Sometimes The Walking Dead meanders in circles for weeks on end, not really getting anywhere or saying anything. And then, sometimes the show packs an entire season into a minute. Just about everything that the last dozen or so episodes have been trying to say is encapsulated by the cold open of the midseason finale, "Start to Finish": The perpetually petrified pre-teen Sam Anderson locks himself into his bedroom with his toys and his scratchy, old-timey records. The camera pans over to a crack by the window, where a line of ants has been crawling through and devouring the boy's leftover snacks. This is the way things are now. You can try and shut out the nightmare. You can try to stay innocent. But the pestilence still creeps in.
The comedy of errors set in motion by Rick during this season's premiere now finds its way back to his doorstep, as the crushing zombie horde he failed to route away now streams through a huge hole in the the Zone's wall, broken open by a massive fallen tower. Chaos reigns. Everything goes haywire, and everyone fights for their lives. But after a frenzied first few minutes — during which Deanna gets bit, Carol suffers a blow to the head, and Maggie shambles up a ladder to a safe space, the episode eventually settles back into another round of arguments over what it takes to survive.
For some Walking Dead fans, this may seem an insufficient way to go into the break, after an arc that started strong and then spun its wheels for a while — throughout which arguments raged on-line over whether the clumsily handled fake-out "death" of Glenn would be a permanent dealbreaker. But divorced from all the external conversations about the series as a whole, this one individual chapter is actually pretty strong. Yes, it offers more cliffhangers than resolutions; no, it doesn't catch us up on where all the characters are. (Daryl? Abraham? Sasha? All absent until the post-credits tag...more on that in a bit.) But it's incredibly tense throughout, and aided by several images just as loaded as that opening shot of insects swarming.
Give a lot of credit to director Michael E. Satrazemis for the look of this episode, and to writer Matthew Negrete (and the rest of showrunner Scott M. Gimple's staff) for making all-too-common philosophical debates genuinely exciting again, because of the context of where they take place. Carl and his petulant rival Ron Anderson bicker yet again over whether Rick's a bad man, as walkers are drawn to the sound of all the yelling and scuffling — making the underlying point of their disagreement more urgent. Tara tries to reassure Rosita that Abraham's still alive and that the town needs this trial-by-zombie to thrive — all in a garage where the undead are pounding at the windows, seen in ominous shadow. Carol and Morgan resume their fight over whether he should've killed all the Wolves rather than keeping a wounded one captive, but the discussion happens in a house where the lone Wolf himself is loosely bound, threatening Dr. Denise.
And then there's Deanna, who continues her talks with Michonne about her vision of building Alexandria into self-sustaining community — all while the ex-congresswoman is minutes away from "turning." ("Well … shit," she says when she sees the teeth marks and realizes what's happened to her.) If there's one element that keeps "Start to Finish" from feeling like one long tease, it's Deanna's refusal to die until she's said everything she wants to say, and done everything she wants to do. She harangues Rick into realizing that he can't pick and choose which of the ASZ residents he'll look after. She takes one last look at his baby — in a creepy-as-hell scene that makes it seem like she’s about to eat the girl. And she ultimately chooses to shoot more walkers rather than killing herself.
Her fighting spirit isn't the only thing that animates this episode. The hour ends with Rick pulling the old gut-masking trick once more, slathering his people in zombie innards so that he can pass undetected through the monsters surrounding them. It's always terrifying when TWD's characters try this, milling slowly through a mob of mindless predators. And this half-finale ups the ante by having Sam screw up the plan, calling for his mother repeatedly just before the credits roll. Naïveté may have been cute in the world that was, but it's a liability now. The last scene here makes that point as powerfully as the first one.
But there's something else going on with that nail-biting non-conclusion. As Rick and company hold hands and move in a line out the front door, don't they look a little bit like ants? And isn’t there a positive way to spin an infestation, as way of proving that life — in its myriad weird forms — will always go on?
Here's the thing: The Walking Dead really does need to develop a more intricate, far-reaching plot again in this season's second half, and to stop focusing so much on theme-building. Given what's coming up in the original comics, that's bound to happen soon (or at least the post-credit teaser for next year's episodes suggest as much). Still, it's hard to discount the moment-to-moment excitement, anxiousness, and existential musings that this show keeps on generating. Even when it's moving too slow, the series still has some bite.
Previously: Welcome Back?