Too much time is wasted on a middling Walking Dead

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Too much time is wasted on a middling Walking Dead

“’Cause life is long, and then it isn’t.”

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B-

The Walking Dead

"The Other Side"

Season 7 , Episode 14

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“The Other Side” manages something I thought was nearly impossible at this point: it made me care about Rosita and Sasha’s friendship. Rosita’s become something of a drag of late, as her rage and self-loathing have made her tediously one note. Her interactions with Sasha, in which she never bothers to hide her resentment over Abraham, have been the worst of it. Sasha is less irritating, but she hasn’t had a lot to do other than mourn and plot revenge against Negan. Thankfully, by the end of this episode, both women felt a little closer to actual people again. It’s a simple trick—they bond over attempted murder and a list of Rosita’s ex-boyfriends—but an effective one.

The problem is that it takes about 40 minutes to get to that point, and those 40 minutes are kind of a slog. There’s a time for slow, methodical world-building, but we’re getting near the end of the season, and after multiple weeks of rising tension, “The Other Side” is a series of fits and starts, checking back in at Hilltop to see how things are progressing before finally (finally) launching Sasha and Rosita’s potentially suicidal assault on the Savior compound. For far too long, nothing much actually happens, and we’re left to wallow in the expected (and excellent, as ever) mournful music as people repeat the same old conversations.

Once again, Gregory finds himself facing off against Simon, Savior mouthpiece and all-around fun guy (and still the only actor outside of Jeffrey Dean Morgan to really get the whole bully/clown thing). The Saviors are short a doctor, so Negan has decided to take Dr. Harlan Carson out of Hilltop. It’s not a terrible way to raise tension; Maggie’s pregnant, and she can’t just pop over to the compound for a check-up when things get bad. Besides, Gregory’s people are already turning against him, and this is just another nail in the coffin of his leadership. The fact that it’s not his fault that they’re losing the doc doesn’t make anyone like him more.

But this is the sort of story turn that really should’ve been earlier in the season. Right now, given the stakes off everything else, given that we know that Rick is building an army, that there’s a group at Hilltop training to be in that army, and that Maggie is already pretty much the de facto leader of the place, despite Gregory’s protests to the contrary, it’s hard to care if Gregory’s on the ropes. Yes, it would be bad if the Saviors realized what was happening before our heroes would be ready to strike, and yes, Gregory seems to be in a good position by the end to ruin everything. So what, though?

There’s so much empty space now that it’s hard to get too worked up about anything. I’ve been watching this so long that sometimes I forget how familiar I am with The Walking Dead’s rhythms: a lot of slow, meandering build-up, punctuated by the occasionally effective character story or sudden act of horrific violence. Nothing completely out of character or egregiously stupid happened in the first two-thirds of this entry. But until we got some human moments out of Sasha and Rosita while they waited in their sniper’s perch, it was damnably difficult to care about what was happening on screen.

There’s this thing that happens when you start to get better as a writer. First you get good at spotting the obviously terrible parts of your work—the bad sentences, the clumsy plot swerves, the crummy jokes. But eventually you reach a point where you realize that “basically fine” isn’t good enough, that even if a scene is believable and reasonably entertaining, it can still be a drag on the overall narrative if it doesn’t serve a greater point. The Walking Dead has achieved a level of competency where it’s rarely completely stupid or inept. It has style and tone and mood to spare. Even the premiere, which I railed against so heartily, was horrible because of what it was trying to say (or how little it had to express) rather than a basic failure of artistry.

That makes it easier to watch, but it also makes it harder to pinpoint when things go wrong, because it’s not a single, isolated event. Gregory’s desperate negotiations with Simon have two good actors playing a predictable but decent scene—and the fact that Simon tells Gregory to report to him directly if anything happens is clearly setting up something down the road. Likewise, giving Daryl and Maggie a moment to remember Glenn certainly has some value. They’re two of the longest surviving characters on the show, and it feels proper to take some time to acknowledge their shared loss.

Really, the only problem with that scene is that it starts with Daryl nearly killing a Savior in a basement, which makes him look to be about the dumbest guy in the world. (I get Daryl’s time in lock-up fucked him up a bit, but there’s a difference between “angry” and “doing something that would almost certainly get everyone killed,” and I feel like Daryl’s trauma wouldn’t justify crossing that line.) But neither it nor the Simon/Gregory stuff is particularly vital. It’s just throat-clearing for the most part, odds and ends to take care of while we wait for war to arrive.

The Rosita and Sasha scenes struggle with this too. Did anyone really need that much exposition as to how they found a car to drive to the Savior compound? Yes, it offered a chance to shoehorn in some zombie stuff, but there was no suspense in that, and using a car fire to temporarily distract a small group of walkers wasn’t something we needed to see. Mostly it just felt like padding until they finally got to their destination; even Rosita noticing that Sasha was wearing a necklace she’d made for Abraham didn’t do much more than remind us of a conflict we’ve had no opportunity to forget.

So I was all set to dismiss this entirely until the finally 10 or 15 minutes. But while Rosita’s list of ex-boyfriends isn’t the best writing the show’s ever had, it at least allowed her some nuance. The discovery that Eugene is working for the other side also paid off nicely, and Sasha’s decision to leave Rosita behind while she makes a final (and almost certainly doomed) run on Negan is a nice twist. At least stuff is actually happening, and there will absolutely be consequences—horrible, horrible consequences—to Sasha’s actions. There’s been some good character work in the back half of this season, but a show made of zombies and murder can’t survive on character work alone.

Stray observations

  • Are we supposed to be worried Rosita got caught? Because that shadowy figure is obviously Daryl. (Unless they’re going to do a fake out and have it be Dwight, I guess.)
  • Jesus is gay. That’s cool.
  • How long has Maggie been pregnant? I know this has come up before, but I keep wondering if it’s weird that she isn’t showing at all. (But then, time on this show has always been wonky.)
  • Another problem with too many character building scenes: the dialogue is still not reliably good. People spend a lot of time describing their personalities to each other like we were watching behind the scenes interviews, and that’s when they aren’t just explicitly stating things that we all saw happen. (Maggie’s “You were gonna kill that guy!” to Daryl is a great example of a line that really didn’t need to be said.)
  • It is bizarre that the Saviors’ dead doctor and the Hilltop doctor are brothers.
  • I still like Gregory way more than I suspect I’m supposed to. He’s a pretty classic bad guy archetype—the cowardly weasel who uses “getting along” as an excuse to protect himself and his privilege—but he’s just more interesting than so many of the show’s run of dour do-gooders.