When we last saw our intrepid group of zombie apocalypse survivors on AMC’s The Walking Dead, they were, well, they were screwed, quite frankly. Their prison stronghold had just been violated, one of their own had brutally murdered in front of them, and in order to escape, they broke into smaller splinters and vanished into the surrounding countryside. That’s where we left them after the mid-season finale, up shit creek, and fans were left to wonder what would become of them. And tonight’s midseason premiere, “After,” catches us up, with some of the crew at least.
Don’t keep reading if you haven’t already watched tonight’s episode, it’ll just ruin things for you.
Wisely, at least in my opinion, “After,”—scripted by comic creator Robert Kirkmam and directed by special effects guru Greg Nicotero—doesn’t try to check in with everyone. That would be too much for a single episode, and wouldn’t provide enough space to really dig into anyone’s situation. Instead, “After” really belongs to Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Carl (Chandler Riggs).
Just in case you forgot how desolate the situation is, the episode starts out with grim reminder. You see the prison, fences torn down, buildings burning, yards swarming with walkers. The only live human is Michonne, and after procuring a new pair of pets—walkers with no arms or jaws that serve as camouflage so she can move among the undead with relative ease—she has to so something rather unsavory. When she comes across Hershel’s (Scott Wilson) severed head, which is still very undead, emptily working its jaw on the off chance there’s food in chomping range, she dispatches her friend. No matter how many times you do that, that has to sting.
“After” is by far the best Michonne you’ve ever seen, especially for fans of the comics. She has moments of total badassness, hacking down walkers left and right with her signature katana, but in this one episode, you get more personality and emotion from her than you’ve seen in the previous season and a half.
During a part flashback, part dark surreal dream, you see her life before, meeting her brother, boyfriend, and small son. This sequence also makes it clear that her first two pets weren’t just a cover, she had a strong emotional connection to them. Thus far, season four has given her more to work with that season three, but you didn’t get much more than quick glimpses of who she is behind her tough exterior. This turn humanizes her in a way that The Walking Dead has failed to up to this point, and makes her exponentially more sympathetic and relatable. Not to harp on this, but this is great for fans of the comics; it’s been frustrating to know how great a character she can be, but not see that translated to the series. While we’re not there yet, this is definitely a huge step in that direction.
On a side note, I’ve never entirely understood why Michonne’s pets don’t try to eat her. Sure, she cuts off their arms and jaws so they can’t bite her, but as we’ve seen with other walkers, dismemberment has never slowed down their prey drive before. You’d think they still be jumping all over her, gumming her every chance they get, but they don’t. Curious.
When we first see Carl, Rick (Andrew Lincoln), his father, gravely wounded in the fracas at the prison, is shuffling along behind his son. In fact, Rick spends most of this episode bearing a shocking resemblance to one of the undead, and he isn’t far off. There’s obviously a lot hanging in the air between these two—what with the loss of a mother and wife, daughter and sister, not to mention all of the others—but we’re not talking about the most demonstrative father-son duo here. The boy desperately wants to step up and handle his own business, while dear old dad can’t cope with being helpless and admit that he could use a hand. Their dynamic has really become a clash of egos for the time being.
After raiding a mostly abandoned roadhouse and scoring some food, a venture where the extent of Rick’s wounds start to become clear, the two clear and squat a house. Carl has a strange moment where he finds what is obviously the room of kid about his own age. There are loud posters on the wall and stacks of movies and videogames all over the place. For a brief second this slice of normalcy reminds you, and him, about everything that has been lost. That evaporates quickly when he repurposes a cord from the TV to tie the front door shut. Rick and Carl bicker, each pushing and needling at the other, and in an attempt to wound his father, Carl brings up Shane.
That one obviously still burns, but, much like the room, this butting of heads between a parent and child is an instance of odd normalcy. And Carl, in a way, gets what every petulant teen that just had a fight with his dad wishes for, for him just to go away. The next morning, when Rick fails to wake up—Carl’s attempts literally raise the dead—he finds himself in a Home Alone kind of situation. Rick is still there, but a comatose father may as well not be.
Leading away the walkers he attracted by screaming for his dad to wake up, Carl experiences the freedom and responsibility he so desires. After getting into, and more importantly getting himself out of, a sticky situation, he goes on a search for more supplies. The cockiness of youth gets him into more trouble, but he also learns that, if necessary, if Rick doesn’t ever wake up, he can survive on his own. Along the way he became a capable human being. He also eats 112 ounces of canned chocolate pudding that’s been sitting on the shelf for who knows how long, a move that made me wonder about their bathroom situation, but that’s just me.
For a time you wonder if, given the circumstances, Carl might just turn and walk away, striking out on his own. He doesn’t, he’s too responsible for that, but while his dad lingers in a coma, he’s able to say all of the things that need to be said. The extent of the issues the two have to work out is pretty damn extensive. As it turns out, Rick wakes up—good thing Carl didn’t have to re-kill both of his parents, something like that could really screw a kid up—and they have the best, most earnest exchange they’ve had in four years of The Walking Dead. Rick can admit that he’s need help, that his son is becoming a man, and Carl, as willful as he’s become, admits he’s scared. In one of the two most moving bits of the episode, when he thinks Rick has died and come back as a zombie, Carl gives up, unable to shoot his father, and surrenders himself to what may come.
At the same time Rick and Carl are having a personal breakthrough, Michonne has an epiphany of her own. After spending most of episode stuck inside her own head, mindlessly wandering as part of a herd of walkers, you see her start to process what she’s lost. Though he was one of her first pets, you get the impression that Mike, her boyfriend, was lost to her long before he was bitten. He mentions her prowess with a sword with a jealous disdain, and she says she missed him when he was still alive; both indicate a personal divide. It’s not much of a jump to figure that they lost their child, and that, along with everything else going on, led them in opposite directions.
After pouring over everything she’s been through, all she can do is explode in the most kill crazy rampage The Walking Dead has ever seen. She takes down an entire pack of zombies in a burst of rage, but it’s the sadness and desperation in her that set this moment apart from other zombie slaughters. In the process she even takes down her own pets, choosing instead to follow Rick and Carl’s tracks that she saw earlier in the episode.
“After” is a strong episode, not perfect, but it continues the season four trend of advancing the narrative. Here the characters are the focus, instead of the undead—which, while still a threat, have become boring and stale—or a cartoonish villain like the Governor. Out of everything else, “After” ends with something The Walking Dead doesn’t often have: hope. Michonne chooses people over isolation, and is able to track down Rick and Carl. Watching her reaction on the porch when she realizes she has found her companions, is the most affecting part of “After.” Old Michonne wouldn’t have knocked on the door, she didn’t need anyone, but she, too, has come to a place where she can admit she doesn’t want to be alone. For a moment the oppressive bleakness is overtaken by something positive.
And honestly, she should be glad that Carl didn’t put a couple of slugs through the front door when Michonne knocks. After the lecture he gives his unconscious father about letting down people who depended on him, and his near fanatical desire to play with guns this episode, he was in a definite shoot first kind of mood.
Here are a couple of previews of next week’s episode, “Inmates,” where we’ll apparently catch up with some other members of the group.