A review of "The Walking Dead" season finale coming up just as soon as I make a bad joke about Asian drivers...

There's a moment midway through "Beside the Dying Fire" where we're no longer watching any of our regular characters. Herschel's farm has been overrun, everyone we care about has run off, two people we don't care about are dead, and now we're just sitting there watching the barn burn while the zombies shuffle amok. (They're too slow to run amok.)

And given how long we linger on the burning barn, I imagine we're supposed to take this sequence as tragic: here was a place where everyone could feel safe from the apocalypse for a while, and in the end even it proved to be only slightly more secure than the quarry, or any other place our heroes might try to find sanctuary.

And yet watching it burn, all I really felt was relief. The farm — or, at least, the TV show's execution of the farm arc — had sucked the life out of so much of this season, and if nothing else, it meant that when the show returned next year, we wouldn't be rehashing the same old arguments over, and over, and over again.

There were good things in this season. There were a number of good things in this episode, in fact, as the show continues to carry itself very well whenever it's time for some action(*). Mainly, though, this year feels like it was a big learning experience for the people who make the show. This was their first time dealing with a full 13-episode season, their first time devoting a whole season to adapting (with a number of deviations) a story arc from the comic. And in the middle of that, Frank Darabont quit or was fired or whatever happened, and everyone else had to move up in rank.

(*) Though the number of clean head shots being made by a bunch of characters with a variety of skill, weapons and position (including a long stretch where people were trying to shoot at zombies from out of the windows of moving cars) was a bit much. Yes, we were told Shane was an excellent firearms instructor, but to see these people shoot, you'd think his services would have been far more in demand than to work as a deputy in a small rural department.

And I'd like to think that, based on things Glen Mazzara has said in various interviews, on Twitter, etc., that everyone is very much aware of the pacing problems this season had, and that they'll go into season 3 much wiser about how much mileage any one story idea has in it. The characterization of virtually everyone but Rick is just as big a problem, and one that's not as easily solved, but maybe with a full hiatus, more stability at the top, etc., season 3 will be stronger, tighter, and deeper than the season we just finished.

I'm sure fans of the comics were excited to see Andrea rescued by that creepy hooded figure, and/or to see that glimpse of the prison off in the distance of the final shot, as both of those are from a very popular period in the books. At the same time, I'll remind you of the spoiler rules I'm running (see below), and that our focus here is on this as a TV show, and that we're not going to give things away for people who haven't read the comic yet. AMC has announced who will be cast as the hooded figure, and HitFix should have a separate story about that up later this evening. I'll link to it when it's up and you can discuss this development to your heart's content there. And comic knowledge or not, Andrea's rescue was one of the cooler moments in the finale.

But despite various good action beats, and a palpable sense of desperation throughout, I worry that my enduring thoughts of this episode are going to be of my irritation throughout with Lori Grimes. Once again, she doesn't notice that her son has gone missing until it's far too late, when after what happened with Sophia you would expect her to manacle the kid to her right leg. And then when Rick tells her that he killed Shane, and how and why, she recoils from him like he's a monster... when she was the one trying to Lady Macbeth him into the idea of killing Shane only a few episodes before. With Shane dead, at least I no longer have to wonder why two men are fighting so obsessively over this maddening, often incredibly stupid woman, but she's still a major part of the show, and very little of what she does makes any sense to me.

At least Rick's meltdown in front of the group was something the show had built to. Shane pushed Rick very far and very hard, and to have to flee the relative paradise of the farm immediately on the heels of killing his best friend — and having Jenner's secret confirmed by Shane's immediate resurrection — had to put him at a breaking point. Not that he's wanted this authority — or, frankly, been very good with how he's used it — but he spent most of this season having it questioned by Shane, by Herschel and Dale and Andrea and everyone else, and things are more of a mess than ever. And I can see Rick losing it and declaring the end of their democratic experiment.

And it helps that the one declaring this new dictatorship is the central character, and one of the few people the show has both consistently focused on and kept consistent in its writing. If it were Andrea or T-Dog or Lori trying to appoint themselves emperor, the moment doesn't play, but this is the one guy we know, understand and mostly still like.

What his new attitude — and the rest of the group's distrust of him — means is something we'll have to wait until the fall to find out. Right now, I'm just glad this part of the story is over. "The Walking Dead" continues to do just enough right for me to stick with it, and just enough wrong to irritate me several times a week.

Some other thoughts:

* Rest in peace, whatsisname and Mrs. Otis. (And, yes, I did figure out here that he was Jimmy and she was Patricia.) Mazzara groused on Twitter a few weeks ago that people should be glad they didn't give Jimmy any real screentime, considering how much people complained about the Beth suicide subplot. The problem with the Beth story wasn't that she got screentime, but that the show waited so damn long to give her anything meaningful to do that it felt silly. I worry that we're at that point with T-Dog and Carol and some of the other survivors, where they've been around long enough that we're expected to care about them purely by longevity, but where they're paper-thin compared to the likes of Rick or Daryl. (See also the attempt to make us upset that non-entity Sophia had been killed.) Hopefully, whatever new characters turn up in season 3 will be used more prominently in much shorter order.

* In addition to the crack marksmanship, those people were carrying guns that apparently held a lot of rounds. I was glad at least to see that Rick was using Carl/Daryl's semi-automatic pistol while escaping the barn, as his revolver would be out after only six zombies went down.

* Glen makes a comment about how the zombies seemed to be migrating. In the teaser, we see a group in Atlanta start moving, apparently inspired by the helicopter, but would that really be enough to keep them going and going (and picking up more and more stragglers) on their way to Herschel's farm? Or is there something else going on with their behavior that'll wind up being just as important as the news that everyone is infected?

* Not sure if Herschel's line about Christ's promise of a Resurrection — "I just thought he had a little something different in mind" — was intended as a laugh line, but I chuckled.

Finally, let me remind you again of this blog's No Spoiler rule and how it applies to this show, as I've had to delete a bunch of comments the last few weeks that violated it. Basic things to remember before commenting:

1. No talking about the previews for the next episode (not as relevant this week, as nothing has been shot of the new season yet).

2. No talking about anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources — and, yes, that includes anything Mazzara and Kirkman said in interviews (including their appearance on tonight's "The Talking Dead," which I haven't watched).

3. No talking about anything that's happened in the comic that hasn't happened in the TV show yet. Again, we briefly met a character who doesn't have a face or a name yet, and we saw a glimpse of a prison off in the distance, but that doesn't open up license to talk about all that's to come with the person or place. Understand?

With that in mind, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com