Are these spoiler warnings before an episode review really necessary anymore? Please let me know… but until you do, be forewarned, there are spoilers ahead if you have not seen the most recent episode of The Walking Dead.
Previously on AMC’s The Walking Dead… shit hit the fan, and the prison has fallen. After, the ninth episode of the fourth season, opens just minutes after the events of the mid-season finale, and in keeping with the show’s pattern of silent cold opens for season and mid-season premieres, shows us the aftermath of the battle and answers the first of unknown questions after the chaos of the Governor’s attack… Michonne’s whereabouts.
Shown emerging from the forest, Michonne slips back immediately into lone survivor mode and creates a new pair of pets for herself before making sure she took care of dispatching Hershel’s disembodied head.
At this point, I have to point out that this episode follows the comic more closely than almost any other previous episode with the exception of the pilot… and even that deviated more than this episode did. The first panels of the comic arc following the fall of the prison and Rick telling Carl, “Don’t look back” are Tyreese’s head (who was decapitated in the book, not Hershel) and Michonne’s katana skewering said head. This episode was an almost shot for shot, angle for angle representation of those panels, and honestly, I was delighted (with the shots, not the dismembered head stabbing… that was sad… I’m not a monster).
All of that said… I won’t go on about comparing the comic to last night’s episode. As much as I would love to, I’m going to keep this post dedicated to my thoughts on the episode itself. Instead, I will direct you to The Walking Dead’Cast (yet again) to hear mine and Grace’s thoughts on tonight’s episode and how it relates to the comic in the Comic Talk segment. Jaden, who had always done a great job on the podcast giving his insights each week, is unable to continue recording the segment, so Jason has asked us to step and fill the void. My advice… listen and enjoy, we will have much to talk about.
OK… onto the show itself.
I often try to write these reviews before reading or listening to other people’s take on an episode so as not to be unduly influenced one way or the other… but today, I decided to gauge other’s reactions, and I am surprised by how many negative responses there have been. Fortunately, I find many of the arguments against the episode lacking and my opinion is unaltered… I loved the episode from start to finish and found the acting, writing, and most surprisingly, the directing to be some of the best the show has delivered. In my opinion, After ranks right up there with Clear and Days Gone By. Focused story telling with stellar performances, giving us greater or more nuanced understandings of three of the main characters, without feeling the need to play catch-up with the rest of the splatter shit from the aforementioned fan.
Dealing with only two stories, the Grimes family and Michonne, this episode allows enough space for the impact of what each of these characters is experiencing after the fall of the prison to steep a bit longer than would have been the case if we were visiting each of the disparate survivor groups. Michonne in particular is finally given more depth than we had previously seen by virtue of the first dream sequence acting as quasi-flashback that we have seen in the series, and it leaves us with just enough information to keep talking about the meaning of each shift, and just vague enough to whet our appetites for more of an explanation. If there is one thing I’ve come to appreciate in these days of prequels and reboots, a mystery is only great until it is answered… and more often than not, the answer is disappointing… maybe we can be left with a few questions lingering.
Seeing Michonne alone and reverting back to the cold figure we met at the end of season 2 was heart wrenching. She had just reached a point where her guard was being dropped and a smile could find its way onto her face, and now, she has lost everything… again. It was disheartening to see her looking at Rick’s boot prints, only to turn the other way and head into the forest to collect her personal herd… and although I didn’t immediately understand what she was doing the first time I watched it, I understood that she was making a decision… a decision to not follow anyone again, to go it alone. And if there is anything that the third season taught us, and Michonne of all people should know this after what happened with Andrea, is that you can’t survive in this world alone. Fortunately, by the time she unleashed hell at the tip of her blade and dispatched her makeshift rotting entourage, she remembered the lessons from the first half of this season… you can still come back.
Danai Gurira gives an amazing performance this episode from start to finish… and with the exception of her brief conversation with Mike, she manages to do so wordlessly. Those final moments when she is standing in front of the door, looking in the window, and breaking down with relief and joy were some of my favorite moments of the evening… that and Rick’s response when he sees his ninja buddy standing outside his front door. It’s for you indeed.
For all of Michonne’s lack of words, it’s Carl’s use of words that seem to be the cause of much of the kerfuffle surrounding this episode. The arguments I’ve heard against After boil down to people being bothered by Carl speaking to his father the way that he did. In one instance, a young co-worker went on about how if he spoke to his father that way he would be smacked upside the head… I simply pointed out that those were the words of a young man who had yet to tell his father to “fuck off”. It doesn’t have to be a literal telling off, but that separation must happen at some point, and Carl decided to make his stand.
As a father, and someone who has gone through adolescence (long, long ago), I recognize Carl’s actions as being the hubris of youth… the belief that you have enough experience and enough maturity to go it alone without the help of any old people who simply don’t understand what it is you are going through. In Carl’s case however, there is a large boulder of truth behind what he is accusing his father of… yet, he really isn’t quite there… and by the end of the episode, that friction between father and son had dissipated somewhat. Carl was able to say what he needed to say… and to feel the pride in protecting himself and the very person whose sole purpose at this point is keep him alive… but in the end, he comes to realize the value of his father, of family, and of the very thing that brought Michonne to their front door, he finally realizes that he can’t do it alone, that he too needs other people.
Chandler Riggs did a fantastic job in carrying this episode on his teenaged back. He managed to show more range in this one episode than he had at any other point, and he pulled it off. I could believe his anger, his fear, his youthful arrogance… I could share in his delight at finding that gigantic can of pudding (btw… has anyone ever seen pudding come in a can like that? Why weren’t there more provisions like that in the prison?)… and I could share in his disappointment at realizing that he can’t play any more video games. For as much as Carl is a boy, he is right on the cusp of genuine manhood, and much of that comes with learning humility and when to come down off your high horse. The process of letting go, from both ends of that equation, is difficult and often fraught with resentment and fury… but in the end, Rick needs his son as much as Carl needs his father. It’s a lovely thing to see it when two people finally realize that fact (suddenly feeling the urge to call my dad).
I suppose I should give some credit to Andrew Lincoln for being convincing in the role of someone who had just been strangled to near death, beaten to a pulp, shot in the leg, and I’m presuming either shot through the side or a few broken ribs causing his lungs to wheeze something fierce. Kudos to the make-up department and who ever is in charge of Rick’s sweat… that man desperately needs a shower. One of my only quibbles with the episode was the point at which Carl believes his dad may have turned. I can imagine that as a real fear to have, especially since he seemed very casual about checking whether or not his dad had died or not, but the audio effects and over the top shadowing and melodrama was a bit much for my tastes… but that is truly a minor gripe. Other than that moment, his performance as the father to an angry young man was fantastic, and his inability to tell his son that everything will be fine was, as a father, a kick in the gut. If we can’t protect the ones we love, if we can’t offer comfort in one way or the other, what use are we? Rick has been struggling with that question since Lori’s death (or really since Shane’s death)… and Andrew Lincoln has found a way to wear that pain and anguish on his face as readily as a drunk girl wears duck lips in a Facebook post.
Finally, I have to bring up Greg Nicotero’s direction. I have had a long standing issue with almost every episode Mr. Nicotero has directed… I think he is an amazing visual effects artist, and one of the more creative and fascinating people working in horror today, but I have always disliked his directing style… until now. How he approached this episode, from the opening shot mirroring the opening of the second episode of the series, Guts, to the slow pacing of Michonne’s herd wrangling and mental self-flagellation, to the framing of Carl’s adventures in suburbia as a western… simply wonderful. I’m very happy to change my mind regarding his directorial abilities.
After is a fantastic return to The Walking Dead and is a wonderful indicator of where Scott Gimple and AMC are taking the show. As a comic reader, I am tickled pink that they are hewing the story a bit closer to the source material… and even more so knowing that there are still surprises ahead of us. Next week should catch us up on some of the other survivors as well as introducing three new characters. For those of you who don’t know who those people are, prepare for some quality television and an amazing story.
What do you win Carl… what?
Cornelius J. Blahg