will spend several months simmering before the lid comes off in the new year. And that’s about as far as I can stretch that metaphor, so let’s just talk about what went down.
Negan’s still hanging out in Alexandria, waiting for Rick to come back. He drinks lemonade. He makes Carl spaghetti. And he shoots pool with Spencer, who makes the case for removing Rick as the leader of the town. Spencer wants to work with the Saviors, be a reasonable guy, but Rick, hey, man, he’s just a troublemaker, so wouldn’t it make more sense to get him out of the way? But Negan isn’t in power just because he can swing a bat; he understands how people think and behave, and how to push their buttons exactly the right way to get them to do his bidding. Rick hates him, sure, but Negan can work with that. It’s a known quantity. Conversely, Negan finds Spencer’s attempt to flatter him into doing his dirty work for him pretty insulting, and thus Spencer becomes quite literally a gutless wonder as Negan slices him open right in the middle of the street. Rosita, totally ok with dying if it means she gets revenge for Abraham, takes her shot at Negan… and misses. For god’s sake, she misses and hits the damn bat. A Savior shoots Olivia as punishment, cuts Rosita’s face for good measure, and Eugene reveals that he’s the one who made the bullet to prevent anyone else from being killed as retribution. So that went well.
The one very interesting part of that whole mess was that Negan was pissed. Not because she took a shot at him, per se, but because he was so surprised. He didn’t see it coming, and when you’re the guy whose power comes in part from seeing things coming, that’s a problem. When Rick does finally show up, having braved a river full of zombies to collect supplies from an abandoned boat, the damage has been done and now Alexandria is even “deeper in the hole” with the Saviors. So, hey, your shitty life is now shittier, Rick, despite the fact that you were doing everything you could to live up to your end of the deal. Which is basically exactly what he needed to be ready to fight. Coming at Negan from a place of rage won’t work - tried that, failed. Meekly acquiescing to him won’t work - tried that, more people died. What Rick realizes, with a bit of help from Michonne, who had her own revelation as she looked down upon the enormous Savior settlement, is that the time has come to fight back intelligently. Members of the Kingdom feel the time has come to get rid of Negan as well, and The Hilltop - now led by Maggie in all but name - is also down with teaming up. Darryl’s escape from The Saviors, spurred by a note that said “go now”, indicates there may be some support from that camp, too.
And so we see our survivors tearfully reunite at Hilltop, all together again for what feels like the first time in years, and in that moment, it feels like we’re getting our Walking Dead back, too. Ok, Jesus and Enid being there feels a bit odd, like the guy you kind of sort of know tagging along as you all go to the movies and you don’t know a polite way to tell him to go home, but whatever. It’s still really sweet to see Daryl return Rick’s gun. Take it as a show of affection, or of support, or a call to arms - or all of the above. Rick’s revolver is as much a part of his identity as his badge once was, the one personal possession he still has after so much has happened. Now that he has it back, he has the chance to be the old Rick once again, though hopefully a bit wiser after his fall from grace. The pieces are all aligned for a satisfying resolution to the war with the Saviors, though there is one extra piece hanging around the edge, probably waiting to either provide a bit of deus ex machina or to replace Negan as the threat du jour. Someone was watching Aaron and Rick salvage the supplies from the boat, and later followed them back to Alexandria. The owner of the boat, perhaps? That would explain the bizarre “Congratulations, you still lose” note left behind in the crates. I was really hoping for some kind of exotic poison or something that would kill anyone who actually ate whatever they found, but this really isn’t that kind of show.
Even if it wasn’t the dramatic cliffhanger you’d expect for a mid-season finale, Hearts Still Beating got stuff done, and trusted the audience to be able to follow more than one thread at a time. We can visit with Carol and Morgan while watching Jesus help Daryl escape and witness Negan’s latest tete a tete with Rick and keep it all straight, and more importantly, see how something happening in one location potentially impacts another. By pulling the various disparate threads together, The Walking Dead has created a far more interesting picture. With luck, next season will continue that trend.