Tonight marks the beginning of the second half of season 4 of The Walking Dead, and there are a lot of pieces to be picked up, and questions to be answered. The Sneak Peek video (discussed here) focused entirely on Carl, so it’s a no-brainer that a good part of tonight’s episode would be focused on him. In fact, tonight had two strong story arcs, showing the kind of attention and character building The Governor enjoyed in episodes 406 and 407 earlier this season. This time, we get two of the good guys (and one badly injured Rick).
<<Spoiler Alert: The following review will discuss at length plot points of The Walking Dead S04E09, “After.” Read more at your own risk.>>
The two characters I allude to are Carl and Michonne. In fact, tonight’s episode only has them and Rick, and it follows them from the moment the battle at the prison ends. The episode begins with an aerial view of the prison, looking down at the tank as it and its surroundings burn. Dozens of walkers are swarming around, and more are on their way into the prison grounds. We focus in on several locations: guard towers, fences, walkers approaching. And then we see one body in particular: The Governor, a gunshot wound to his forehead. He’s definitely dead, and we’re given this view to give us a little closure. There was much discussion over the last ten weeks over whether or not he was really dead. I wasn’t particularly skeptical – after all, a katana through the chest and a shot from close range, even if we didn’t see it hit, pretty much spelled it out clearly at the time – but it is nice that the showrunner decided to give us this piece of definitive evidence. We cut to a broad view of the prison, and we see Michonne observing the destruction. She walks past the dead Governor, and then stops. She looks around, and gets the attention of a couple of nearby walkers, leading them to one of the nearby barriers. She leaps over to the other side, and they continue forward, impaling themselves. She takes a rope from the fence behind her, and then proceeds to remove their arms. She takes them as two new pets, leading them around by her rope. She stops. On the ground, we see Hershel’s head, now turned. He’s gasping and moving his jaw, and she swiftly puts him out of his misery, sinking her sword through his temple. Cut to credits.
Rick and Carl are walking down a slightly muddy dirt road, Rick lagging badly behind with a pronounced limp. He’s shouting at Carl to slow down, and it sounds like he’s talking through a mouth full of broken teeth – The Governor has obviously done some damage to his throat. Carl basically ignores him, and even seems to walk a little faster – really, the entire episode’s theme is foreshadowed in this action, as Carl feels that he’s not only outstripping Rick literally, but figuratively is moving beyond him as well. They come across a restaurant, “Joe and Joe Jr.’s BBQ Shack,” and go inside to look for supplies. Carl takes point, telling Rick he’s in no condition to argue. At first, they don’t see any walkers, and note that a shelf of hot sauce may be the only food that’s left. In one of the dining rooms, they come across one walker barricaded behind tables and chairs, a note nearby asking any who come here to “Do what I wasn’t able to.” Rick takes a hatchet, and pulls away some of the barrier, telling Carl to stand down and not shoot the walker. He sinks the ax blade into the walker’s forehead, but not deep enough to kill it. It keeps coming, and Rick isn’t strong enough to lever the blade free – Carl shoots, and Rick tells him off, warning him that he might miss that bullet later when he needs it. They gather a few food supplies, and when Rick shows Carl what he’s found, Carl shows that he’s found more, and acts as though he’s won a pissing contest with his dad.
Michonne, meanwhile, is walking away from the prison, and she ends up on the same dirt road that Rick and Carl walked earlier. She notes footprints in the light layer of mud, and realizes they were made by survivors – the footsteps are too even and straight to be a walker. However, rather than follow them, she turns and heads in a different direction. She doesn’t look happy (not that we saw her smile a lot this season, but she was starting to come out of her shell a bit), nor does she look like her usual determined self. Instead, she looks a little lost.
Having left the BBQ Shack, we see Carl once again outstripping Rick; Rick’s limp is getting worse, and Carl is simply ignoring him. They come to a large house, and enter, looking for a safe place to shelter for the night. They check out the rooms, Carl going ahead and ignoring Rick’s admonitions to be more careful. Upstairs, he finds a bedroom in near pristine shape, a true teen’s den with X-Box, DVDs, a cool little reading nook, a flat-screen TV, the works. It looks like the kind of place someone Carl’s age – about twelve at this point – would love to hang in. He actually smiles, but not for the reason you might think: rather, it’s because he sees the wire attaching the X-Box to the TV as useful, ripping it out of the back of the console and taking it downstairs to tie around the doorknob for security. He’s focusing more on the practical aspects of survival, figuring himself for an expert at this game. As Carl ties off the door, Rick struggles to move a couch into position to further block the door. Carl is at this point, frankly, a bit of an asshole. He snaps and snipes, disagreeing with everything Rick says or does, basically challenging his authority at every turn for no more apparent reason than to be truculent. He tells Rick that he doesn’t need to move the couch, that he’s secured the door with a clove-hitch know. He asks if Rick knows what that is, then says, “Shane taught me. You remember him, don’t you?” Rick asks him if he has something he wants to say, but Carl backs down a bit – showing that he isn’t nearly so ready to take on the mantle of leader that he thinks he merits from his father. Rick tells him he thinks of Shane every day, but the lesson is lost on his son; he’s simply not listening to anything Rick says, and so misses the point that responsibility means more than simply living in the moment – it means living with the consequences of all of our actions, every day. But then again, we were all twelve once, and few of us went through the trauma that Carl has experienced already in his short life (and no, I don’t mean with regards to zombie apocalypses – I suspect none of us has faced exactly that particular type of trauma). I have to give Carl a bit of the benefit of the doubt here. Bringing up Shane is far more painful for Rick than Carl can possibly know. Sure, he knows that they were best friends, and that Rick killed him, but he does not know about the sexual relationship his mother had with Shane, nor consequently that Judith was likely the issue of that indiscretion. He tries to hit Rick where it hurts, and he does a much better job than he realizes. Kudos to Rick for not exploding on him (but then again, it may have more to do with his physical and mental exhaustion and injuries than to any desire to cut Carl slack). Rick leaves Carl and goes to the bathroom, taking off his shirt and inspecting his torso. He looks like death warmed over, has huge bruises everywhere, and is breathing like he has at least several broken ribs, if not a punctured lung.
We go back to Michonne, who at first appears to be experiencing a flashback, having dinner with her lover Michael and his best friend Peter (for those not in the know, these are the two people who later became her pet zombies, keeping her safe from attacks when she was walking the world alone). She sets a plate of cheese out, and things start to change: this isn’t a flashback, but rather a dream/nightmare sequence. She cleans the knife she used to cut the cheese, and as she dries it, it transforms into her katana, which she places into her knife block. Michael and Peter’s clothing changes, going from flashy evening wear to dull and dirty. A child – her son with Michael – comes into the room, and she picks him up, calling him “peanut.” She continues talking with the two men, but their words begin to make less and less sense, talking about safe zones, and knowing how to survive. Michael talks about her skills with the sword, and the two men now have blood on their clothes, and are looking grimy and sweaty. Michael questions if life is really worth living under these conditions. Michonne replies that the only thing she wants to know is who is going to open the wine, and when the camera goes back, Michael is missing his arms, looking like he did when Michonne led him around on a chain, although he still has his jaw; back on her, we see that her son has disappeared, and she looks about frantically. Suddenly, she awakes with a start: she’s lying down in a car, her two new pets waiting patiently outside.
Carl also wakes, and goes into the kitchen. He takes a bag of cereal they found at the restaurant, and pours it into a couple of bowls. He heads upstairs, and reads a novel for a while, but grows restless and heads back downstairs. He tries to wake Rick, but he doesn’t stir. Carl gets increasingly frantic, shouting “Wake up! Wake up!” All he does is attract the attention of a couple of walkers, who try knocking down the front door. He heads out back, and comes around the house. At this point, we see the events shown in the Sneak Peek video, with Carl backing away leading the walkers from the house, enticing them with calls of “Fresh meat” and ordering them to pay attention. He’s pretty cocky, and this lasts all of about thirty seconds until the inevitable: a third walker comes out of some bushes behind him, and Carl finds himself in a bit of a pinch. He stumbles, and they knock him down, diving down onto his prone body to begin their feast. He shoots first one, and then another, as their heads come close to his own and he’s able to get off shots; the third moves too quickly, and he wings it, first in the shoulder, then in the throat. His third shot is lucky, and hits it in the head. Its mouth comes to rest mere inches from Carl’s hand, as he struggles to pull himself out from beneath the undead dogpile. He leans over, spent and exhausted from the sudden shot of adrenaline, and he throws up. He wipes off his mouth, looks at the three dead walkers, and says, “I win.” He really seems to be focused on everything he’s doing as a form of winning and losing – but if everything’s a competition, he risks not taking the dangers seriously. He learns nothing from this close call, not understanding that his survival here was largely chalked up to a lucky shot. He walks back toward the house, standing in the middle of an otherwise empty, leaf-strewn road. “Cool,” he says.
Michonne continues her journey through the woods, but has now been joined by several more zombies, none of whom pay her any attention. She looks up, and is shocked to see a zombie that could be her twin – same hair, same approximate build. She looks away, and when she peeks again, she sees a different walker altogether. Is she beginning to hallucinate? Seeing possible alternatives to what she has become?
Carl arrives back at the house, and tells Rick about the three walkers he just took out, although Rick is still unconscious. “I saved you,” he shouts, “I didn’t forget…. I don’t need you anymore.” He shows his simmering anger, telling Rick that he couldn’t save Judith, that he couldn’t save anyone. He starts listing all of the dead and missing from the last several years, blaming Rick for all of them. He finishes by saying, “I’d be fine if you died.” This has a dual meaning – neither would he mourn, nor would he be in trouble were Rick to die. At this point, he’s struggling with his own grief, and he’s lashing out at the father that he feels has failed him; but it isn’t the mounting toll that he’s really angry at Rick about – it’s that Rick isn’t that untouchable, infallible god that children always believe their parents to be when they’re young. He’s coming to the realization that Rick is just a man, and this means that he, too, will be just a man one day as well. He’s no more infallible than his father, and he wants to run away from reality by lashing out and throwing accusations. This is part of his growing pains, but he doesn’t recognize this – why would he? – and falls back on the whole “I win” childishness.
He goes out foraging again while Rick remains on the couch. He sees a solar powered garden light, and takes it – despite his petulant and at times childish behavior, he’s still thinking ahead. He goes to the front door of a home, and tries to knock it in with his shoulder, bouncing off and falling on the veranda. Why doesn’t he simply try the doorknob? Mostly because he’s playing cowboy at this point – he’s the hero of his own narrative, and heroes don’t open doors with doorknobs. He uses the stake on the end of the garden light to jimmy open the door. Inside, he finds a huge tin of chocolate pudding on top of the cupboards in the kitchen, and takes it down. He then checks out the rest of the house. Behind the first door he checks, he sees a dead canary on the floor. Metaphorically, this represents the canary in the mine, the warning that something is amiss, and he’d best be on his guard; he doesn’t read the sign correctly, however, going to the next two doors without a great deal of concern. As he opens the third upstairs door, it’s thrust into him by a large male walker that was trapped inside the room. It pushes him to the ground, and he fires blindly, missing it several times, until he’s out of bullets. He scrambles into another room, but books that have fallen prevent him from closing the door. He tries to open a window, but it won’t budge more than about six inches. He falls again, and the walker grabs his leg, trying to get a bite. He’s able to pull his foot free of his shoe, and runs out of the room, just getting the books out of the way and the door shut before the walker can follow him. He writes on the door a message warning that there’s a walker inside. He adds, “Got my shoe, didn’t get me.” We then see him sitting outside on the eaves over the veranda, eating the chocolate pudding with a spoon, as the walker tries to get to him through the partly open window.
Michonne, looking more lost than ever, is walking through the woods still. Her small group of companion walkers has now grown to a couple of dozen, and she notices the doppelganger again. She tries not to look at her, but can’t help herself. She draws her sword and slices its head in twain, which immediately draws the attention of the other walkers around her. They begin to move in for the kill, and she falls into a fighting stance, swinging and moving fluidly from walker to walker, beheading one, splitting another’s skull, dancing about them until the only ones standing are her two pets. She beheads both in one sweep of her katana, and looks skywards, a deep moan leaving her chest as tears stream down her face. We see her return to the road she passed earlier. The footprints are still there, and this time she begins to follow them. She wanted to stay away from any survivors of the prison battle, choosing to go alone into the wild; but in the end, she realizes that being alone does not make life any more meaningful, and that despite the pain of loss, human contact helps make her a little more…human. Seeing her walker doppelganger really seemed to bring home how far she was travelling emotionally. I have to say that this whole sequence was wonderfully acted by Danai Gurira. The only lines she’s had to this point were in her nightmare, and yet she is able to convey complex emotions and changes in her belief. This is her strongest episode since Episodes 402 and 403, when we saw her opening up to Daryl, and holding Judith – if you recall, I suggested then that she had likely lost a child, based on her reaction to holding Rick’s daughter (and her initial reluctance to do so) – and sure enough, that was confirmed tonight in her nightmare sequence. We’ll likely never find out how she lost her child, but that is less important to her character development than simply knowing that she once had a son, and that she lost him.
Back at the house, Carl starts awake, and sees that Rick is moving a little. He groans, sounding like he’s turned. Carl scrambles away, holding his gun and aiming it at Rick’s head; but before he can pull the trigger, he begins to cry. “I can’t,” he says. “I was wrong.” He drops the gun, and closes his eyes. The true source of his grief makes itself apparent in this moment: he’s becoming a man, not because he chooses to move forward and take responsibility for himself, but because the world has forced this upon him, robbing him of his choice and of his childhood. Of course, he’s sad for all those that have been lost, but deep down he knows it’s not Rick’s fault that they’re dead or missing – it’s the world that they’re both a part of. Losing his dad is in fact his greatest fear, and the thought that Rick has died and turned nearly breaks Carl; he’s willing to lie there and be bitten, joining his father, rather than shoot him in the head. Fortunately for him, and for Rick, Rick isn’t dead yet, and when Carl hears him speak, he tells his dad, “I’m scared,” repeating it several times.
Michonne continues to follow the trail, arriving at Joe and Joe Jr.’s. She sees the dead walker inside, sees the evidence that she’s definitely following living humans, and she leans against a wall, sliding to the floor. She begins to cry again, and speaks to herself, saying “Mike, I miss you.” She answers his question from her nightmare: “I know the answer; I know why.”
In the house, Rick and Carl are talking. Carl admits to eating food behind Rick’s back, and Rick responds by telling him, “You — you’re a man, Carl.” Carl nearly starts crying, saying “I’m sorry.” Rick doesn’t know exactly what he’s apologizing for, having been unconscious during the worst of Carl’s accusations, but you get a sense of forgiveness passing between them. Carl will still have growing pains to come, no doubt, but he’d grown a lot since they’ve left the prison. The most important lesson? That you can’t make it alone in this world, no matter how tough you think you are.
This is the same lesson absorbed by Michonne, who comes across the recently emptied pudding tin, and walks up to the front door of the nearest house. She looks through the window, and sees Rick and Carl sitting talking; she nearly begins to cry, and she smiles – she hasn’t lost everything yet.
Inside, they hear a sharp knock on the door. The two scramble for their guns, and Rick carefully peers through the peephole. He begins to laugh, and sits down. Carl asks, “What?” to which Rick replies, “It’s for you.”
Much like the Hershel episode earlier in the season (Episode 405 “Internment”), and the two Governor episodes (406 and 407, “Live Bait” and “Dead Weight” respectively), this one saw a focus on a very small number of characters, which allowed for two excellent story arcs and a great deal of character development. Michonne is officially on my A-list of characters I hope they don’t kill off any time soon, and Carl showed that he can survive with both toughness and humility, but not alone. While I missed seeing how some of the other survivors are faring, I don’t doubt that we’re going to see many of them next week; hopefully, they can get as strong a treatment as Michonne and Carl received tonight. Where do Rick, Carl, and Michonne go from here? I suspect they’ll rest up and get Rick a bit healthier before they move too far; perhaps others will find them here, as they too search for food and shelter. I believe they’ll largely get a skip in the next episode, as we know where they are, and that they’re not going to move too soon. They’re in a relatively safe location with enough food to last them for a few days, and more houses nearby that Michonne and Carl can forage in. Perhaps they’ll find a stash of comics to replace the ones she used to bring him back at the prison.
Steve’s Grade: B+
A strong character study following the massive mid-season finale of ten weeks ago eases us back into the TWD universe, and gives us great insights into both Michonne and Carl. The lesson they both learn – that you can’t go it alone and maintain your humanity – is an important lesson that should ultimately help them to survive.