Welcome back to Season Four of “The Walking Dead.” After a strangely disjointed first half, wherein we saw what felt like a delayed resolution to the big crisis of Season Three, we’re left with our group decimated and adrift, their home destroyed and overrun, the denizens scattered and terrified. The Governor is gone, and no longer will that threat loom over them, but now, as they try to find each other as well as a new sanctuary, we will see what new dangers await them.
We began with the smoking crater that was the prison, walkers crawling through the smoke and ruin, and the only one remaining is Michonne. I confess, I was pleased with the overall handling of Michonne in this episode, as it continued the show’s newfound mission to make her a fully realized person instead of simply a glowering caricature. And so, in those opening moments, we find her with fear and purpose in her eyes, back to her old tricks, gruesomely finding two new macabre teammates (though one wonders why — even when limbless and mouthless — they don’t try to attack her). It’s a chilling and grim throwback to those opening moments when we first met her, as we find her once again alone and without allies.
Oh, and in case that wasn’t enough to remind us just how horrible things have become, we close the scene with a shot of Hershel’s reanimated head.
But most importantly, we finally a glimpse into who she was before the fall. Wife, lover, mother, we now know just how awful her losses were, how dark the road was that she traveled before finding Andrea on that fateful day. And while the finale of that dream sequence may have been a bit overwrought, it brought new light and life to her character. What’s more chilling is how she mindlessly walked without destination or focus, slowly losing her grip on reality. Michonne’s journey in “After” was not a particularly innovatively scripted one — losing herself to her own dark memories, only to finally fight through them and getting back on the path to her own sanity and salvation, both literally and metaphorically. However, Danai Gurira once again demonstrated a level of subtlety and intelligent characterization that made even that most unsubtle story work in her favor.
What was decidedly less nuanced was the painfully trite, wasteful storyline of Rick and Carl. Rick, his body broken after his fight with the Governor, desperately tries to find the balance between his need to lead and his dependence on Carl. I could have lived with that, but once I realized that we were in for another go-round with Bad Carl, who doesn’t listen and only scowls, I practically checked out of the episode completely. It took all of five minutes of this newfound conflict for it to grow so terribly tiresome (although I’ll admit that Carl’s shut-down stare when Rick tries to offer pithy consolations was rather enjoyable).
This entire one-episode arc of father and son was terribly plotted and developed. While this new dynamic surely should have presented new challenges for Carl, for inexplicable reasons the writers opted to return us to the Carl that everyone has historically and vociferously despised, instead of using this as an opportunity for growth and maturation. It was a return to pouting and sullenness, a childish and boorish ignorance replete with callbacks to Shane, of all people (one that didn’t make sense at the moment and then was never brought back for resolution), and it lessened all of the development and improvements that Chandler Riggs showed in the first half of the season.
The final straw was when, in the wake of a fairly compelling scene with Carl fighting off walkers, we find him engaged in a clumsy and trite monologue where he voices all of his frustrations to his unconscious father. It’s an unnecessary and unpleasant experience, devoid of purpose or nuance, and it weakened an already lazy and threadbare storyline. His insouciant arrogance is surely one born of delusion and uncertainty, yet that made it no less irritating. And while the endgame of the episode — for Carl to realize his own fears and vulnerabilities — was somewhat redeeming, the entire endeavor ultimately seemed devoid of real feeling or purpose.
“After” was an episode that felt like wasted space, as if the writers weren’t sure how to approach the aftermath of “Too Far Gone.” While Michonne’s story was an engaging one, Rick and Carl’s never rung true, lacking depth and logic. It felt particularly pointless when one considers that the result is a return to the exact same dynamic that they shared before, only now with Rick granting Carl more credit for maturity (a terrible irony if there ever was one). The future of our group is surely uncertain, and we can but hope that the stories remaining to be told will offer more compelling experiences.