“After” picks up immediately in the wake of The Walking Dead’s midseason finale, which saw the prison compound’s destruction and the remaining survivors scattered about its surrounding wooded wilderness. Instead of providing brief glimpses of where each member of the separated group has gone, the episode focuses on three characters: Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and Carl (Chandler Riggs), whose relationship grows more fragile with each passing moment that they spend together, and Michonne (Danai Gurira), who’s gone back to her loner ways and is consistently haunted by visions of her past and potential future.
Rick and Carl’s lonely journey takes them from the rural back roads to an abandoned suburban neighborhood. With Rick weakened from his showdown with David Morrissey’s Governor and hardly able to keep up with Carl, the episode shifts emphasis to Carl, who’s boiling with rage over his father’s faulty decision-making. The bulk of “After” concerns Carl’s blaming of Rick for Judith’s presumed death and failure to meet the needs of everyone who counted on him. The strongest aspects of this storyline, however, are the scenes after they arrive at the house and Rick falls asleep. Carl wanders into the upstairs bedroom where a boy likely his age once lived before the world changed and pauses to observe the markers of a life he might otherwise be having: walls covered with posters; video games and DVDs lining the racks next to a television. But reality quickly sets in as he grabs a wire behind the TV and ties it to the door downstairs to prevent walkers from entering the house.
The Walking Dead’s best moments have always been quiet scenes with characters coping with their own fears when no one else is around. But such introspectiveness has become a rare occurrence lately; too often the show’s explicit narrative agenda dictates that the characters are always talking and confronting each other as a means of establishing conflict and moving the plot along. Carl’s excursions through the neighborhood, which include baiting a walker down the street for the sheer hell of it, capture the emotional state of his character better than a majority of his conversations with Rick over the past two seasons.
The episode’s secondary focus is Michonne, who’s become so adept at survival that she no longer has to think about it. As she walks among a horde of zombies, with armless, jawless walkers chained by her side, she wrestles with her own demons. The unsettling flashback-turned-nightmare of her life before the apocalypse offers a rare glimpse into Michonne and gives the episode a more spontaneous component than the show’s normally straightforward narrative and visual approach.
While there are some new elements at play in Michonne’s plotline, The Walking Dead’s creaking narrative mechanics return as Carl’s arc takes shape over the course of the episode. After his near-death encounter with walkers, he finds himself unable to pull the trigger when he thinks Rick may have died. Not only is the setup cheap (particularly with the ambiguity surrounding Rick’s death), but the resolution is all too symmetrical and expected. Of course Carl can’t pull the trigger and realizes he actually needs his father, and of course Rick isn’t actually dead. Having said all that, the subtler allusion—that Carl may soon need to take over for Rick—poses intriguing possibilities for the series down the road, and may be setting up a surprise.
This is frequently the pattern with The Walking Dead. Sometimes the series delivers brilliantly on the dramatic possibilities of its drawn-out narrative clockwork and thematic teasing (e.g., the barn reveal midway through the second season), while other times it becomes obvious that there’s less depth beneath the surface than what might appear. Perhaps that’s why “After” feels both familiar and new; some aspects of it are eyeball-roll-inducing, others dramatically enticing. As the remainder of the season unfolds, we’ll know if any of these possibilities are delivered upon, and whether this season’s frequent and apparently deliberate disjointedness ultimately benefit the series. Right now, however, with the prison-compound plotline resolved, the Governor vanquished, and a new phase set to begin for the characters, it’s back to setup mode. And while it’s refreshing to know there isn’t an inevitable clash or one set conclusion toward which the season is gradually building, the “let’s wait and see if this develops into something” state in which the series suspends viewers, even in potentially new territory like this, is beginning to wear thin.
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