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“I’d be fine if you died.”

Ariel view of the destroyed prison overrun by zombies

I’ve been hesitantly thrilled about the direction changes in The Walking Dead since season 4 started. The showrunners and writers were clearly listening to the very harsh critiques of the past two years and largely gave us a stripped down show, with solid character-focused episodes, and actual cause-and-consequences weight. We got our long-promised showdown with The Governor/Brian/Phillip. We lost some cast bloat, even if it was at the cost of our beloved Carol and Hershel. We were totally cheated on the Daryl beats on Rick fallout. The group is split up and spread to the winds, which will get us out of the prison bottle episodes. Things looked promising.

But it’s still not a good sign that I forgot the mid-season break wasn’t actually the end of the season and was surprised by the previews for the second half that started last Sunday. Walking Dead hasn’t quite regained it’s must-see-tv mantel yet for me. However, if they keep churning out episodes like “After,” I’ll be mourning the actual end of the season when it comes around.

When we last left the gang, they had been split up into these distinct groups:

  • Bus full of red-shirt survivors and Glenn
  • Rick and Carl
  • Daryl and Beth
  • Tyreese and the children and maybe Judith.
  • Maggie, Sasha, and Bob
  • Michonne
  • Carol (previously punted to the side of the road by Rick)

Wisely, “After” doesn’t try to pick up all the threads right away. The destruction and death of “Too Far Gone” has a heavy toll and it’s easiest to feel it when we narrow the focus down to a few key members. This week we looked at Michonne and Carl, while Rick largely slept off his ass kicking on a couch.

Carl and Rick escaping from the prison.

Carl

Carl gets a lot of shit, rightly so, for being a petulant, irresponsible brat. He’s a character a lot of decisions are made around, but not one the show tends to solely focus on. Chandler Riggs has developed nicely as an actor, even if he’s not quite up to the par of Andrew Lincoln (the concluding moments of “Too Far Gone,” where Carl and Rick find Judith’s bloody car seat highlights this unfortunate disparity) and the show finally gives him a chance to stretch his legs.

“After” still portrays Carl as an ungrateful brat, but it also creates a great deal of sympathy for him. Before we skewer Carl – who, let’s remind ourselves, is about 12 – we should briefly review what life has been like for him in the past two years:

  • Survives zombie apocalypse, during which he is led to believe his father has been killed, but is still alive
  • His only friend, Sophia, goes missing during a zombie attack and is revealed, traumatically, to be a walker
  • His surrogate father, Shane, is killed by his real father, Rick. Carl then has to kill ZombieShane.
  • His mother dies during a c-section preformed without anesthetic right in front of Carl. Carl then has to shoot his own mother to keep her from turning into a walker.
  • He is primarily responsible for his infant sister’s care while his father is having a nervous breakdown.
  • He is constantly asking for more responsibility in the group, only to keep getting reminded he’s just a child, which didn’t matter so much when his dad was taking phone calls from his dead wife.
  • He kills a young man during the first raid on the prison, which may or may not have been justified.
  • He witnesses Hershel’s murder and participates in the firefight at the prison.
  • He loses his entire family all over again.

Look, this is some heavy shit here. I doubt that I, a grown ass adult, would be able to handle that level of tragedy in my life, but as viewers, we’re constantly asking a 12-year-old to become an instant adult, to suck up these horrors, and be less irritating with his emotional problems. We’re definitely unfair to Carl. And frequently, so were the writers, who really just made it hard to empathize with him.

So we’re back with sulky, angry, Carl, who is being a righteous asshole to his dad, who limps along behind his son, begging him to slow down so Rick can keep up with him. Rick looks like ten miles of rough road and might have a collapsed lung, but he still treats Carl like a small child instead of trusting him to help out when Rick is in no shape to be calling the shots. This just makes Carl defensive and arrogant, which makes him more unlikable.

Carl shoots a walker that his father couldn’t take down and gets yelled at. Carl uses a couple of curse words and gets reprimanded by Rick, as if saying “asshole” has any meaning at all in this life. Carl tries to secure the house they’re staying in with some TV cables and a good knot and instead of getting thanks, gets reminded that he’s not good enough when Rick insists (rightly) in shoving a couch up against the door.

Then Rick passes the hell out for a full day and Carl gets to live the life he thinks he wants – being a big zombie killer on his own. He’s furious with his dad for not protecting them – all of them, the prison, Lori, Judith, Hershel, Carl – and all he can see is how his father failed him, not what Rick was up against, not the times Rick kept them all safe for as long as he could. So he tries out being Rick – leading some zombies away from the house they’re staying in, pleased as punch at his own cleverness until he’s attacked by a zombie he hadn’t noticed and has to spend precious bullets to keep from getting eaten. He scouts out a house for supplies, which goes pretty well until he’s attacked by yet another walker he hadn’t noticed, barely getting away (at the cost of his shoe, but nothing else). He ends up back at the house, where his father is still passed out, and there’s nothing at all Carl can do to help him. He mistakes Rick’s feverish groans for the call of a walker and finds himself unable to do what Rick could have – kill someone you love.

Carl eats putting on the roof while a walker tries to get to him.

Rick admits that he’s been treating Carl like a child, trying to give him the same kind of life he would have had “before,” when “before” as a concept is a ridiculous joke. Carl admits that being in charge kind of sucks, except for the part where you don’t have to share 112 oz. of pudding with anyone else.

There’s a knock on the door.

Michonne

For my money, Michonne’s sequence in this episode is some of the best work the show has put forth in four years.

Michonne leading two walkers on a leash

Last year, much criticism was lobbed at the show for keeping Michonne largely silent and glowering. Fans who had been anxiously waiting for her introduction were given a one-note portrayal that felt very stereotypical. Michonne warmed up this season; we saw her smile, crack jokes, and abandon her single minded pursuit of The Gov to focus on the ties she had formed with the survivors. “After” once again presents a largely dialog-less Michonne story but every moment of it filled out her backstory and gave heartbreaking insight into her world. The success of this falls squarely on Danai Guirira’s broad shoulders. She is phenomenal here.

After the fight, Michonne has somehow found herself alone in the woods surrounding the prison, with everyone who survived seemingly leaving her behind. So she goes back to what she knows – Michonne traps two walkers and cuts off their arms and jaws, giving her “pet” walkers on leashes. She is right back to where we met her; alone, accompanied only by the dead.

Figuratively and literally, as we find out. Other shows – hell, this show, last year – would have given us a literal walk-through of Michonne’s backstory that goes from point A to B to C. Instead, we’re given her story in the form of a horrific dream sequence that is part memory and part nightmare. The dream jumps through time, demanding that we fill in the gaps where the tragedies lie. We learn that Michonne was upper middle class, well educated, and interested in art. She’s unmarried but in a committed relationship with her partner, Mike, and has a small child, just a bit older than Judith. (This was hinted at early this season when she weeps when left alone with the baby.) When the zombies hit, the couple is with one of their friends, Terry, and trying to make the “right” choices on what to do is terrifying. They’re part of some camp, and leaving or going is the debate. They make the wrong choice and Michonne’s son is killed by one or both of the men in her life. In return, she turns them into her pet walkers, the ones she is accompanied by when we first meet her. We don’t see the camp or the death of her child. We don’t see her “getting good with” her sword, but have it suggested by Terry that her prowess as a fighter makes her valuable. We don’t need to see her child die or Terry and Mike become walkers – we just get the bits and fill in the pieces. It’s a powerful scene.

Mike and Terry as walkers with their arms cut off.

This background informs all of her actions in the episode. Stabbing Hershel’s reanimated head and barely keeping from breaking down afterwards. Finding Carl and Rick’s trail in the woods but continuing on in a different direction. Her discomfort at finding herself shadowed by a walker who looks like her, becoming more and more unnerved by the shadow-Michonne, the what-could-have-been-Michonne that she can’t seem to shake, until Michonne loses it and slaughters an entire herd of walkers, including her two new pets.

Michonne doubles back to Carl’s trail and tracks them to Joe and Joe Jr.’s BBQ shack, where she sees the note Joe Jr. left behind regarding his reanimated father (earlier killed by Rick and Carl) – “Do what I couldn’t.” This is what finally crushes Michonne, someone who could do what others could not, and she weeps openly. In her dream, Mike asks her, “why?” Why keep fighting. Why keep moving. Why keep going. Michonne cries and tells her memory that she knows why – family and friends and life, because loving each other makes it worthwhile. If she went back to pre-Andrea Michonne, she might as well just kill herself, because all she is is a breathing walker.

Michonne finds an empty 112 oz. can of pudding lying in the road in front of a house.

She knocks on the door.

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