Cliffhangers are tricky. They can be used as a way to invite narrative tension, like we saw at the end of “A Most Powerful Adversary”, a recent episode of The Leftovers where a character was thought to be dead. Or, they can be used in a cheap way to get people to come back next week. It’s easy to tell if they’re used in a cheap way, as the rest of the show’s narrative mechanics are tossed aside for the sake of the cliffhanger. Instead of a way to invite curiosity, it’s a way to push somebody to simply come back because the story was cut off. And, let’s face it, there are very few shows today that can pull off a cliffhanger because it’s so easy to use them poorly.
That being said, I’ll be blunt: “Start to Finish” was not a good episode of television. Aside from maybe “Now”, it was the most disappointing episode of the season to date. It took the massive build-up that the season has accomplished and largely squandered it for the sake of starting out with a “bang” next February. The zombie invasion, instead of focusing on logistics and how to escape, largely focused on a very literal commentary concerning the main theme at play: connection instead of isolation. This entire season has been about the struggle between taking a risk to find connection and embracing isolation to stay safe, and, at the very least, “Start to Finish” focuses on that theme.
There are, for the most part, two storylines at play during this episode. There’s the absolutely ridiculous Carol vs. Morgan storyline, which makes sense thematically but makes no sense logically. And there’s the Rick trying to keep the zombies out of the house storyline, which is narratively the most exciting but is muddled by deathbed speeches and ridiculous teenage angsty fighting. Carol and Morgan have been at odds throughout the season, as both have a different philosophy on how to deal with the world. I really do like the way that the show has pitted them against the other, not because it’s particularly exciting, but because both have philosophical views of the world that are rigid, yet flawed. Carol understands that killing is necessary in order to survive in the world, but she doesn’t understand that, without making yourself a little vulnerable, you’re going to end up alone in the world. Morgan, on the other hand, understands that killing leads to self-annihilation, but doesn’t understand that some level of violence is necessary to survive. The healthy worldview lies somewhere between the two, even if they can’t see it.
But dear lord, that fight next to the injured Wolf was absurd. Fighting over the fate of the Wolf, all during the zombie invasion (where making noise probably isn’t a good idea) was something that both Carol and Morgan are smart enough to avoid, but for some reason had to engage in for the sake of narrative tension. It’s one of those moments that feels so manufactured that it drains the stakes away and kills the immersive feel of the show. Almost more absurd is the resolution to the Ron vs. Carl issue, where Ron tries to kill Carl in the garage, only to have Rick break into the garage and pull them both out before they’re engulfed by zombies. Their squabbles never reached anything above some very basic motivations, so they always made Ron look like a bratty teenager. It’s easy to understand that Ron is reeling from the idea that his family is falling apart, but the show never tries to sell that, instead giving us some terrible line from Carl about how Ron must be mad that his dad is dead, but too bad because his dad was a jerk. It slaps the most basic motivation onto Ron without discussing just why that motivation was occurring.
But the most disappointing facet of this episode has to be the way that Rick’s season-long character arc was paused until next season instead of concluded now. Rick has been struggling against the massive forces in the new status quo, be it zombie hordes or groups of insane survivors, and while his plans aren’t foolproof, his failure isn’t entirely his fault. He deals with things as intelligently as he can, which is better than most of the cast can do, but his issue comes from his inability to work with everybody in Alexandria. He trusts his group to lead the herd away, to fight the zombies, but he doesn’t trust anybody in Alexandria. And until he learns to accept everybody into his group, he’s going to have trouble getting anything done. However, it isn’t as if accepting everybody is easy, or even smart. We see in this episode how some of the native Alexandrians have trouble surviving in the new world, as Sam (Jessie’s little son) can’t even begin to fathom how to deal with the “monsters”. So how does Rick find a balance between accepting the Alexandrians and keeping from taking too many risks? That’s what he has to figure out if he’s going to make it out of Alexandria alive.
And that’s a great thematic idea to draw from, finding a balance in an insane world. But these mid-season finales have a tendency (though not always) to stall for the sake of cliffhangers. When this stalling happens, everything is torn down for the sake of building a false tension. Instead of seeing some resolution in Rick’s thematic arc, we see a cliffhanger where Rick and Co wade out into the zombie horde with blood and viscera all over them. Even Carol and Morgan, both of whom experience some sort of resolution when they’re beaten down, haven’t worked out their philosophical differences by the end of this episode. There’s almost no closure at all here, and it makes the episode far worse than if it just cut ten minutes of characters rambling and included the bloody zombie walk as the climax of the season. It’s infuriating, and it starts the three-month break on a sour note.
I like The Walking Dead. It’s a fun show, where you can watch blood and guts fly when zombies are torn apart and people are torn open. But these cheap tension-building tricks, from Glenn and the dumpster to the many cliffhangers in “Start to Finish”, have to go. They do nothing but stall, and in a show as frenetic as The Walking Dead, stalling really stands out, making the show more tedious than anything else. Sure, the post-credits scene teases the new villain, Negan. Sure, the fallout from the bloody zombie walk will most likely be shocking and brutal. But there’s only so much teasing that can happen before we just want the show to get on with it.
So, get on with it, The Walking Dead. You will be much better off if you do.
What did you think of the mid-season finale? Will the zombie walk go as planned? Will Negan be more interesting than he is in the comics? Let me know in the comments!