The midseason premiere of season 4 of AMC's "The Walking Dead," titled "After," slowed the pace down considerably from the frantic and deadly midseason finale last year and gave viewers a more intimate look at the survivors -- or at least a few of them.
Focusing on just three characters -- Rick, Carl and Michonne (Andrew Lincoln, Chandler Riggs and Danai Gurira) -- the episode gave each of the three a unique challenge to face down as Rick recovered from serious injuries sustained during his brawl with The Governor, Carl struggled with trying to be a man and realizing that he's not quite there yet and Michonne tried to reclaim her individuality, only to learn that she could no longer turn off the part of herself that wants to belong to a group.
We also got a look back into Michonne's past that's very instructive as to how she got to be the way she was when we first met her, showing what helped cause her to be so cold and closed-off.
These three characters comprise the heart and soul of the long-running comic book series -- well, them and Andrea, but she's already dead on TV. Building an episode around "The Remains" (a nickname they and Andrea got courtesy of a T-shirt sold at comic book conventions) is a solid plan when you're re-establishing the status quo, but it's likely to alienate them some from the TV-only fans, who adore Daryl (Norman Reedus) and want to know what happened to the baby.
In the comics, baby Judith died during the attack on the prison -- but that's nothing to go by, since she had only been born for a day or so by the time the attack broke out and she died in the arms of Lori, who was cut down just moments before The Governor, as opposed to a year before on the TV show.
Check out 17 highlights from the episode "After," which aired on Sunday, Feb. 9. Warning: Spoilers ahead
1. Callbacks, callbacks everywhere
When the episode opened with the shot of The Governor's tank, swarmed with walkers, it could have transported the viewers back to the pilot, which ended with Rick taking shelter in such a vehicle, only to find out (and be told outright by Glenn) that it was a really stupid idea.
The way Michonne disposes of Hershel's zombie head in a mercy killing -- seemingly what she went back for, risking life and limb to do it -- reeks of Rick's famous "I'm sorry this happened to you" moment with the Bicycle Girl walker, also in the pilot. Additionally, this is one of the few Michonne moments that's a direct pull from the comics: In "The Walking Dead" #49, Michonne returns to the ravaged prison to put the reanimated head of Tyreese -- her late boyfriend (in the comics, not on TV...at least yet), beheaded by The Governor the issue before-out of his misery.
...And the message Carl leaves in chalk on "Sam's" bedroom door late in the episode is evocative of the iconic "Don't open -- dead inside" that Rick found when he first woke up in the hospital. That he leaves such a message in this particular episode, when they've found a little island of relative civilization that remains fairly untouched by the walkers and the destruction and mess that they bring, only adds to the feeling that all of this was clearly on purpose.
2. No "comic book death" for the Governor
There have been reports this week that we would "see The Governor again" this season. Is the brief appearance of his corpse lying in the foreground of one shot the extent of David Morrissey's performance this year? Unless he's brought back in a flashback, it seems so. Even in the world of "The Walking Dead," a bullet hole in your head is pretty final.
3. Michonne is back up to her old tricks
Walking amongst the walkers with impunity, she takes on "pets" to mask her smell and slices away the offensive weaponry of their teeth and arms. That doesn't mean she's the same old Michonne, though; she's clearly affected by the loss of the prison, the community and everything that came with it. And she takes it out on a whole bunch of walkers in spectacular fashion this week.
It's also worth noting that this time, her "pets" have no particular emotional attachment to her. Last time around, it was implied that they did -- a story we finally got this week (more on that later).
4. Jaded Carl
This is the Carl that we knew for much of his lifespan in the comics. He's dark, he's lost faith and he's frankly more than a little annoyed by his father's constant attempts to find hope in every situation.
That gels with the "we want to emulate the comics more closely this year" mentality that the showrunners shared with reporters at Comic-Con and during the run-up to the start of season 4.
His later comment about "I didn't forget" how to survive "when you had us playing farmer" and the comments about The Governor and the way Rick just sat and waited for him are maybe a little bit meta, reflective of the viewers' criticisms of the first half of the season.
5. Rick's poor health
The beating he got from The Governor may not have had a multi-episode impact on most TV protagonists -- but in a real-world scenario it would likely have resulted in long-term injury, brain damage or death. That's handy for the writer, who was looking for a way to approximate a storyline from the comics that's already been done in a bastardized version a season and a half ago.
You see, in the comic this episode is (mostly) based on, Rick is fighting a bad infection (he'd just had one of his hands cut off, something that writer Robert Kirkman has later said he regretted doing and likely wouldn't try on TV), all while dealing with the fresh death of Lori, and beginning the whole "talking to dead people on the telephone" thing.
Whether or how we'll see a variation on that theme this year (more hallucinations, maybe?) remains to be seen -- but we don't get it this week, just an awful lot of sleeping off his probable concussion.
6. Power struggle
The disagreements between Rick and Carl were something else the producers and cast hinted at during Comic-Con last summer -- and while it's a direct through line from the season 3 finale, we hadn't seen a lot of it up until now.
This episode is all about Carl deciding that to be "a man," he has to distance himself from Rick -- and that he's got to prove that he knows better, and can do better, than Rick does. Much of the episode is spent putting himself in danger, either intentionally or just carelessly -- in the hopes of proving it, only to discover he's maybe not quite there yet.
7. Yuppie princess Michonne
The "Secret Origin of Michonne" gives her A SON and a boyfriend, Mike (Aldis Hodge, who's a geek favorite from "Leverage" and appeared in last year's unaired comic book pilot "The Sixth Gun"). Her stage actress credentials give the surreal scene in which they go from yuppies griping about an art installation to a woman surrounded by death and her loved ones missing their limbs a sense of continuity and fluidity that could have been lacking. It was an interesting directing choice from Emmy-winning special effects guru Greg Nicotero, who helmed the episode from a script by creator and comic book writer Robert Kirkman.
The surreal scene ends with Michonne waking up in the front seat of an abandoned car she's apparently using for shelter, with her "pet" zombies still tethered outside.
Seeing a zombified version of "herself" -- a young, African-American woman with dreadlocks and clothes that mirror that she used to wear in her yuppie days -- in the swarm she's traveling with is a bit more of the same.
Did you know that in the comics, Michonne's backstory has never been revealed to the monthly readers? A version of this story, establishing her pre-apocalypse persona, appeared in an issue of Playboy last year around the time Michonne debuted on the TV show.
8. Carl's humanity
We see a little bit of Carl as a "real" kid in this episode, just for an instant at a time. The TV and video games he finds in the house where he and Rick hole up was calling to him -- even as he knew that there was no electricity. Then he has some cereal and reads a book in a house that's largely untouched by the apocalypse. You could almost mistake it for a different show -- until his dad won't wake up and the second half of the episode kicks into gear.
While his first declaration of "I win" when he and Rick look for food in a restaurant near the house is caustic and fueling the battle of wills Carl believes himself to be having with his father, the second "I win" seems as though it's supposed to be indicative of somebody who has been desensitized by the world, and whether that's meant to speak to his mass media moment as meta commentary almost as much as it is speaking to the ACTUAL world he lives in is hard to say.
We also get a shot of him sitting on the porch roof eating pudding, which is about as little-kid as we've seen Carl be in years, and which delivers one of the episode's few really light moments -- when he tells Rick that he ate "112 ounces of pudding" while his father was out cold.
That's certainly a far cry from "You're nothing. I'd be fine if you died," which is what Carl screams at an unconscious Rick during a furious tantrum in which he blames his father for the loss of the prison, the loss of Shane, the loss of his mother and sister.
While much of this episode comes from a specific episode of the comics, that scene with Carl luring the walkers away from the house, only to fall into a trap, is straight out of "The Walking Dead" #50 from Image Comics. As in, virtually beat for beat and line for line.
Ironically, the big showdown with The Governor happened in #48, and while much of the episode is almost directly pulled from #50, #49 is largely skipped -- except the bit with Tyreese's / Hershel's head noted above, and the scene where Rick and Carl take out the restaurant walker.
10. That darn hat
Carl is like Indiana Jones in this episode. Whenever he's faced with adversity, there goes the hat, rolling away and in need of recovering. The official AMC teaser for the episode said that he lost something dear to him, and about halfway through "After," it seemed all but inevitable it would be the hat. Ultimately, it wasn't, although what he did lose (more on that in a minute) was actually a bit less special.
This little town -- presumably because there weren't enough people to make it an ideal feeding ground for the walkers -- is much better stocked, cleaner and in generally better condition than anything we've seen in a while. How close is this to the prison? This could have been Woodbury II if anybody had stumbled through and put up a few walls.
Those cast iron pans in the second house Carl visits could be really useful, too, when cooking over a fire on outdoor excursions but it seems they were just props and not really Carl's for the taking.
12. Persistent bugger, wasn't he?
We got a zombie this week who really does prove that thing that we've always heard from the producers all season: The walkers are more of a threat this year.
In many cases, just that shot with the lamp would have taken out a walker in previous episodes. This one takes a bullet, a handful of solid strikes to the head and keeps on coming. Rick was right early in the episode, when Carl wasted a round on a walker Rick was trying to kill quietly -- his son really could have used that bullet later.
13. Panic ATTACK
We get to see Michonne at her most brilliantly, brutally Michonne just as she's breaking down, killing 19 walkers because she just can't take walking alongside "herself" anymore and then taking out her companions, presumably because they bring back memories of her boyfriend and his friend.
Then, coming off that, she makes the decision to follow the muddy footsteps of strangers -- something she'd decided against before, in favor of her companions and the herd.
14. Walker Rick?
This one actually plays way better on TV than in the comics. After being in a coma for days, Rick finally starts to stir and Carl isn't sure whether he's undead or not.
Thinking he has to kill his dad, he crumbles back into the fetal position, saying that he can't do it .. .but lucky for him, Rick is alive.
Lucky for all involved, those footsteps Michonne were following turned out to be Rick and Carl's -- even if we don't get to see the reunion onscreen in this episode.
That's because when she stops and finds the walker Carl shot in the restaurant -- with a note from its friend / family member asking the next person who came along to "do what I couldn't" -- she's struck by guilt and flashbacks and it slows any chance of tracking them right away.
Lucky again: Stumbling across the massive can of pudding Carl ate is all the clue she needs to recover his shoe. Because she's way better at this than he is, as we saw when she got the Grimes family photo out of a walker-infested restaurant for Carl last season.
While Carl realizes finally that he can't do it alone, and isn't man enough to usurp Rick just yet, both of the adults in the episode also come to moments of clarity themselves.
Michonne, talking to her dead boyfriend, who apparently killed her son so that he wouldn't have to live in the horrifying world of "The Walking Dead": "You were wrong, because I'm still here and you could be too and he could be here. I know the answer: I know why."
Rick, to Carl: "I know we'll never get things back to the way they used to be. I only clung to that for you, for Judith. Now she's gone and you -- you're a man, Carl."
17. Special delivery
This show is often so relentlessly dour, that brief flashes of humanity, civilization and hope can be enough to make for a happy ending. Such is Rick answering a knock at the door of their appropriated house, telling Carl, "It's for you" and silently telling the audience that Michonne -- and presumably Carl's shoe, since his note in chalk on the bedroom door where he left the zombie was that it "got my shoe, didn't get me" -- has found the pair.
A couple of stray theories...
It seems likely it will be a couple of more weeks before we ever see Tyreese. If the show is going to focus on a small number of characters at a time, he's not necessarily going to be anyone's first choice; he was always a fan favorite with the comic book readers, but he was dead by this point in the comics (you saw Hershel get his fate outside the fence) and he's never been given sufficient depth to make connect with the TV audience in the same way. Add to that the fact that it seems obvious he has baby Judith with him, alive and well, and you've got a recipe for a great cold open one of these weeks...but they'll likely hold off on it as long as they can.
Before the season, there was a lot of muttering about Michonne and Rick hooking up-something it seems a segment of the fan base want to see and that the actors aren't entirely opposed to. Whether that will ever happen or not, it would certainly be shocking if the father/son struggles Rick and Carl are tackling together and the fresh revelation that Michonne was once a mother (who seems finally to be dealing with the loss of her child) weren't tied together thematically going forward. For that matter, who wants to go back through season 3 and give Michonne's reaction to The Governor and his relationship with Penny a second look?