The Walking Dead: "After" (Season 4, Episode 9)

Flabbergasted

AMC’s hit zombie show is back from its holiday vacation, and the verdict is Not Bad.

 

Good, actually. There was even humor. This show has trouble with story arcs, but it’s got real visual flair and knows how to deliver on individual episodes. Perhaps I’m overly appreciative after watching Helix, but then… For God’s sake, people, I’ve been watching Helix!  

 

This show‘s problem with arcs are is well-documented at this point: the endless farm sequence, the first fizzling out of the Governor, then the fizzled attempt to give the Governor depth. Part of that probably stems from the constant changes to the creative team that have occurred, part from not really knowing what a zombie show is supposed to do other than go on. Like a zombie. But that overall critique shouldn’t obscure the fact that these folks seriously know how to do one hour of television. 

 

The last line we heard from episode eight as Rick and Carl staggered from the devastated  prison grounds is a common refrain. “Don’t look back,” said Rick. “Keep walkin’.” The point is these people are walkers, too, the true walking dead waiting for their time to come. Now that’s totally depressing, but it’s an idea that keeps circling back to the human will to endure, to insist on seizing every last chance at life. To not give up. As themes go, that’s worthwhile. 

 

We open tonight with an aerial view of the prison overrun by walkers. It’s bleak and devastating and brilliant all at once. That one shot has more on the ball than a lot of TV shows manage in a entire episode, which is one reason to keep hanging out with the hopeless.

 

Michonne is alone among the ruins, standing against a backdrop of flames crackling, smoke billowing and a hollowed–out horse carcass. She also starts lopping off heads with her sword, always a cool visual. She lures two walkers into the defensive stakes planted around the prison perimeter so that they can impale themselves. Next thing you know, she’s got two walkers on a rope with their arms cut off and their jaws cut out. It’s the perfect accessory for a girl seeking camouflage in the zombie apocalypse. It’s also a visual representation that she’s giving up on her humanity, retreating back to the cipher she once was. Only there still is a Michonne deep down. She takes the time to stab Hershel’s reanimated head, sparing him that fate.

 

I know a lot of people were worried about Hershel’s unspiked head after Episode 8. So thank you, Michonne.

 

On to Rick and Carl. Rick’s a total limping mess, having been beaten senseless by the Governor before Michonne impaled him (thanks a lot for that, too, Michonne). Carl is a teenager now, and his normal rebellious impulses are amped by the fact that he blames his father for being an incompetent who got everyone killed. First humorous aside of the night: Rick tries his “it’s gonna’ be okay” line on Carl, who shoots him a death stare, “are you ****ing kidding me?” look, cutting Rick off before he can even reach that pathetic “okay.”

 

Father and son bicker through a walker kill at a roadside bar. Michonne finds their tracks on a muddy road and turns the other way. Again, she’s giving up.

 

Rick and Carl find a house to hole up. Rick is a total mess, wheezing and stumbling about. There’s a great moment where dour Carl finds an old video game station. His eyes light up like a boy again, but all it’s good for now is using the cords to tie the front door shut. That prompts another argument with Dad.

 

The next sequence is a cool bit of film work. We see Michonne before the zombie apocalypse with her son, husband and a friend. It’s a simple meal preparation, which slides from a kitchen cutting knife to a katana, from clean, well-dressed men to shabby ones, from a conversation about movies into what they should do or where they should go. The last shot has her husband and friend without arms. We’ll ultimately learn that they killed themselves rather than go on, and took her son with them. That’s why she used them as her first camouflage pets.

 

Carl wakes up. He eats some frosted flakes dry. He yells at his father to wake up, which brings two walkers snarling to the door. Carl figures he doesn’t need Dad for much anymore, so he goes out through the back door and starts leading the two walkers away from the house. He’s bored and contemptuous of them. Just when he’s led them far enough away to shoot them, though, a third suddenly rears up from behind. It’s a gruesome, frantic melee that ends with Carl still alive, pinned beneath two walker bodies. He squirms free and throws up. Still, the kid who liked video games remains: “I win.”

 

Michonne is proceeding with her pets among a small crowd of walkers. One walker looks like her, same height, same hairstyle. It’s another visual reminder of the theme: does she really want to just keep walking, nothing more?

 

Carl breaks into another house for supplies. He battles another walker in a genuinely scary sequence, fumbling though stacks of books that keep him from closing doors and with no clear avenue of escape. He comes within an excruciating second of being bit before trapping his undead adversary. Then he finds a Costco-sized can of chocolate pudding. Like any good thirteen year-old, he sits on the roof eating it while his pinned walker snarls in the background.

 

Michonne is tired of being dead. She didn’t quit like her husband and friend, and she can’t quit now. It’s primal scream therapy writ large as she cuts down every walker around before stopping to cry. The symbology is overt, but I cared about her more at that moment than I’ll ever care about anyone on Helix.

 

Carl lights into his still unconscious dad, says he doesn’t need him for protection, that he couldn’t protect anyone anyway. He lists all the people who have died because they counted on Rick. He’d be fine if Rick died. Only later, when Rick starts stirring, when it appears he might have died and turned, Carl can’t shoot him. He’s still too much a boy at heart. It’s his turn to cry until Rick speaks his name. 

 

Michonne goes back to follow the tracks she found earlier. Rick and Carl reconcile. Michonne sees them through the window, cries a little more and knocks. Rick looks through the peephole before giving tonight’s other good joke. He tells Carl “It’s for you.” I genuinely liked Rick at that moment, for the first time in a while.

 

So yeah, I’ll watch this season. And like all of the walking dead, I’ll hope for the best.        

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