The mid-season premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead made good on the season four poster’s warning: Don’t Look Back. After the devastating events at the end of the mid-season finale, Rick’s group of survivors has been scattered to the wind. After a brief glimpse of the aftermath at the prison, this episode – aptly titled “After” – focused on the paths of two sets of survivors, providing plenty of catharsis along the way. Hit the jump for my review and to find out why “I’d be fine if you died.”
The cold opens on The Walking Dead are some of my absolute favorite parts of the show. Sure, the characters’ decisions can be a little suspect at times and certain plotlines get dragged along longer than necessary, but each episode’s opener is equal parts upsetting reminder of the post-apocalyptic world, and solid storytelling. Tonight’s sequence was no different.
We pick up the story right after the final moments at the prison. Walkers have swarmed the grounds, feasting on the innards of a dead horse but passing right by a dead-once-and-for-all Governor (but will zombie David Morrissey rise once more?). As Michonne surveyed the carnage, taking a few Walkers with her for good measure, she stumbled across something we all hoped we wouldn’t have to see: the severed but reanimated head of Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson). Thankfully, Michonne puts an end to his suffering, but what a way to go for the good doctor! Michonne makes short work of two nearby Walkers and lops their arms and jaws off, making them into new pack-Walkers for her trek away from the prison.
Even though the episode alternates between the survivors’ tales, let’s see Michonne’s arc through. With her declawed Walkers in tow, Michonne walks confidently in and out of Walker hordes. She comes across footprints in a muddy path, but chooses to go in the opposite direction. In a rare moment of character reveal for Michonne, we see a strange sort of half-flashback, half-dream sequence in which she’s preparing lunch for her “lover” Mike and his friend, while the three of them discuss modern art in a rather lavishly decorated house. If the jump into this world wasn’t jarring enough, reality starts to melt away as Michonne’s kitchen knife turns into a katana, and the men’s clothes change before her eyes, just before they’re shown with severed, bleeding arms. Of course this is a nightmarish sequence for Michonne, but it’s a clever way of showing us her backstory while avoiding tedious exposition. It also breaks your heart to see her with her son and wonder what could have been. I do hope we get to see a little more from Michonne’s past over the course of the season, but there are a lot of other characters to get to, so we’ll see how screentime is doled out. Obviously, she’s under some mental strain (seeing your undead doppelganger walking around has a tendency to unsettle the mind), which she attempts to relieve by slaughtering a good 20 Walkers. It isn’t until the final moments of the episode that she shows some true relief when she tracks the whereabouts of…
Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Carl (Chandler Riggs) are out walking a path away from the prison. Rick is badly beaten up but Carl doesn’t have one iota of care left. There’s obvious tension between the father and son, compounded by Rick’s injuries and the fact that they have to survive out in the open on their own yet again. Rick’s waning strength makes him more of a liability than an asset, as he’s unable to take a weak Walker down with an ax blow. This causes Carl to shoot the Walker, wasting a bullet, an act that will (almost literally) come back to bite him later.
While much of this episode is dedicated to Carl going off and doing his own thing, his actions are much more telling when seen through the lens of a young man rebelling against the control of his father. This strained relationship is explored in a rather powerful moment in which Carl finally has the chance to say all the things he’s ever wanted to say to his father, when Rick lies unconscious and near death on the couch. It’s not surprising to see Carl venture out and get into trouble because of childish decisions, but it was a bit of a shock to hear him say to his father that he’d be fine if Rick died. It’s something you say in a moment of anger, or something you hold back for a time when you really want to hurt the one you love (or, in Carl’s case, when you’re sure there will be no reprisals). The real catharsis over this father-son tension came when it looked like Rick might have succumbed to his injuries and turned into a Walker. When the cold, calculating survival instincts were (apparently) needed, Carl found himself unwilling or unable to shoot his own father, regardless of the words he shouted at him earlier. That’s lucky for Rick, because he’s not dead (yet), just a bit battered and wheezy. Count the moment that Rick declared Carl a man as a turning point for the show going forward, one in which the tension between father and son has been replaced with the mutual trust of a man-to-man relationship. Now let’s see Carl take on the burden of being responsible for others! But first, let him have a nice surprise when he opens the door to find Michonne, of course.
Bottom line: We’re getting back to the roots of what it’s like to survive in this awful, awful world, and that’s a great storytelling decision. I only hope that the season takes its time with the rest of the survivors individually, giving equal time to their stories, rather than rushing to get them all back together again. We’ve seen multiple examples of how living together in a group can go drastically wrong, so I’m very curious to see where the show goes from here.
Casualties: One boot. 112 ounces of pudding.
Zombie Kills: 29 (One is poor Hershel’s head.)
Best Kill: This one will have to go to Michonne’s kills (plural) during her moment of rage.
Best Effect: I love a good Walker arm shattering in a slamming door.
Carl: “Hey asshole! Hey shitface!” Rick: “Watch your mouth!” Carl: “Are you kidding me?”
How bad did you feel for Carl when he found a treasure trove of movies, games and electronics, only to realize there’s no power? Nice touch!
Carl: “It’s a strong knot. Clove hitch. Shane taught me. Remember him?” Rick: “Yeah I remember him. Every day. Is there something else you want to say to me?”
Carl: “I win.”
Carl to Rick: “You were their leader, but now you’re nothing. I’d be fine if you died.”
“Walker inside. Got ax, shoe. Didn’t get me.”
Michonne: “Mike, I missed you. I missed you even when I was with you. Back at the camp, it wasn’t you who did it. You were wrong, because I’m still here, and you could be, too. And he could be … I know the answer. I know why.”
Rick to Carl: “It’s for you.”