I don’t need my heroes to be perfect. But I’d prefer it if they weren’t this dumb. It’s bad enough that Aaron and Enid wander over to Oceanside hoping to make an impression with a truck full of booze and good intentions. (You took all of their guns. I don’t think they’re going to greet you as liberators.) Bad enough that Daryl didn’t stay behind to make sure his plan worked. But what really makes this miserable is that there really was no plan. Oh sure; guide the herd to the Sanctuary. That’s fine. But phase two seems to be a lot of crossed fingers and not much else. Once again, Negan and his army are out on the hunt. I guess it’s supposed to be terrifying, but given the ineptitude required to get to this point, it’s hard to care much.

Look, it’s pretty clear what the show is trying to do. The arc of the first eight episodes of this season is obvious: the good guys team up to take down the Saviors, and everything goes perfectly right up until it doesn’t. That’s how this stuff works. That’s how this stuff has always worked—if the plans always succeeded, there’d been no reason to tell the story, and if the plans never succeeded, there’d be no one to tell the story to. You can even see the writers trying to find ways to keep it interesting. A squabble between Daryl and Rick, Eugene’s angst, Maggie and Jesus arguing over safety of the hostages, Ezekiel losing and then regaining his mojo. That’s the sort of texture you need to keep old and familiar elements fresh.

But it doesn’t work. For one thing, there’s not enough story here to fill eight episodes. If I had to guess, I’d say the writers started knowing they needed to have a big opening at the premiere and a big cliffhanger for mid-season and then went to work filling in the rest, because this structure reeks of stalling. The single biggest flaw of the season so far, the reason that so much of tonight’s episode feels like wading through mildly poisonous tapioca, is time. There’s too damn much of it. Individual scenes can be haunting or creepy or even effectively funny, but all that dead air—all those goofy dramatic extreme close-ups and endless, circular conversations—robs entire hours of energy and purpose.

Hours like “How It’s Gotta Be,” in which several dramatic and arguably cataclysmic events occur, and yet very little of it seems to matter. Daryl’s plan to destroy the Sanctuary once and for all is foiled by Eugene’s quick thinking. Negan goes on the war path, and both the Kingdom and Alexandria fall. Maggie and her people lose their guns (along with a guy named Neil, whose only character trait so far as I could tell was to say “Damn straight,” “Oh shit,” and then get shot), but she decides it’s time to get hardcore, shooting one of her Savior hostages and leaving a message on the coffin. The King gets captured. Eugene decides to help Gabriel after all. And, oh yeah, Carl gets bitten by a zombie.

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At least I think it’s a zombie. It would be weird to find out that it was just some random Savior, but the fact that a walker managed to dig its teeth into his torso and break the skin without getting any flesh is odd. That aside, this is a legitimately big deal. Carl was, if anything, even more than of an untouchable than (poor, doomed) Glenn, and his death is one of the few left on the show that would still have the power to shock. It’s technically possible that the writers could blink on this one, but given that the fatality of zombie bites has been a core part of the premise since the first season (I think? It’s such a standard presumption of the genre that I can’t remember the first time it actually happened to someone on the show), I’d say he’s a goner. And while I won’t exactly miss him, I have to give credit for the risk.

And yet—the problem with playing this as a cliffhanger is that it isn’t, really. Either Carl dies like everyone else who’s ever gotten bitten dies, or the show is cheating and it loses what little authority it has left. There’s some meta-tension there, I suppose, but that’s not really the sort of tension you want; it’s more distracting than engaging. In terms of suspense about the fate of characters, it’s similar to the “Who did Negan beat to death?” cliffhanger, because it’s less about what happens next, and more about dragging out a surprise as long as possible. This is less of an obvious bad choice than waiting all summer to see Glenn and Abraham get whacked, but it still speaks to what will most likely be the show’s final, and fatal, narrative crisis: trying to drag out what little story is left as long as possible.

Because man, does this feel empty. Despite all the big events, so much of “How It’s Gotta Be” is boring, and so little of it makes sense. Even if you could fix the pacing problems, you’d still be faced with the fact that Negan is suddenly back to full force, and that despite having been trapped in their headquarters for… uh… days, let’s say days, the Saviors are able to mount an immediate response. And you’d still have to explain why, despite Negan’s assurances that he’s the baddest of bad asses, that response is so relatively muted. Oh sure, it’s not particularly friendly to burn Alexandria down, but given what happened at the Sanctuary, this is almost proportional?

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That’s an argument for another night, though. Or maybe never; I’ve talked at length about the show’s secret crush on Negan, and I doubt that’s going to change any time soon. Once you get past Carl’s unfortunate close encounter, all that really sticks here is how little there is to hold on to, and how unwilling the show is to give us anything like closure. Apart from Neil, the Oceanside woman that Enid shot (remember that? I almost didn’t), and some random Saviors, nobody dies. Some people are in bad spots, and it’s not like a “mid-season finale” needs to end in a blood-bath. But given the boredom, given the sloppy plotting and world-building, it’s hard to get worked about any of these poorly placed question marks. Carl is almost certainly doomed. But all I can really think about is all the sad music and teary close-ups we’re going to have to sit through until he’s in the ground. It’s bad when all a show has left is what character dies next. But it’s worse when even that fails to move the needle much.

Stray observations

  • There’s no real moral to Carl’s injury. I guess you could say that the fact that he managed to bring back the guy Rick tried to scare off is a symbol of how to find hope even in the face of death or something, but given how things currently are in Alexandria, you wonder if that guy would’ve been better off on his own.
  • Eugene’s sudden decision to help Gabriel after spending so much time last week working himself up to not doing it almost works. But between this and the fact that we never see his actual herd-distracting plan in action (we saw the dry run, but not the final event) it’s hard to shake that “wait, did I miss an episode?” feeling.
  • I appreciate that Simon assumed everyone at Hilltop would care as much about Jerry as I do.
  • What’s Maggie’s plan here? Again, the show suffers from its inability to build a coherent geography and give us a clear understanding of the stakes. Everything seems to happen semi-arbitrarily; it’s less a confluence of character motivation and context and more “well, this would look cool here.” The fact that she shoots a hostage is clearly paying off the earlier arguments, but it’s hard to tell if she’s being a bold strategist or an idiot.
  • After all that time with the Scavengers, they disappear five minutes into the episode and never come back.
  • Daryl’s plan isn’t what let the Saviors out. But it wasn’t devastating enough to kill all of them before Eugene could save the day, so I guess it’s a wash.
  • Why in the hell wasn’t Michonne in charge at Alexandria? That is literally the only defensible reason for leaving her out of initial attack.

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