A review of tonight's "The Walking Dead" coming up just as soon as I want to talk fuel efficiency...

This half-season of the show has used the train tracks as both an orientation point and a narrative spine, sometimes following them closely to get the characters to Terminus — and to reunite with each other — sometimes taking detours to beef up what's been a terribly underfed group of supporting characters. (Tonight gave us our first glimpse of Rick in several episodes, and it was for under five minutes.) And while not all of those detours have worked — in part because some of the show's characters aren't entirely salvageable at this point — I've still found them a lot more interesting than the bigger questions of what Terminus is going to look like, when Glenn and Maggie are going to reunite, and whether Abraham and Eugene are on the up-and-up or liars or delusional.

As the penultimate episode of the season, "Us" finally cut out the detours and made some serious movement along the tracks. It brought Glenn and Maggie back together, and brought their combined groups to Terminus, where we got to meet our first local, Mary (played by Denise Crosby). And it gave us a better sense of Joe's crew and the rules they live by, as well as making clear that they intend to kill Rick for laying hands on one of their own. After last week's ordeal, Tyreese and Carol are absent, but every other surviving character appears at least briefly.

And all of this material is necessary at some point, even if the lack of time remaining in the season would suggest that the finale will be more of a prologue to season 5 than anything else. But for much of the hour, I found myself wishing that we were on another detour, rather than rapidly closing the gap to Terminus.

Now, it may just be that so much of the episode focused on Glenn's search for Maggie, which I've found to be by far the least compelling thread of season. If you're invested in them as a couple or as individuals, you probably found it rewarding when they finally reunited in the tunnel. If, on the other hand, you find their undying devotion to each other to be a poor substitute for interesting characterization, then most of the time spent on that was a drag, even as it gave more of a spotlight to Tara, Abraham, Eugene and Rosita. Again, we're past the point where I was reading the comics (the usual spoiler warning is below), so I have no idea if Eugene is who he says he is and knows what he says he knows, but the writing and performance thus far are not really suggesting a genius capable of saving the world, but a guy who, in the absence of infrastructure and communication, has bluffed Abraham into taking him on this adventure. Michael Cudlitz is doing a better job of selling Abraham's focus and competence — and understandable irritation at the rest of these clowns — but his mulleted sidekick isn't really clicking.

As for Joe and his crew, they remain a more realistic and plausible threat than the Governor and his people, but not necessarily a more exciting one. It's a tough spot to be in, in that these are exactly the kind of pack hunters who would come together and survive in this kind of environment, and who would pose a danger to the more kindly likes of Rick and Glenn and whatnot, but where the show has upped the stakes over the last couple of seasons so that they come across as more of a nuisance than anything else. Jeff Kober's doing some good work as Joe, but most of those scenes dragged.

All the characters put so much hope and faith into Terminus that I assumed they would arrive to find the place to be a complete hellpit where everyone would be instantly shackled and tortured. Instead, it seems so benign that they don't even bother to lock the gates — perhaps assuming that the zombies don't have the dexterity to pull the chains off — and everything is clean and bright and well-organized. I suppose Joe and his crew could simply burn the place down next week and scatter our heroes yet again, but knowing a little of how this show's budget works, and how Rick stuck around both the farm and the prison past the point where the story demanded it, my guess is they didn't go to the trouble of building this set to torch it an episode later.

But it's a strange thing about the show at this point: the more it focuses on the larger story it's supposed to be telling (whether that's a straight adaptation of the comic or not), the less I find myself caring, whereas Gimple and company have done some good things lately when they've put the story on hold to do some work on the basic foundation. Maybe the balance will be better when the show comes back next fall, but at the moment I'm a bit relieved to be this close to the end of the line for season 4.

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 the previews for the next episode.

2. 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.

3. 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.

With that in mind, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com