Feb 10 2014 11:45am

The Walking Dead, S4 E9 “After”

TBH, watching The Walking Dead is rather an ambivalent experience for me. I love the tense drama, the philosophical debates, the clash between morality and the will to live. Heck, I even love the zombies. On the other hand, almost every character is infurating inconsistent or frustratingly unknowable. Practically every major narrative arc on TWD has failed, then been dug out of the trash and reused with diminishing returns.

The CDC lab was pointless, Hershel’s farm a timesuck, the prison a dead end, and the plague went nowhere. Rick wants to be the leader, Rick doesn’t want to be the leader, Rick is pushed into power, Rick refuses power, Rick talks to his dead wife on a broken phone, Rick pretends to be a farmer. Shane decides he’d be a better leader and fights Rick to the death for it. The Governor decides he’d be a better leader and fights Rick to the death for it. Sophia, an innocent child, gets killed by zombies in a frenzied attack that separates the group. Judith, an innocent child, gets (possibly) killed by zombies in a frenzied attack that separates the group. Carl and Rick bicker about how much responsibility the kid should have, something zombie-ish happens in which Carl does something childish and stupid but gets lucky and saves himself, Rick then agrees Carl should get more to do, then a week later they’re back to bickering about responsibility.

I can count on one hand the number of other television shows I’ve stuck with despite continual discouragement (see also Moffat’s Doctor Who and Sherlock). I’ve abandoned shows for lesser infractions (*cough* True Blood *cough*), so why stick around? What is it that inspires such dedication? I like what The Walking Dead should be and what great heights it infrequently achieves. But I also hate what it winds up so often being. Statistically speaking, any given episode is more likely to disappointment than satisfy.

When the show gets it wrong, at best it’s a snooze fest of indistinguishable characters and meandering plots, and at worst terribly acted and incoherently written. But when the show gets it right, it can be heart wrenching, devastating, and beautiful. “After” was one of those shining moments.

“After” was a quiet episode. Not much happened plot-wise, and the dialogue was equally as sparse. Yet it packed a punch in terms of quality. Carl and Rick carry the bulk of the ep as they settle into an abandoned house in the ‘burbs. At first it looked like it would be yet another ep where they battle over what Carl is and isn’t allowed to do, but then Rick slips into unconsciousness and Carl’s left to his own devices. He wanders around the neighborhood getting into life-threatening trouble and nearly dies twice. Fortunately the only thing he loses is a shoe. That night he’s riding high on an ego trip made of 120 ounces of pudding, but he falls apart the instant he thinks his dad has turned into a zombie. Carl crumbles into a tearful little boy, his teenage bravado gone, as he realizes he’s too weak to kill his dad and thinks he’s about to die because of it.

As a teenager, Carl’s still trying to sort out what it means to be an adult while also desperately trying to hold onto the remainder of his childhood. Many different men have offered themselves up as examples of adulthood for Carl to model himself on. Shane and the Governor showed him how violence and coldness can bring power, but can’t keep it. Hershel taught him the strength of a community is built on kindness and civility, but that niceness doesn’t get you very far when the world wants to eat you alive. Daryl has proven that it’s possible to lead while following. Rick is still trying to teach him how to be a good leader by being a good man, but hasn’t been able to lead by example. Carl may think he’s all growed up when he kills those walkers (by wasting a ton of bullets), but he’s still a child when the time comes to kill his dad.

Michonne gets less screentime, but she makes the most of it. After the prison, Michonne falls back into her old routine. Stoically, she acquires two more jawless, armless biters and tries to be the woman she was after her family died but before she met Rick and co. She dreams of her affluent, educated life in Atlanta, and realizes she doesn’t want to just survive, she wants to live. She ditches her walkers and tracks down the Grimeses, leading to the first scene in months that’s made me genuinely happy.

TWD uses the “two sides of the same coin” storytelling device a lot. Carl and Michonne get that honor in “After.” Both spend most of the episode alone. Michonne is surrounded by a horde of walkers, a solitary human in a mindless crowd. Rick falls unconscious from his injuries leaving Carl with a virtual zombie. When Michonne lost her family, she didn’t want to feel anything, but this time she wants to fight to find them. She treads the same path the Governor walked a few episodes before, but takes a different turn. Carl gets a taste of independence and decides it tastes like chocolate pudding. When Carl snaps, he goes on a rant of all his grievances against his dad, but when Michonne does it she slaughters every biter in range. Carl sheds his baggage verbally, Michonne literally.

The writers still haven’t gotten the hang of subtly, but “After” was the closest they’ve come. For the most part they let the audience sort out the meaning of a line or act. OK, so Michonne’s freak out over seeing a zombie that resembled her was over the top, but Danai Gurira was spectacular at it. And that dream sequence almost brought me to tears. But oh, what I wouldn’t give to have had Michonne’s backstory dream a season and a half ago. In a show as drenched in misery and tragedy as TWD, the audience needs to have something hopeful to hold onto and characters we can connect with. Most of the time the show does little more than smoosh a collection of tropes into a vague approximation of a person. Problem is, when drama revolves around a cipher it loses the impact. It doesn’t mean anything to have a katana-wielding nobody behead a bunch of zombies. With Michonne’s dream sequence, it means everything.

So far, season 4 has been aces above the previous 3, with the glaring exception of everything Governor-related. If Carl’s monologue is any indication, the writers have heard our cries and intend to right the ship. It was time to ditch the prison, and scattering the group to the wind is a great way to force some creativity to a fairly repetitive storyline. Here’s hoping they do for Tyrese and Beth what they did for Michonne.

Final Thoughts

  • “Walker inside. Got my shoe. Didn’t get me.”
  • Hello and goodbye, Hershel’s zombie head.
  • Carl’s Happy Time Fun Hour felt like half teen angst and half the writers acknowledging the faults of the previous 43 eps. With his arguments with Rick, the writers addressed the piles and piles of inanities accrued over the last 4.5 seasons. Hopefully it wasn’t just lampshading, but an honest attempt to dump the baggage and move on.
  • Was it just me, or was the CGI especially terrible? Looked like they hired Once Upon A Time’s graphics people. Guess they spent their graphics budget on Nicotero’s makeup, because holy cow was it incredible. Or maybe it went to his director’s salary.
  • I’d still love to see an alternate version of TWD where Michonne, Carol, Carl, Daryl, and Li’l Asskicker break off and form their own faction of awesomeness.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

1. Theo16

Not sure what these mean in this context.
Jeremy Foote
2. 3SecondCultist
@1: The acronym TBH stands for 'to be honest', fairly straightforward internet lingo.

On the other hand, to lampshade something is basically pointing out all of the flaws in an inherent fictional premise's ability to suspend disbelief in the viewer. Basically, by pointing out what seems ridiculous or unbelievable, those same elements become more credible. Of course, TVTropes explains it best:
3. Improbable Joe
Team Carl!

I thought it was a good episode, and important to remind us that Carl is a kid. He's tough and resourceful and all, but sometimes he's been Terminator-level ruthless and efficient to a ridiculous degree.

Odd how this show does character really well, and does long-term plotting really badly. I struggle to think of another show that has this particular collection of flaws and strengths.
4. Theo16
@2: I don't expect a major publishing house to write in "internet lingo." I thought it might be some sort of orphan code for a drop-cap to begin the article.
Bridget McGovern
5. BMcGovern
@Theo16: Just to be clear, is a technically a publisher-neutral community website and blog, and not the official website for Tor Books, which you can find here. While we work closely with the folks at Tor, most of our editorial staff and bloggers are not employees of Tor Books (including myself and Alex), and the posts on this site aren't intended to reflect any sort of house style--internet lingo has always been welcome on this site :)
6. Eric Saveau
This episode was a chocolate-covered plate of everything I want from this show. Good writing, terrific performances, solid character development and surprisingly deft direction from Greg Nicotero. The zombies felt like a real threat but also like just another part of the environment. The use of "crossroads" as a visual theme for both Michonne and Carl was well-done without drawing undue attention to itself. And the cinematography was to die for; many of the shots would have looked terrific framed on a wall.

@Improbable Joe - "Odd how this show does character really well, and does long-term plotting really badly."

Yeah, and that mystifies me. They seem to be loosely following some beats from the comic, but that's really it as far having what looks like a plan, and it's frustrating
Bill Capossere
7. Billcap
I’m right with you there on the ambivalence Alex. Because it doesn’t conflict with anything else and I can grade my hand-back-on-Monday papers while I watch, I’ve stuck with it hoping for those few shows where they get it right. As you say, this was one of them. Wish I’d logged those others to see what it is they have in common, if anything—is it when they focus on fewer characters? When it’s a “quiet” one? A character-driven one? Ones where people don’t speak much so bad dialogue isn’t an issue? Sure, there were a few iffy moments—Rick’s cheap zombie-like rasp, the “look-it’s me” Michonne zombie. I would rather Carl hadn’t said “I can’t do it”—we got that, but I loved his “just do it” as he closed his eyes (if I recall right). But the bad moments were few in number, greatly outweighed by the good, and very restrained in their “badness” in comparison to what we’ve seen from these writers (the Michonne zombie, for instance, wasn’t holding her baby, which would have come as no surprise in this show). And there were lots of nice small touches—the pudding, Carl’s writing on the door, and the ending was about as perfect as this show has ever gotten.

Oh, please more like this . . .
8. Spooky Mizu
I loved the foreshadowing at the diner.

Rick and Carl go into Joe and Joe Jr's and find a barricaded older zombie with a sign bearing the phrase,
"Please do what I couldn't."
It's signed by Joe Jr.

Eventually, it turns out that Carl couldn't do it either.

A gripping, tense episode. Loved it.

I sleep now.

Spooky Mizu
Alex Brown
9. AlexBrown
@Improbable, Eric, Billcap: I don't see the writers being particularly good at characters. Like, at all. they seem to luck into it when, as Billcap pointed out, it's a quiet episode. When they shunt aside all the other trappings, they have teh freedom and time to dedicate to developing underserved characters. Any other personality traits come from the actors themselves. (For example, Daryl would be utterly tiresome were it not for Norman Reedus.) The quiet episodes like "After" and "Clear" are great because they stop trying to be loud action setpieces and behave like the apocalyptic family drama they're supposed to be. But it never lasts. I doubt they'll have the same patience with the second string next week.

@Billcap: TWD has actually been pushed back in my viewing queue, now that True Detective is on. Sweet Zombie Jesus. Now that's a television show.

@Spooky Mizu: See, I found all the foreshadowing unnecessary and overwrought, but they weren't completely irritating. The ep was full of Chekov's guns, all of which I could've done without.
10. Fuzzy_Dunlop
I was thinking about The Walking Dead today and it occurred to me that it is really the perfect show. It has an preexisting and loyal fan base, is just smart enough to keep the TV philes interested and just dumb enough to bring in the masses. As much as I complain about its failed potential, it actually walks a fine line to be the gigantic success it is.

@Alex Brown
I'm with you on True Detective, that show is on another level, taunt, riveting, complex and then last night it exploded into a six minute long tracking shot that made my jaw drop.
Alex Brown
11. AlexBrown
@Fuzzy_Dunlop: You're so right about TWD being the perfect show. 15.8m people tuned into last night's ep, and in the 18-49 demo it even bested the Olympics. It does walk a fine line, but I think it spends more time falling than it does walking.

Not to get too tangential, but that last scene in True Detective blew my mind right out the window. Had to watch it 3 times. Someone should sit Andrew Lincoln down for some acting lessons with Matthew McConaughey.
12. Improbable Joe

I've been trying to think of how to describe my feelings about the charaterizations on TWD, and I think this is the best I can do: any one of the 3-4 versions of Lori would have been a compelling TV character, but making her a different person every time they needed the plot to move forward was a load of BS.

That's the reason why the stand-alone episodes work pretty well. When they are writing isolates scenes, self-contained episodes, or small arcs, they are good at making the characters relatable and human people who react to situations the way real people that we know might do. The middle bits of the first two Governor-centric episodes are a good example of this. It was a strong stuff on its own, but makes absolutely no sense based on the overall arc of the character. That's the show in a nutshell... individual bits often work, but never make sense in the overall "big picture" sense.

Also, from an acting standpoint? Maybe casting directors should stop casting non-American actors to play American characters. Some really skilled actors are confined by the requirement of maintaining a specific accent in a movie. Trying to do that for multiple seasons must be a chain around Andrew Lincoln's neck.
Alex Brown
13. AlexBrown
@Improbable Joe: I see what you're saying, so yes, I totally agree.

I hate to keep bringing up True Detective, but one of the great things about the characters is how they sound and act. Everyone from the leads down to the unnamed extras feel like they're from Louisiana and Texas, and boy does it make a difference. Andrew Lincoln has never felt Southern to me, none of them have (but he's still better than Stephen Moyer is at Bill Compton). Carl forgot his accent way back in season 1. They all feel like a bunch of Northerners who moved to the suburbs of Atlanta 5 years ago. The native accents and localized behaviors/attitudes can tell a lot of the character's story without the script having to do the descriptive work.
Bill Capossere
14. Billcap
I purposely haven't yet started True Detective because it seemed like it was going to be that good. Looks like I picked the wrong week to give up new TV shows . . .
15. Fuzzy_Dunlop
@ Alex & Improbable Joe

I think it goes beyond just the actors accents, the whole show does not have a Southern Vibe. it's so non-regional. The best shows are always centered in a region and the show picks up the flavor naturally, Breaking Bad felt like a western, it's was modern vibe but it worked, even Game of Thrones pulls off a Westros Vibe, it's actually one of the shows greatest accomplishments. The Walking Dead feels like its set in Any Town, USA. In the mid season finale when the girl was making mud pies in the red clay I had a moment of, "oh yhea! Their in Georgia." I can see how a Zombie Apocalypse could over ride a regional vibe, but for me it's off putting.
16. Improbable Joe

I hadn't even worried about the regional part, although it is a good point. What I was addressing is the fact that non-Americans generally(not always) have a hard time acting through an adopted accent. Many of them do OK, but a lot of them have maybe 2-3 tones they can do, and nothing in between. They tend to come off either way to0 flat or very overdramatic. I think Andrew Lincoln is a perfect example of that... he's either kind of flat or really hissing at the camera.
seth johnson
17. seth
"Statistically speaking, any given episode is more likely to disappointment than satisfy."
This exactly sums up my attitude towards this show. I kinda gave the second season some slack because production was well under way before the first season had completely aired and the network understood the juggernaut they had on their hands. From third season on, though, they've had enough of a budget to be able to accomplish the stars and the moon, and anything beneath that, is the failing of the writers and directors.
Fake Name
18. ThePendragon
Not sure if anyone here has played the game, but did the diner in this episode remind anyone else of the diner in 400 Days? It seemed awfully similar.
19. Adolfo
"I’d still love to see an alternate version of TWD where Michonne, Carol, Carl, Daryl, and Li’l Asskicker break off and form their own faction of awesomeness."

Take out Carol and I would agree with you. Carol can't be trusted and she sucks.

Great review of the episode. I have to say it's one of my favorites. So much Carl was kind of hard to take, but the Michonne bits made up for it. It made me kind of fall in love with Michonne.

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