Spoiler warning: Do not read on unless you've seen the midseason finale of AMC's "The Walking Dead," titled "Start to Finish."
The word that comes to mind when I think back on the first half of "The Walking Dead" season six is "frustration." The show has had its share of pacing issues this year, largely due to the decision to set the first batch of episodes over the course of a couple of days, which - while an interesting idea on paper - has led to a scattershot storytelling approach that has strung some story threads out for far too long (like Sasha and Abraham's destructive jaunt through zombie territory, and Carl and Ron's sullen teen angst-off), and allowed for some downright self-indulgent narrative leaps that remain pretty unjustifiable (I've said all I need to say about Glenn's arc).
That sense of delayed gratification continued in "Start to Finish," which dispatched Deanna in typically heroic fashion after she received a zombie bite in the opening minutes -- her decision to take her own life rather than burdening another character with the act gave the episode its title, and she even managed to take some walkers down in the process -- but otherwise saved all the good stuff for the back half of the season.
One mark in the episode's favor: The hour was beautifully shot by Michael Satrazemis, who has been responsible for some of the show's most visually and emotionally arresting episodes to date - "The Grove," "Slabtown" and "Try."
The eerie opening scene saw Jessie's son Sam obliviously drawing a picture of two monsters (walkers?) flanking a victim tied to a tree, while listening to the strangely ominous "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" as an army of ants crept through his window to converge on a half-eaten cookie -- foreshadowing the hell that was about to break loose outside. And the first post-credits scene was a frenetic and heart-pumping exercise in tension-building, beginning with the John Carpenter-esque visual of the walkers ambling through the dust of the fallen watchtower like a throwback to "The Fog," before we saw Maggie narrowly escape being yanked from a ladder by the ravenous horde, a visual made all the more provocative by the knowledge that she's pregnant.
Sadly, it didn't take long for the episode to pump the breaks, killing the momentum of that opening with writer Matt Negrete's choice to check in with the many disparate groups of survivors, who all found themselves holed up in different houses. This approach inadvertently demonstrated on a micro scale some of the difficulty this season has encountered on a macro level: it's hard to maintain a sense of urgency or cohesion when we have to keep cutting back and forth between groups to fill in the blanks, always leaving us with the sense that something more interesting might be happening just off-screen.
The episode had its share of engaging character beats -- notably the long-overdue confrontations between Carol and Morgan (which ended with both getting knocked out and Morgan's captive Wolf escaping with poor Denise as a hostage), and Carl and Ron (which ended with both pretending that their vicious brawl never happened to avoid a whupping from their parents). As much as I respect Morgan's pacifist ideology, that approach has proven far too impractical time and again this season, and at least in the world of the show, it seems that giving second chances and having faith in the goodness of others often leads to ruin for our characters: Glenn's decision to trust Nicholas almost got him killed on two separate occasions; Morgan's insistence on sparing various Wolves has endangered not only Rick out in the RV but now also Denise, Carol, Tara, Rosita and Eugene; and you've got to wonder whether Carl's choice not to rat out Ron will have similarly disastrous consequences.
On the other hand, sometimes having a conscience pays off -- two of the most satisfying moments, emotionally, came from Deanna's discussions with Rick and Michonne. Rick's mistrust of the Alexandrians, while practical, has become a little one-note when everyone else in his group (even Daryl!) has softened to their naive but well-meaning hosts, so it was nice to see Deanna remind him that all of the Alexandrians are his people now. "I didn't run over to help you because I like you ... I ran over to help you because you're one of us," she pointed out.
But despite her close relationship with Maggie this season, it was Michonne who was the main beneficiary of Deanna's deathbed wisdom -- as Michonne saw some hope for Alexandria "even now," with walkers rampaging through the streets. Deanna challenged Michonne to figure out what she wanted for herself -- something that the warrior probably hasn't considered since she first lost her family. Now she sees a future amid the wreckage, which is no small thing, and she's armed with Deanna's dying advice, "Someday this pain will be useful to you."
The episode built to a fittingly stressful, but typically anticlimactic ending -- setting up for what looks certain to be a bloody midseason return in February. After deciding to revert to the tried and true method of avoiding zombie detection by covering themselves in undead guts, joining hands and walking slowly into the herd, Rick, Carl (with Judith), Michonne, Gabriel, Jessie, Ron and Sam looked like they might make it out in one piece -- at least until Sam started freaking out and calling to his mom right in the middle of the crowd.
Sadly, the series has always known how to bait a hook with a cliffhanger, fading to black just as Sam started having his meltdown, likely leaving the majority of fans as ravenous as herd of walkers to see how our gang will get out of such a deadly predicament. To make matters worse, AMC also offered a sneak peek at the prologue from the midseason return which only reinforced the feeling that the writers intend to keep treating us like Charlie Brown while they play Lucy with the football.
Taken on its own, "Start to Finish" was a solidly constructed hour that at least gave face time to most of our survivors -- allowing Eugene to make himself useful, for once; giving Rosita more than one line to say (two weeks in a row!); letting Deanna inspire both Rick and Michonne in very different ways; and allowing some simmering tensions to let off some steam -- even if it proved a little too eager to keep things coy and cryptic going into the back half.
But taken as part of a largely uneven block of episodes, the midseason finale doubled down on the show's unappealing tendency to bury us under more questions before providing any answers -- a narrative strategy that yields diminishing returns when viewers are so savvy (and so spoiler-hungry). Here's hoping that the latter half of season six feels more inclined to deliver instead of delay.
"The Walking Dead" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.