Review: A ‘Walking Dead’ zombie invasion turns dull from ‘Start to Finish’

A review of tonight's “The Walking Dead” mid-season finale coming up just as soon as I listen to “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”…

You may recall that one of my many objections to Glenn's survival in “Heads Up” was that it shattered the illusion that any core characters would be in real danger anytime soon. So it certainly didn't help to follow that episode with one where Alexandria was completely overrun with zombies, yet the only casualty was Deanna(*), while the worst injuries suffered by anyone else in the group were Morgan and Carol getting hit in the head a few times.

(*) And, frankly, after The Glenn Incident – which this episode featured a bit of meta commentary on, intentional or not, when Tara noted that she doesn't believe Abraham is dead because she hasn't seen it – I wouldn't even be so sure that Deanna's actually dead. Hell, maybe those bite marks on her abdomen were from Sam, who's gotten into some weird stuff while he's been up in his room for what seems like months, when it's really only been a day and a half.

Now, I don't need to see “Walking Dead” characters die every week. If anything, this show and “Game of Thrones” have pushed TV drama's death obsession to an extreme, and “Walking Dead” has whacked enough regulars over the years that new deaths tend to have less impact unless they're done with a higher degree of effort and artistry than is the norm. But when you drop one of your main characters into a zombie mosh pit and let him literally crawl away unscathed, and then when you send a few hundred zombies roaming through your new post-apocalyptic paradise and only bump off the old lady whose entire family has been canon fodder since they first appeared? When you can't even bring yourself to murder Father Gabriel, whom no one in the audience or on the series likes? Then you aren't just undermining the illusion of life and death stakes; you're actively telling the audience not to worry about this or any future peril in which our heroes find themselves. You're just inviting the audience to stand around, slack-jawed, like Rick and the gang on Jessie's porch, marveling at the spectacle but untouched by any of it.

I don't expect this moratorium on main character deaths to last forever, but the show has dug itself a pretty deep credibility hole. Even if we were to return in February with Glenn falling out of that tree, being torn to pieces by zombies, and having Enid deliver his lifeless severed head to a weeping Maggie, I don't know that it's going to magically unring this particular bell, particularly since the storytelling beyond who lives and who dies has been so lazy and uncompelling this fall. From Rick's horrible plan that everyone kept insisting was secretly awesome, to the weirdness about the passage of time, to that strangely inert Daryl/Abraham episode a few weeks ago, to Morgan's refusal to kill under any circumstance turning him into a strawman whom Carol was right to mistrust and attack, it feels like nothing's being properly thought through because, hey, the zombies still look great and the audience hasn't stopped watching, so why put in more than the minimal amount of effort?

I know that's not actually what's going on, just because I know how much sweat goes into making even the worst TV shows ever(**). And there have been some good episodes in here. “Here's Not Here” was a fine character study that was a victim of bad timing. Had Glenn actually stayed dead – or, had the dumpster diving scene not been presented in such a shamelessly manipulative way that turned his survival into a joke – “Thank You” would have held up as a tense, bleak hour about how difficult this life is, whether you're a seasoned zombie-fighting pro or a pampered Alexandria nincompoop.

(**) Okay, maybe the people making “Work It!” slacked off more than they should have.

Despite the ocean of zombies flowing through the streets and unlocked homes of Alexandria, despite Denise being taken hostage by Morgan's escaped prisoner, and despite a good farewell performance (probably) from Tovah Feldshuh, there was shockingly little tension or energy to anything happening in “Start to Finish.” Jessie's sons having two different kinds of mental breakdowns in the wake of all that's happened over the last few days doesn't feel unreasonable, but nor has either character been a tenth as interesting as what was happening with Lizzie and Mika late in season 4. And all of Deanna's insistence that Rick has to stop thinking of the Alexandrians as outside of his group rang hollow considering how the show has treated almost everyone in that community as completely disposable.

(If you stopped watching the episode at the end of the credits and didn't stick around for what followed, you can safely stop reading here.)

Hell, even the “prologue” to the winter half-season – essentially, a scene borrowed from the next episode to try to rope people into watching “Into the Badlands” by any means necessary – felt much less tense and scary than it seemed meant to. I know the lead biker was supposed to sound intimidating as he talked about how all of Daryl, Sasha, and Abraham's property now belonged to Negan, but he felt like a rehash of villains and henchmen we've met before, and I spent the entire scene wishing Abraham had responded to their request to get out of the truck by casually firing an RPG or two at them. The scene reminded me of one of those “Buffy” moments where the bad guy is going through the obligatory villainous motions, only for the hero to do something unexpected to surprise both their opponent and the audience – but without that unexpected thing, because that's been in pretty rare supply for “The Walking Dead” of late.

As Enid notes to Glenn as he's trying to talk her into going in to help whoever's still alive in town, “This is how it happens. And it always happens.”

The inevitability of death and other terrible things is part of the point of “The Walking Dead.” But it can still be presented in a more surprising and/or entertaining fashion than what we got tonight, or what we've gotten for most of this half-season.

Before we go to the comments, it's time once again to explain how this blog's No Spoiler rule applies to this show:

1. No talking about anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources – and, yes, that includes anything Gimple and Kirkman have said in interviews.

2. No talking about anything that's happened in the comic that hasn't happened in the TV show yet. (Or anything that's been revealed, like character backstory and motivation.) As with “Game of Thrones,” the goal is to treat “The Walking Dead” TV show as exactly that, and not as an excuse for endless comparisons with the comics. If you want to talk about the comics, feel free to start up a discussion thread on our message boards.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at