Season 7, Episode 4.

After an infamous false death last season, and stringing us along all summer after teasing us of a major character’s demise, I had almost enough of the “sadness porn” that so often occupies the center of The Walking Dead. While I maintain the the writing on this show is at best a mixed bag, it softens the blow that the directTion is nearly always top notch, along with the acting, and the special effects and creature makeup is some of the best around. Just as viewers decades ago looked forward to The Outer Limits for a monster of the week reveal, many horror fans tune into TWD for expertly done zombie kills (as well as the occasional gruesome human death.

Still, seven seasons in, TWD is getting long in the tooth. The status quo was recently shaken up with the above mentioned major character death(s) at the hands of the strangely charming (in a huxster, used car salesman sort of way) Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, looking more like your  wacky aging uncle attempting to dress cool rather than the imposing menace the role probably called for) and his crew of misfits called the Saviors, rattling our remaining heroes to the core. “Service” is framed by Negan visiting Alexandria for the Saviors’ first pledge (half of everything the Alexandrians have). The power of the episode hinges on the idea of an Alpha male like Rick ever being subservient to anyone, and Negan does a good job of driving home just how emasculated Rick is in front of the people he’d sworn to protect. Negan even makes a point of having Rick carry around the infamous bat that he used to murder two of Rick’s closest friends while they survey the village. Indeed, our opening scene shows Rick and his love interest, Michonne, lying in bed together, fully clothed and facing opposite directions. It’s a stark contrast to the big reveal that they were a couple some time back, when they awoke together completely naked (and sexually fulfilled), sharing an apple. It’s clear that the weepy eyed Rick is in desperate need to convince all those around him that it’s not worth challenging Negan. As a failed leader, Rick at least wants to minimize any further collateral damage. There are minor hints of rebellion among Rick’s ranks, but by and large Rick and company seemed resigned to their fates for now.

Again, solid acting obfuscates a meandering plot. Just how many times are going to see Rick question his leadership skills, and how many times are we going to be shown that the real threat aren’t the zombies, but the survivors themselves? To top it off, there were only a handful of zombies this week, and no walker kills of note. Though there’s a few nice moments of tension, chiefly when the beleaguered Spencer (who was pretty damn safe and secure before Rick and his crew showed up; hell, he even made it to the zombie apocalypse with both parents living and still married!) questions Rick’s position of authority. Watching Rick threaten Spencer (who himself has just lost both parents and brother) it’s clear that Rick is punching down after himself being bullied. How much of his frustrations will he take out on the Alexandrians? It might be interesting to explore, but I have a feeling Rick will be back to hero mode before that sort of moral ambiguity is examined.

Final Rating: 2/5  

Craig is a co host of the Half Assed Horrorcast. His writing about horror has appeared on Bloody Good Horror, Fanboy Report and other places. Find him on twitter @4colorcraig.​

“Go Getters”

Season 7, Episode 5.

This week’s episode focused on the Hilltop community where Sasha and Maggie have holed up after the traumatic season premiere. We are reintroduced to Hilltop regulars Jesus (the vagabond gymkata expert) and Gregory (a not too subtle allegory for politicians that tow the line rather than take a stand). Though Maggie has received emergency medical attention that has saved the life of her and her late husband’s child (what a gut punch it was to hear Maggie declare her last name as Rhee), she still needs time to recover. This proves to be a problem, since Gregory insists that Maggie and Sasha leave the Hilltop as soon as possible, preferably before Negan’s men show up for their pledge. While the easy solution here is to assume that Negan’s men wouldn’t know who Maggie and Sasha are, let alone really care, Gregory is worried that his group will be guilty by association with Alexandria (he did, afterall, broker a deal with Rick to take out the Saviors, which backfired horribly) if they somehow did recognize the duo. Jesus, who has a less stable role at the Hilltop and perhaps hasn’t seen the full range of horrors the Saviors are capable of, convinces Gregory to allow Maggie and Sasha to stay overnight.

This sets the stage for one of the most fun sequences we’ve had this season, in which a Gremlin is rolled into the Hilltop community, its radio blaring music and attracting a small herd of walkers. None of the residents respond to the threat (indeed, it appears their reliance on the Savior's for protection has been effective; they don’t even bother with guards at the gate), but Sasha and Jesus sprint into action in an attempt to lessen the damage. In an inspired bit of zombie slaying, Maggie’s farm experience proves helpful as she uses a tractor to steamroll several walkers the car, disabling the Gremlin’s radio, giving Sasha and Jesus the upper hand and allowing them to close the gates. Despite this display of heroics, Gregory is still unconvinced that the pair should be allowed to stay at the Hilltop any longer.

However, Sasha and Maggie linger just long enough for the Saviors to show up before they leave. This sets the stage for us to see how Gregory negotiates on behalf of the Hilltop to the Saviors. This mostly involves a lot of groveling (though, to be fair, it was not unlike Rick’s beat dog act from last week’s episode). We get a window into Gregory’s sense of loyalty, and what a coward he’s truly capable of being.  

Meanwhile, we get a glimpse of Alexandria, and a defeated Rick venturing out to scavenge of Negan. Though Michonne is still stoic as ever, she seems to let the emasculated Rick off the hook with a kiss held for more than a few beats. This leads to a brief road trip (and roller skating date… seriously) for Carl and Enid as they make their way to visit the Hilltop.

Though the meat of this episode is a character study of Gregory, there’s some nice moments of our heroes dealing with the loss of loved ones. Maggie and Sasha seem determined to live and prosper, while being patient with their plots for revenge against Negan and the Saviors. On the other hand, with the way this episode ends, Carl has more immediate plans.

Final rating: 3/5 for some nice zombie kills, kung-fu Jesus, and Carl being terrible at darts.

Craig is a co host of the Half Assed Horrorcast. His writing about horror has appeared on Bloody Good Horror, Fanboy Report and other places. Find him on twitter @4colorcraig.


Season 7, Episode 6.

The Walking Dead is doing its best to do some world building. After nearly a decade of exclusively following a nomadic pack led by Rick, it feels like the writers are in a dash to establish as many communities as possible before reassembling the core group and actually dealing with the new big bad, Negan (and his group, the Saviors). Since our premiere episode, each story has focused more on communities than specific characters (Alexandria, The Kingdom, Sanctuary, The Hilltop), and now a beachfront group made up exclusively of women. It’s been interesting to explore how different gatherings of people have dealt with Negan (mostly through compliance), but it's frustrating to neglect any progression with characters we’ve followed so closely.

The episode opens with Tara (who has been missing since last March, before Negan’s ambush, and the death of Denise, her girlfriend) awakening on a beach riddled with bloated zombies. She is discovered by a young girl and her teenage companion, and taken back to Oceanside, a community that apparently kills outsiders on site. Tara is only spared because the teen, Cindy (Sydney Park), has a conscience despite Oceanside’s policy. In a move that felt a bit unnecessary, we are treated to flashbacks of how Tara was separated from Heath (Corey Hawkins, on break from saving the world as the lead in the 24 reboot). These flashbacks leave a question as to the fate of Heath (yet another false death, really?) after a very elaborate set piece involving a group of zombies that were trapped in sand/cement that a dump truck had dropped on them (it’s unclear if this is an honest mistake or another crazy trap from the Saviors). Back in the present day, Tara struggles to slip away from Oceanside, who actively tries to recruit rather than execute her.

The episode offers up a few interesting moral questions. Heath is clearly shaken by Rick’s decision to murder the Saviors in their sleep, while Tara stands by the merciless strike. Meanwhile, the revelation on why Oceanside has no men puts another notch in Negan’s belt as the most evil person TWD has ever dealt with, and makes it perfectly understandable why they’d shoot any outsider on site to keep their group a secret. The episode ends with Tara making a choice to lie, that actually underscores some character growth.

Final Rating 3/5 , an extra point awarded for the super cool Fulci zombie I spotted in with the group of cement truck walkers.

Craig is a co host of the Half Assed Horrorcast. His writing about horror has appeared on Bloody Good Horror, Fanboy Report and other places. Find him on twitter @4colorcraig.

“Sing Me a Song”

Season 7, Episode 7

Carl and Jesus hitch a ride to the Sanctuary, the compound of Negan’s group, the Saviors. While Jesus wisely uses stealth to gather information (and potentially help Daryl escape), Carl uses the opportunity for an assassination attempt. Carl fails, of course, and Negan personally takes Carl (and by proxy, us) on a tour of Sanctuary.

This episode establishes what seems like an unlikely bond between Negan and Carl. With Rick utterly emasculated, what starts as a suicide mission for vengeance ends up being the discovery of a twisted surrogate father. While it’s clear that Carl hates Negan, he does witness a leadership system that works in this new world of chaos. To see the workers at Sanctuary literally take a knee at the site of their leader, and to see them apparently happy at the prospect of fresh vegetables, Carl seems taken aback. Perhaps he sees the value of respect, and the advantages of a dictatorship over a democracy. Negan is full of backhanded compliments and manipulation tactics; it’s understandable that a young person would be intrigued, even impressed by such a bully with swagger. Negan calls Carl a serial killer in the making, and I couldn’t help but feel like a part of Carl enjoyed the designation. While what Negan did to Carl’s loved ones can never be forgiven, this episode does hint that Carl at least understands the methods the Saviors employ.

Meanwhile, Rick and Aaron stumble onto a lone survivalist's bunker, a house boat surrounded by a moat of bloated walkers. A nice set piece, if not a bit overly complicated (it felt like an unnecessary quest in a video game). It will be fun to see how far Rick is willing to go to gather supplies for Negan in the next episode. Eugene and Rosita have a brutal back and forth, and more seeds are planted for a potential retaliation against Negan (they’re making bullets). While this is a show that thrives on the disaster of its characters, I can’t help but want them to get together on the same page in their efforts to get back on top. I imagine that’s what we’ll be treated to in the back half of the season.

Final Rating 4/5 ...it would’ve been a perfect rating if Jesus and Carl had exchanged hair care tips. Also, am I the only on disturbed by Rick’s Seinfeld-esque mullet?

Craig is a co host of the Half Assed Horrorcast. His writing about horror has appeared on Bloody Good Horror, Fanboy Report and other places. Find him on twitter @4colorcraig.

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“Hearts Still Beating”

Season 7, Episode 8

This episode, while being unnecessarily extended, had a lot of great moments. Rick and Aaron indeed plunge into the moat of zombies in search of supplies, Daryl (with the help of Jesus) attempts an escape from the Saviors, Spencer finally tries to play politics and move against Rick. Rosita gets to use her one bullet, and Eugene proves that he is no coward. Negan makes pasta... Stuff happens!  A lot of it is silly (are we really supposed to care about the character deaths this episode?), but at least our characters make choices and do things! Still, am I the only one that feels like all of this could happened by episode five in a leaner, better edited story?

The mid-season hiatus is hurting AMC shows. Enough happens in this episode of The Walking Dead that I’m convinced that the writers have been forced to drag their heels, saving true momentum for when the show picks back up in February. Aside from the tragedy porn of the season premiere and the fun introduction of the Kingdom, it feels like all we’ve done is watch the season’s big bad, Negan, make a lot of idle warnings. What began as the ultimate threat has quickly fallen victim to the law of diminishing returns.

One could argue that all of this buildup will eventually be worth the pay off. We needed to see Rick and his group of survivalist alphas stripped down to mere shadows of their former selves. We can’t have our heroes win all the time, to simply shoot their way out of every problem by themselves. Perhaps, I’m just not sure we needed extended, commercial crammed episodes in order to do so.  

Frustrations aside, it was gratifying to see the group reunited in Hilltop at the end of the episode. Some of these characters haven’t seen each other since the beginning of the season, and there’s a real sense of hope for the future conflict against the Saviors. Daryl and Rick’s long embrace, punctuated with Daryl giving Rick his trusty pistol back (the symbolism is as subtle as a jackhammer here), was undeniably moving. I have to say, I’m dying for Morgan and Carol (who seems to be enjoying civilian life in the Kingdom all too much) to be on the same page as the rest of the group ASAP.

TWD, I’m pulling for you. See you in 2017.

Final Rating 3/5  I might’ve been higher if not for the baseball bat blocking a bullet gag. C’mon, guys…

Craig is a co host of the Half Assed Horrorcast. His writing about horror has appeared on Bloody Good Horror, Fanboy Report and other places. Find him on twitter @4colorcraig.