SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains major spoilers for "Hearts Still Beating," tonight’s episode of AMC’s "The Walking Dead," as well as the Image Comics series.
Keeping the core cast separated for much of this season of "The Walking Dead" has had its advantages and disadvantages. Overall, it's allowed the show to slow down and truly build its newly introduced communities, namely The Kingdom and The Sanctuary. When they both have even more prominent roles when the series returns in February, it will have helped that we got to spend some significant time within their walls; that we got to know many of the people and practices that make them unique. The measured speed of the storytelling makes us care more.
On the other hand, the slower pace has sometimes resulted in overlong stretches of storylines that, at the end of the day, became uninteresting. Negan strutting around Alexandria got old after a while, and Oceanside was always too outside of the main narrative to be captivating.
Ultimately though, the compartmentalized structure of this season paid off, as proven tonight by the final moments of "Hearts Still Beating." It's not until the core cast (save for Carol and Morgan) reunites at Hilltop Colony that we truly realize how long many of them have been apart. There's a lot of emotion in that hug between Rick and Daryl; between Rick and Maggie. And the payoff simply wouldn't have been as rewarding had these characters not been put through the ringer in separate locations. Daryl's arc in particular has an extra dose of catharsis when Jesus breaks him out of The Sanctuary, and he's able to steal back Rick's beloved Colt Python from Fat Joey (R.I.P.).
Outside of the emotional payoff, the slower pace of everything that came before allows the finale to move. Although it covers multiple storylines, nothing feels rushed -- from Michonne striking out on her own, then realizing The Saviors are too big to take on by her self, to Richard trying to convince Morgan and Carol to talk to Ezekiel about going to war. While I've repeatedly said how the "to-kill-or-not-to-kill" argument has grown oh so stale on "The Walking Dead," it was still refreshing to see two of the show's strongest characters once again enjoy each other's company.
But the episode's two best scenes are naturally its most action-oriented. "The Walking Dead" has consistently done aquatic zombies well, and Rick and Aaron's journey through the pond-gauntlet of walkers remains tense throughout. There's something thrilling about seeing them use their makeshift oars as skewers, all while their boat is gradually sinking, no less. At seven seasons in, the walkers on "The Walking Dead" almost seem like an afterthought, and "Hearts Still Beating" is a necessary reminder that, yes, the undead still exist, and yes, they still have the power to be very, very frightening.
The other highlight comes during Negan's interaction with Spencer. Just like in the comic, the latter approaches the leader of The Saviors in hopes of overthrowing Rick. But in a departure from the source material, their conversation takes place during an outdoor game of pool, played out for the entire community to see instead of being in private.
This adds some morbid extravagance and necessary weight to the sequence. Even in the comic, Spencer was always somewhat of a pathetic character that elicited little investment from the audience. That's true here, too, but because Negan disembowels him in front of both the Alexandrians and The Saviors, it suddenly becomes a tool for heightening tension between the two groups. Rosita takes it as an opportunity to shoot Negan (she misses and hits Lucille instead), Negan orders that people keep getting killed until she reveals where she got the bullet (sorry, Olivia), and Eugene eventually admits his role in the matter. When The Saviors leave Alexandria, it's with all the supplies Rick and Aaron scavenged, and with Eugene in captivity.
That reunion at Hilltop strongly ties "Hearts Still Beating" to its title, ending on a positive note as opposed to a negative one. The Alexandrians definitely take some licks, but because so many of them have been separated all season, their regrouping feels like a triumph in and of itself. Everything had to get a whole lot worse before it got any better, and in the second half of season 7, it looks like things actually might get better.
"The Walking Dead" -- and CBR's recaps -- will return on Feb. 12.