The Walking Dead Season 4 midseaon premiere, which debuted last night, is aptly titled “After” — and, as it implies, the Robert-Kirkman-penned, Greg-Nicotero-directed episode dives right into the post-prison travails of the survivors. Beginning with Rick, Carl and Michonne.
“After” opens at the smoking, walker-infested remains of the prison, from which everyone has fled but Michonne. Could it that be our brave woman-warrior — who, not so long ago, could barely even tolerate Andrea’s company — is having the toughest time leaving the first home and family she had known since the turn behind, reeling with the knowledge that leaving The Governor alive has cost her everything … again?
And the worst possible piece of irrefutable evidence is lying beside her: Hershel’s head, now sporting the milky eyes and reflexively working jaw of the undead. It’s an unnerving sight, and a fine reminder that gentle memories of what came before aren’t much good to any of us anymore — the survivors or the viewers.
Back at square one — alone and emotionally traumatized — Michonne lures two walkers to the spiked barrier at the fence and slices off their lower jaws and arms, creating new pets to allow her to travel among the walkers untouched. And she does, after driving her katana through Hershel’s head, effectively ending the chapter once and for all.
Meanwhile, Grimes junior and senior are on the move, the former radiating fury and several paces ahead of his badly battered and staggering dad.
Happening upon a diner — Joe and Joe Jr.’s BBQ Shack — they decide to raid the place for food and find an undead and ravenous Joe Senior barricaded in there, along with a pleading note from Joe Jr. — “Please do what I couldn’t.” Grimes Senior tries with a hatchet. Grimes Junior does with a bullet. Rick chastises his son for wasting a bullet, now that more are not at the ready. Carl retorts that it was up to him to finish his father’s failed effort.
Even the ensuing hunt for supplies becomes a contest. Tossing his slightly larger bounty next to his fathers, Carl looks at Rick and growls, “I win.”
Oh, son. That you had a room to which we could send you to think about your mouth.
But what is this?
A ways down the road, the Grimes’ happen upon a pretty white house which Rick pronounces “as good as any” to serve as their refuge. Refusing to be second man to his dad in clearing the place, Carl forges on, ignoring Rick’s warning to be vigilant and banging on the walls with a barrage of foul language to show his dad just how unafraid he is. Then he heads upstairs and comes upon a teen boy’s dream bedroom, all extreme sports equipment and a giant flat-screen surrounding by video games and gaming systems.
For a moment, his expression softens into that of a kid who just hit the motherlode. Then, realizing myriad things — no electricity, no time to play, no doubt his reality is infinitely more challenging that anything in those games, he yanks the cord from the TV set and goes down to secure the door with it.
When Rick attempts to heave the sofa in front of the door, too, Carl snaps, informing his dad that his clove- hitch knot is enough to do the trick — and he knows this because Shane taught him to tie it. Rick remembers Shane, right? Rick does. Just not the one that Carl remembers. He tells the defiant kid he remembers all of their lost comrades.
It’s now desperately clear to me that those of us who’ve had a tough time with Carl since he stopped being the little guy who hated haircuts and his mom’s campfire cooking, missed his real dad and glommed onto Shane — with all his knot-tying, frog-hunting talents — as his de facto one, might have our work cut out for us in Season 4B.
But having raised four teenagers without the upheaval of, you know, a zombie apocalypse and the nearly daily death that comes with it, I have to salute Kirkman’s realistic portrayal of teenage bravado. Of course this boy is going to be impossible. All teens are boundary testers and this one’s boundaries are built of loss and impermanence on all four sides. His mother is gone. His baby sister is gone. His post-turn family is no more. And in Carl’s eyes, his father should have found a way to stop all of it from happening.
Keeping that in mind — not to mention the part where Chandler Riggs does such a knockout job of playing this hormonal emotional and literal gunslinger — will compel me to do my best not to root for the zombies the next time Carl runs his lip.
I can’t even recall the last time we had a pre-turn flashback, so I’m completely flummoxed by
the sight of Michonne without her dreads and wearing couture clothes in a modern high rise with huge windows that look out over a gleaming Atlanta. She is joking with and prepping snacks for a pair of business-suit-clad men discussing business at a nearby table, wiping clean a kitchen knife that suddenly morphs into her katana, which she slides neatly into the butcher-block holder with the others. A little boy runs into the room and she sweeps him into her arms. Then the scene begins to evolve.
When she delivers the cheese plate, the toddler still on her hip, the men — her lover Mike and his friend Terry — are now clad casual clothing that becomes filthy and tattered as their conversation turns to Michonne’s sword skills being key to the safety of their camp. Outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, Atlanta is in ruin. It is entirely discombobulating. The camera switches to Michonne’s puzzled face, the back to the men, revealing their blank faces and bloody armless torsos. Michonne begin to scream.
And now we know. She knew her original pets very, very well. And her gut-wrenching reaction to holding motherless baby Judith becomes all the more devastating. Michonne wakes from her dream to find herself in the car in which she’d taken refuge, her tethered pets lumbering just outside the cracked window.
Back at Casa Grimes, Carl pours himself a bowl of cereal and then — because he’s the guy in charge now, just ask him — pours one for his dad, too. Except his dad won’t wake up, no matter how violently Carl shakes him or how loudly he yells. Bonus points to Andrew Lincoln for staying perfectly blank-faced while having his noggin shaken to kingdom come. I’d love to see the outtakes, if there are some.
The commotion lures a pair of walkers to the door. Certain that his Shane-certified knot will hold the front, Carl creeps out the back, calls for the zombies and sets off down the road with them on his trail. Lizzie tried this sort of walking-backward-zombie-baiting not too long back. It went badly. And it goes badly for Carl, too, when another walker sneaks up from behind. In short order, Carl is the bottom man in a dog pile of zombies that he dispatches just in the knick of time. He wriggles his way out, barfs up his Wheaties and again proclaim, “I win.”
Not by much, son. Not by much.
Back at the house, Carl finds his father still deeply unconscious and decides to unload on him in just the way teens will tell their parents how it is when the adults are far enough away to never, ever bear witness to their words. “I saved you!” he crows at Rick, conveniently neglecting the part where the zombies would have likely shuffled past the door if he hadn’t been bellowing. “I didn’t forget while I was playing farmer!” he continues. ?I don’t need you any more.”
Bellowing a string of grievances and a list of the fallen folks Rick failed to protect, he concludes with, “They counted on you. You were their leader. But now you’re nothing. I’d be fine if you died.”
No time like the present to test the theory. He ventures to another picturesque home, grabs a yard light as a makeshift spear to bolster the dwindling bullets in his gun and hurls himself into the door. Fail. He tries again, using the light’s stake to jimmy the door open (Don’t try this at home, kids. Your neighbors won’t like you.) Rummaging through the kitchen, he spots a precious bounty on the top-most, kid-proof shelf — an enormous can of chocolate pudding. And for a brief moment Kid Carl shines through again.
But more problems await behind door No.2 on the home’s second level and soon he’s locked in another fight for his life with the walker inside. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are several kinds of walkers out there in the world — those that bite immediately (see also all of them in Seasons 1 and 2) and those that wait for just the right moment before sinking their teeth, allowing for their intended meal to vanquish them just before contact. Which Carl does, this time by sliding out of his shoe and scooting out of the room.
He commemorates his victory by leaving a chalk-scrawled warning on the door: “Walker inside. Got my shoe. Didn’t get me.” A victory meal of pudding ensues on the roof just outside the window from which the bested zombie waves his hand in vain.
Meanwhile, Michonne and her pets are back on the move. Briefly considering a pair of familiar-looking tracks on the muddy roadway, she continues on with the pack of walkers surrounding her and her pets instead.
Then she notices the walker shuffling next to her — a formerly lovely young woman with colorful clothing and a headful of braids. Her Walker Doppelganger. She does her best to fight back her revulsion, but the walker continues along beside her — a virtual look into the mirror at her own dying spirit.
And the warrior returns. Unsheathing her katana and her fury, Michonne mows down the herd — her zombie twin first and her new pets included — and stands sobbing amid the carnage.
As night falls, Carl sits observing his comatose dad when the motionless figure on the sofa begins to stir and wheeze in ghoulish fashion. We saw earlier that Rick’s ribs took the worst of the Governor’s beat-down, likely puncturing — or at least badly bruising — his lungs in the process. But is this the sound of a man who’s been lying prostrate for a long time, his injured lungs filling with fluid, coming to — or a newly animated zombie about to make a meal of his boy?
Carl reaches for his gun as, well, whatever incarnation of his dad this might be reaches for him and falls off the sofa in the process. And the boy who doesn’t need his dad and doesn’t care if he dies realizes he would rather die at Walker Dad’s hands than go on without him.
But Rick is still alive, mumbling to his boy to stay safe and indoors before lapsing back into unconsciousness. Carl cradles his dad’s head in his lap and cries, admitting aloud to the silence — and to us — that he is scared. A scared kid who wants his dad — or someone — to save him from all of this for keeps.
Help is on the way. Returning to the boot tracks in the road, Michonne tracks them into town, past Joe and Joe Jr’s. and up the porch steps of the home where the Grimes men are holed up. Tearing up, she spied them through a curtain — sitting side by side, Rick apologizing to his son for not recognizing the man his boy has become and his boy admitting to chowing down “112 oz. of chocolate pudding” during his rooftop adventure.
Taking a moment to cry for Mike — the man (and the love) she may have never had in the first place — Michonne knocks on the door where two of the reasons she chose to live and fight are reinforcing their own family bond. Struggling to his feet and to peer through the peephole, Rick sinks back down in gleeful amazement and turns, beaming, to his son.
“It’s for you,” he says.
So what say you? Are you still reeling from the sight of Hershel’s head? Are Rick and Carl partners from here on out or will Rick reclaim his authority as his wounds heal? Did you like the peek into Michonne’s past life? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.
Next week: Daryl is quiet, Beth is determined and they’re not alone in that woods.
New episodes of The Walking Dead premiere Sundays at 9/8CT on AMC.
AMC photos/credit: Gene Page