I don’t think last night’s mid-season finale was the best episode of The Walking Dead, but if I had to give someone a single episode to show them why TWD is such a mega-hit, I would give them “Start to Finish.” It was a perfect mix of hope, despair, and a seemingly endless number of zombies.

The episode begins with my favorite cold open in recent memory: Jessie’s kid Sam—poor, traumatized Sam—hiding in his room, drawing a disturbing picture in crayon. The camera pans slowly past him to reveal a line of ants crawling down the windowsill, down onto the floor, where they swarm over a half-eaten cookie. It’s not subtle, but given that we know that another, far more dangerous creature is about to enter the supposed safety of Alexandria, it’s a simple but very powerful overture to what’s to come.

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As you’ll recall, what’s to come is that a building topples over, knocking over part of Alexandria’s wall, allowing the massive herd of zombies outside a chance to funnel into the town. And they do. The first 15 minutes or so of the episode is just people running for safety in some of the best-directed zombie action of the series—particularly Maggie attempting to climb a ladder to get up a watchpost. I knew narratively she’d be safe, but it was filmed so well, and her difficulty in pulling herself up was so believable, that I was on the edge of my seat.

But the real point of the zombie incursion is to get certain survivors together. After Deanna gets wounded, Rick, Michonne, Carl, Ron and a few others manage to run to Jessie’s house to hole up. Morgan and Carol are forced to pair up (Morgan even helps Carol up after she slips on a few bullet casings and hits her head, which, again, is not at all subtle but still an incredibly effective metaphor for Carol). Poor nurse Denise is trapped with the Wolf. Tara and Eugene drag the still-useless-in-a-zombie-fight Eugene to safety.

The main action occurs in Jessie’s house, obviously, if only because it has the most people—and all the action shows TWD’s post-apocalyptic life at its most sorrowful, its most wretched, but somehow still manages to find a sliver of hope no matter how bleak things get.

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I don’t mean hope in the sense that Rick gets them out of the zombie-filled house by coating everyone with guts and gore, in the seldom-used zombie camouflage trick (although this happens at the end of the episode). I mean that when Michonne discovers that Deanna hasn’t just been wounded, she’s been bitten, Deanna uses her remaining time to not just counsel Michonne, but tell Rick he’s going to be in charge of Alexandria—and more importantly, put all the residents of Alexandria in his care. It’s a great scene, where Deanna asks him to look after her (often idiotic) son Spencer like he’s one of Rick’s group, only to remind him that he already has, by saving (his idiotic) life last week. “Guess what?” she asks, smiling that Rick hasn’t realized it yet. “They’re all your people.”

To tell the truth, I was troubled when I saw Deanna was a goner; I liked the freshness of forcing Rick to work under someone for a change, and I liked the dichotomy of Deanna’s civic leadership and optimism versus Rick’s role as protector, and his brutal realism. But as I see that Deanna essentially had to be removed to get Rick to this point, a journey that started once Terminus made him feel that humanity was a liability instead of a necessity. The Walking Dead is Rick’s story, and I’m excited to see Rick as a real leader again, instead of the crazy asshole who happens to know best how to survive in the zombie apocalypse.

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This is actually explored almost verbatim when Jessie’s older son Ron pulls Carl away in the garage. Ron was already gunning for Carl last week, thanks to Enid’s attraction to teens with large hats, and Carl’s super-condescending gun advice; now with a seemingly infinite amount of zombies flooding his town, Ron is ready to give up and take Carl down with him. Ron locks them in and tells Carl his dad’s a killer. “So’s yours,” Carl replies matter-of-factly. The two fight, knocking out a window, drawing the zombies to the house. Rick, hearing the fight, has to bust down the door to free them, which is how zombies flood Jessie’s home.

But once the fight is done, in yet another moment of compassion and hope that things in the future could be better, Carl covers for Ron—he says they were fighting zombies, not each other. Of course, once they’re alone, Carl pulls his gun on Ron and demands Ron’s gun—Carl may be hopeful, but he’s not stupid. “I get it. My dad killed your dad,” Carl tells Ron. “But you need to know something. Your dad was an asshole.” I would have given a great deal of money for Ron to reply “So’s yours,” but Rick is on his road to recovery. Hopefully his crazy asshole days are behind him.

The rest of the episode continues this mix of hope and despair. Sometimes its simple as Tara cheering up Rosita when she’s ready to give up, both on Alexandria and on Abraham’s being alive. Sometimes it’s more literal, as Morgan and Carol finally clash over the fate of the captured Wolf… and their respective ideologies. I’d argue that Morgan trying to take care of the concussed Carol, even as she’s arguing with him about why the Wolf needs to die, is some of TWD’s best plotting.

Of course, the minute Morgan looks away, Carol runs off to kill the Wolf, putting the prisoner’s death even ahead of her own health (again, very telling). In fact, Carol is so determined to kill the captive that she’s also willing to murder Morgan in order to do so, saying, “I’ll kill you to kill him, because I don’t want anyone else to die.” If you have any doubt that The Walking Dead is on Morgan’s side, whatever the consequences may be, let this completely insane statement from Carol put that to rest.

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And the consequences are dire. As Carol tries to kill Morgan, the Wolf is able to knock out Morgan right after he knocks out Carol, grabbing Carol’s knife, freeing himself and taking Denise hostage right as Tara, Rosita and Eugene find them. The Wolf takes their guns and drags Denise outside (where several hundred zombies are waiting); about all we can hope for here is that we don’t see them again, meaning we don’t know their fates. As for Rick, Michonne, Jessie and the others, they coat themselves in zombie juices and slowly walk through the horde.

It’s the perfect encapsulation of the episode, if not The Walking Dead as a whole—a group of people, surrounded by impossible odds, somehow surviving and striving towards a safer future—in this case the Alexandrian armory, where they can protect themselves and start to thin out their unwelcome guests. The disguises are working. They’re passing through hundreds of zombies unnoticed. And, in the perfect symbol of hopeful togetherness, they even hold hands.

There’s just one problem.

Sam, the boy who has no silver lining. His father has been murdered. He watched his mom fight for her life and bludgeon a woman to death in their own kitchen. He’s lived in Alexandria, where life remained relatively peaceful and serene, until Rick and the others arrived, so he’s been completely emotionally unprepared for these tragic, horrific events. And now, he’s suddenly having someone’s blood and rotting intestines poured over him, and then dragged through a veritable sea of animated corpses who all want to kill him.

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Sam was already completely traumatized before the events of “Start to Finish,” and there’s no silver lining for a young—too young—kid who’s had to experience what he’s had with no warning. He could barely leave his bedroom after his mom killed the Wolf; what he’s asked to do is impossible. His mother knows it. All Jessie can do is tell him to “pretend to be brave.” It should be no surprise to anyone—nor should anyone hold it against him—that a bewildered, near-crying Sam, as they all slowly walk through the zombies that have flooded Alexandria, starts asking, “Mom? Mom?”

Rick and the others are now in seemingly inescapable danger. The Wolf is loose, and Denise is at his mercy. Carol and Morgan have come to blows but resolved nothing. Maggie is trapped. Deanna is dead. Alexandria is still full of thousands of zombies, and there’s no clear solution in sight. It would be easy to watch “Start to Finish” and see it as another nihilistic episode of a show some people consider “misery porn.”

But that’s not what I saw. What I saw may be best summed up by Glenn, who ends the episode climbing over the far wall of the town. At the top, he sees Maggie up on her platform, far off, surrounded by zombies on the ground. He can’t help, and there’s no escape for her. But she’s alive. And Glenn’s alive. Regardless of all the danger and the death, as Morgan knows, where there’s life, there’s hope.

Even when you’re surrounded by several thousand zombies.

Assorted Musings:

• So, that post-credits scene! I actually missed it at first—so here’s a spoiler warning if you didn’t see it and want to watch it on your own. In it, Daryl, Abraham and Sasha are stopped by men on motorcycles, demanding… well, everything. “All your stuff belongs to Negan!” they cry, Negan of course being the next big bad of the series, who, as comics readers know, is very bad indeed. The only silver lining here is basically only that they picked the perfect guy to play him.

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• Again, all the zombie staging was top-notch this episode. I already mention Maggie, but the Rick and the others trying to bar the door as zombies fill the garage was solid, and it was even better when they had a mad scramble to get upstairs as zombies flooded the house.

• Hey, Deanna. I know Judith is crying, and the house is full of zombies, and you want to help even though you’re about to become a zombie yourself. Still, you still need to ask somebody before you start trying to pick up babies, okay?

• Eugene knows there’s never a bad time for reading up on world history.

• Where’d Rick and the others get all those smocks?

• I don’t know whether Judith is going to grow up to be even more traumatized than Sam, or if living in the zombie apocalypse her entire life will make her more inured to her reality. I will say the fact that Rick can drape a blood- and gore-covered smock over her and she doesn’t get upset could be proof of either scenario.

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• The Wolf is firmly on Carol’s side as she and Morgan face off, happily agreeing that he’ll eventually escape and kill people if someone doesn’t kill him. I’m sure a few people think that this is proof positive that Carol is correct, never realizing that Carol holding the same beliefs as the homicidal maniac is a bad thing.

• Deanna goes out fighting rather than blow her brains out. Yes, she’ll likely be a zombie that the others have to kill, but 1) she took out six zombies, and 2) I think this suits Deanna perfectly. Shooting six of several thousand zombies is a futile act, but it’s an act of optimism, no matter how foolish. No matter what, Deanna had hope, right to her final moment.

• In regards to the headline, I should specify “#1 in the coveted 18-49 target demo.” NCIS has slightly more overall viewers, but they’re very old and advertisers don’t care about them.

Will someone turn that goddamned record player off?!


Contact the author at rob@io9.com.