The Walking Dead 4.09 "After"

A tv review article by: Paul Brian McCoy

To launch us into the back half of what has been the strongest season so far of The Walking Dead, creator Robert Kirkman gives us the script and effects guru/director Greg Nicotero provides the guiding hand. It looks like with the band broken up, we're going to get a few quieter, more individually-focused episodes before things get anywhere near a new normal.

And that's a good thing.

I've been saying it since Scott M. Gimple's brilliant "Clear" last season, that this is when the show is at its strongest. We get tighter focus, more intimate character interaction, and less over-the-top melodrama. Although the mid-season opener "After" is hardly light on melodrama.

But that's what happens when your central character is a teenage boy.

This season's version of Carl (Chandler Riggs) has been pretty bad-ass from the get-go, and it's been a welcome change from the barely able to keep himself from being eaten half-wit he was for the first two seasons. But as it turns out, it's a little easier to be a bad-ass when you've got guns, ammo, walls, and fences keeping the monsters at bay.

With all that behind them, Carl and a beaten-half-to-death Rick (Andrew Lincoln), stumble and wheeze their way to relative safety of an abandoned neighborhood nearby. But not before Carl treats his dad like shit every chance he gets. And speaking as someone who is Team Carol and hasn't had a lot of good to say about Rick (the character - Andrew Lincoln is rocking it), even I thought he was being a dick. I mean Rick is barely able to walk, much less put up with a hostile and hormonal child.

But that's what happens when your central character is a teenage boy.

On the plus side, Carl does have good points to make. If Rick hadn't been so averse to taking out the Governor when they had a chance, if he hadn't taken up gardening instead of leading, if he hadn't tried to live like it was still a civilized world, then the assault on the prison might never had happened.

And they wouldn't have had to watch helpless as the group's grandfather figure, Hershel (Scott Wilson) was sloppily beheaded right in front of them all. More on Hershel, later.

If there's a weakness in this episode, one aside from being mostly focused on a teenage boy having a breakdown, it's the script. If you've read the comics, you know that Kirkman enjoys writing pages of dialogue and having his characters talk out a LOT of their feelings. This goes entirely counter to Gimple's approach as showrunner this season. The cutting back on dialogue and speechifying has elevated this from a common horror show to actual drama that relies on the talents of the performers to express things with more subtlety and maturity.

So Kirkman's instinct to have the characters speak their emotions rather than show them feels like a step backward to me. Because of this we get snippy dialogue from Carl as he does everything he can to make his father (who may even be dying for all he knows) feel worthless and weak. And that's a dual-edged sword, as it is more awkwardly handled than most of the episodes this season, but we are talking about a teenage boy in the zombie apocalypse who just watched his "grandpa" get his head chopped off and his baby sister possibly eaten -- and this after killing his own mother mere moments after giving birth, earlier last season.

Ultimately it works, but is so borderline annoying that Carl loses a LOT of the goodwill he'd built up over the past year of viewing. Especially when he almost dies twice after making amateur mistakes while his dad lies unconscious in the boarded-up house where they've taken refuge, and then almost shoots said seriously injured father when he groaningly and shamblingly wakes up from his partial coma.

It's believable and humanizing, reminding us that Carl is really still just a child -- a seriously damaged child -- especially the scene where Carl sits on the roof eating a giant can of pudding while a zombie tries to get through the window to him. But I'm afraid it signals a return to the more danger-prone Carl I had hoped we'd left behind. I'm willing to sacrifice a little verisimilitude for a more competent Carl.

But that's what happens when your central character is a teenage boy.

However, Carl and Rick aren't the only ones we spend time with this episode.

Michonne (Danai Gurira) also gets some spotlight, including the cold open, where she carefully makes her way back to the prison and has a bittersweet reunion with an old friend. Seeing Hershel's zombified severed head was something I should have been expecting -- hell, the prospect had been one of the first things I considered when watching the execution happen last episode, but still...

Worse was seeing Michonne put her sword through it.

What a horrifying way to return after a couple of months off.

Once that national trauma was behind us, Kirkman had a chance to put Michonne through a disturbing dilemma: does she try to track down others from the prison and begin again somewhere else, or does she revert to her pre-prison life on her own?

Well, not entirely on her own. She does have the wherewithal to make a couple of new "pets" to help disguise her on the road. But the act of de-arming and de-jawing a couple of walkers opens her up to emotional flashbacks of her pre-apocalypse life, where we learn (for a fact, this time) that the pets she kept with her were her boyfriend Mike (Leverage's Aldis Hodge) and his friend Terry (Brandon Fobbs). We also discover (for a fact, this time) that she did have a child; a toddler son.

Nicotero's direction manages to make this dream sequence more effective than the script does. I don't generally like dream sequences, but they make for nice shorthand glimpses into the mind and past of a character, and that's the purpose here. It's almost entirely unnecessary, but it's entirely in Kirkman's wheelhouse, so it's not a big surprise. I never needed to see Michonne in pre-apocalypse upper-class mom mode to get that she was a different person with a completely different life before the dead returned. Watching her react to things -- to comforts, to families -- did the trick for me.

Anyway, now the millions watching know for sure that Michonne wasn't always a katana-wielding bad-ass with emotional problems. I hope that makes everybody feel better.

More effectively done was the recurring zombie who looked like Michonne (if Michonne hadn't had great genes and awesome hair), serving as a symbol for what she was becoming. By shutting off her emotions and simply surviving on her own, she wasn't too terribly different from the zombie herd she was blending in with. It's kind of obvious, but at least it's just reacted to and not commented on.

Which leads to an emotional outburst with swordplay.

My favorite kind!

And with that over with, she returns to the muddy road of companionship, tracks down Rick and Carl (thanks to a convenient empty giant can of pudding outside of their house), and we end on an up note as Carl and Rick make peace and we see a moment of true joy on Michonne's face.


Gurira lit up the entire episode with just that look on the porch, peeking into the house. I've said it before (hell, I said it up above) and I'll say it again: The Walking Dead is at its best when it focuses on quiet times and smaller groups of characters, allowing their performances to carry the dramatic weight instead of the dialogue, while punctuating it all with short sharp bursts of disgusting violence.

Be sure to check out this review and more over at Comics Bulletin's new sister site, Psycho Drive-in!

Paul Brian McCoy is the Editor-in-Chief of Psycho Drive-In, writer of Mondo Marvel, and a regular contributor/editor for Comics Bulletin. His first novel, The Unraveling: Damaged Inc. Book One is available at Amazon US & UK, along with his collection of short stories, Coffee, Sex, & Creation (US & UK). He recently contributed the 1989 chapter to The American Comic Book Chronicles: The 1980s (US & UK) and has kicked off Comics Bulletin Books with Mondo Marvel Volumes One (US & UK) and Two (US & UK). Paul is unnaturally preoccupied with zombie films, Asian cult cinema, and sci-fi television. He can also be found babbling on Twitter at @PBMcCoy.

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