After the explosive mid-season finale, The Walking Dead returns for the remainder of Season 4 and deals with the immediate aftermath of the Governor’s second assault on the prison. Now that the group is scattered, they have to fend for themselves. What we got from the mid-season premiere was a fairly well paced, but good start to the rest of the season that, I think, sets up the tone and direction for the remainder of the season’s run.
The episode begins immediately following the events of “Too Far Gone” with walkers roaming the now abandoned prison. Many of the corpses littered there due to the battle, including the Governor, decorate the prison yard like a dancers’ routine. Nearby is Michonne, blade drawn and at the ready, as she slashes her way through incoming walkers. Soon enough, she’s able to lure two into one of the traps that impales them. As with before, she slices off the walkers’ limbs and mouths to use them as protection as she heads away from the prison. To fully put the prison and any memories of it behind her, she also puts a blade through Hershel’s skull.
Elsewhere, we’re on the road with Rick and Carl. With no clear direction in sight, the two just keep on moving, though Rick lags behind due to the injuries he sustained during his fight with the Governor. Through ragged breaths, he asks Carl over and over again to slow down, but Carl’s face just spells out that he prefers his father not speak.
The two stumble upon a restaurant and argue on keeping watch, with Carl insisting that he go into help his father deal with whatever may be inside. What they do find inside is a single walker hidden behind a barricade. Rick tries to take it out with an axe to the head, but he’s still far too weak to kill it, so Carl fires a single shot from his gun and puts the roamer down. Rick chastises Carl for using not saving bullets and possibly bringing other roamers to them. Every bullet counts, but for Carl, they surviving in the moment counts more.
Later, the two end up at an abandoned home, though Rick’s continued commands for Carl to stop seem to make the boy walk even faster. Inside, Carl makes as much noise as possible, much to Rick’s anger, but no one is home.
Upstairs, Carl finds the mother load: a television, accompanied by an Xbox with games. But…no time for playing. Carl heads back downstairs to find Rick trying to barricade the door with the sofa. Carl has already fashioned a knot around the door- courtesy of Shane’s teaching- but he eventually aids the weakened Rick in blocking the door.
We then cut back to a cleaner and much neater Michonne, whose arguing with two other men in a kitchen about their visit to an art museum. Her apparent lover, Mike, played by Aldis Hodge, just agrees with what Michonne says. As Michonne continues her work, she lets her sword sit comfortably alongside her knives. Wait, what?
Oh, and Michonne has a child, as well. Life is just perfect until Michonne realizes the two men are missing both their arms. And the baby’s gone, too.
Yeah, it was a dream. Hey, at least she didn’t end up talking to the two walkers.
Back at the house, Carl prepares himself some cereal, but Rick is still dead asleep. After repeated attempts to wake him up, Carl realizes his yelling has attracted two walkers.
He leaves the home and draws them far away enough for him to back into another walker. The walkers all dogpile on him, but he’s able to shoot his way out. With a look of victory on his face, Carl declares himself the victor and moves on.
When Carl returns to the house, he tells his father of his victory, but also takes the opportunity to relish in what he accomplished. He saved Rick, not the other way around. He could get along just fine without Rick, if he wanted to just leave. But Carl then blames Rick for everything that’s happened so far, including the deaths of Lori, Judith, Shane, the separation of the group, every single bad thing that’s happened. To Carl and everyone else, Rick was the leader. He had a chance to get rid of the Governor, but didn’t take it. Now Rick’s title of leader is pretty much worthless. If Rick died, Carl’s sure he could handle himself.
To demonstrate his point, Carl goes on the move again to another home. Like the last one, it appears empty, though Carl does stock up on a sufficient amount of food.
But there’s still one walker behind one of the doors! Carl shoots for his life, but runs out of bullets. He scurries for one room and tries to get through the window, but the walker barges in before he can escape. Carl, with one less shoe, manages to get away and barricades the door shut, warning anyone who should come by that a walker is in the house.
Michonne, meanwhile, has managed to make her way through a herd of walkers without being attacked. Soon enough, a sea of emotions cascade over her as she slices her way through every single walker around her, even the two she had walking with her.
She eventually finds the same restaurant that Rick and Carl discovered earlier.
Carl returns to the house, but Rick is still out cold. Rick’s breathing becomes more labored and intense. Carl grabs his gun, thinking that his father has turned or is beginning to. Despite showing so much prowess all day, Carl can’t bring himself to pull the trigger.
But never fear. Rick awakens, still injured, but himself. He congratulates Carl on his work, but still advises that it was dangerous to go out. Rick concedes: things will never go back to the way they were. Carl knows this, but Rick still clung to that first reality because of his wife and children. Now that Lori is gone and the two are on their own for the moment, Carl is no longer a boy, but a man. Hell, he’s certainly seen his fair share of suffering to mature into adulthood.
Michonne finds yet another home and spots two figures inside. At the same time, Rick and Carl hear a knock at the door. After looking through the peephole, Rick, who looks the happiest he ever has in awhile, tells Carl that it’s for him.
“After” was a very slow paced episode, and I feel that worked to its advantage. As much as The Walking Dead has great action moments, the quieter scenes can be just as powerful. This episode was very reminiscent of “Clear” in which the majority of the focus went to Rick, Carl and Michonne when they found Morgan. Like there, the episode is better because the storyline is focused on a few characters, rather than trying to make sure every person gets a few moments of screen time.
Whether it’s Michonne talking to herself or Carl telling Rick of his accomplishments, it’s these scenes where I feel The Walking Dead is at some of its strongest: no shootouts or zombies, just a few characters on-screen, having a conversation about their situation. And it obviously helps that their conversations are interesting. A previous example would be Rick discussing potential terms with the Governor, where the two are constantly in battle without having to throw a single punch. That moment can be just as engaging as their actual fight.
I actually think the second half of the season benefitted from a slower premiere. Having another massive shootout or confrontation so soon after the second prison attack wouldn’t give the audience a chance to breathe and regroup alongside the characters. That’s not always true, given the beginning of Season 3, but considering how much greater the circumstances were this time around, something slower paced lets us see where the chips now lay in the aftermath of the Governor’s attack.
For Carl, this was about him accepting how much he would have to shoulder, should he end up on his own. He’s been surviving like this since the beginning of the series: he knows how to fire a gun, he can evade roamers with minimal difficulty and can score his own food. After having to make decisions like shooting his own mother, watching Rick shoot Sophia, and being responsible for the walker that bit Dale, Carl has seen his fair share of death and it’s slowly led him down the dark path we see Rick on right now.
One key difference for Carl is his age. Carl is much older and a bit more mature than his younger comic book counterpart. Therefore he’s more willing to challenge his father’s decisions. His anger toward Rick is not without reason and his rage, for now, seems contained, yet you know Carl has nothing but anger in his heart toward Rick throughout most of this episode. Through his facial expressions and derisive response to Rick after being admonished for swearing, Carl has hardened. In a world where you fight or be eaten, a potty mouth should not be any sort of real issue.
Sure, Carl is abrasive and reactionary, but it’s this survival instinct that helped him fend for himself in the episode, which makes his “I win” after surviving an attack on his own all the more satisfying.
What we learned about Carl as the series has progressed is that he’s very much willing to kill in order to survive. He didn’t start out that way, but by now, he’s able to fight alongside his now debilitated and broken father. Some kids Carl’s age would just see this all as a game, but Carl has seen enough tragedy to know that surviving in this world is what matters, so you keep on moving.
And yet Carl is, in fact, still a child. He may have more life experience than kids his age, but he lacks the practical experience that comes from being older, which makes the scene where he finds the television set and video games in the abandoned child’s room more poignant: as much as Carl would like, even for a moment, to step back into that innocence of being a child and not having to worry about a zombie apocalypse, he can’t return to the way things used to be.
Even after all of this, though, Carl still realizes that Rick will always be an important part of his life. When he speaks of what he did on his own, there’s a real sense of pride- even a little arrogance, but he’s earned it- in his voice, as if he would still like his father’s approval. And by episode’s end, he got just that.
Michonne is slowly on the way to becoming a more realized character and the flashback where we get a glimpse at her past life was great to see. Many have criticized Michonne’s characterization as being too stoic and one-note. She was like that in the comics as well, but she broke out of her shell sooner and grew more open to conversing with the group. Though there, she still has moments where being “normal” is still strange for her. On the show, for the most part, she’s served the purpose of scowling and slicing. Now we’re digging into her life before the world went to hell, and for that, I applaud the writers.
This felt like Michonne fully shedding any past inhibitions and walking around aimlessly, proving this when she cuts down every zombie in the small herd. If you wanted to stretch, you could even say she’s eliminating the idea of her keeping walkers around as pets, the same way the Governor did with his daughter. But cutting through every single walker in sight, staring down the walker that looked just like her, felt like Michonne releasing what felt like years of repression. It doesn’t mean her character will do a sudden 180, but it’s a good start to her getting in touch with her humanity.
And in another nice nod to the comics, Michonne speaks to her dead boyfriend, similar to how Rick spoke with Lori over the telephone. It’s a nice way for Michonne to have some sort of connection with her past life.
“After” was a great start to the rest of the season. In a way, it reminded me of the pilot in that the characters find themselves in a situation where the stability they thought they had has just turned upside down. The episode worked because it restricted the amount of characters on-screen to give more depth to those we did see. It sets up what I predict will be the pattern for the remainder of the season: deal with one or a small group of characters in the aftermath of the prison assault. We follow their exploits until the group eventually reunites and tries to assess their current situation of staying alive without a home and trying to maintain a balance between “normalcy” and what’s in front of them. By season’s end, hopefully, we’ll have been introduced to Abraham and we proceed from there.
Looking forward to it.