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.
- “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.