The very first time we saw the prison on The Walking Dead, at the end of the finale of season 2, our group had just battled their way off of Greene farm and once again found themselves on the road. Right after Rick announced that the days of democracy were over – it was his way or a (different) highway – the camera panned up through the trees. On the edge of the horizon, we saw a dark, foreboding complex, as though we were looking down from the Goodyear Blimp.
It’s easy to forget how important those episodes were in simply keeping the show on the air. The audience was roughly half of what it is now; after a mostly languid season where quite often virtually nothing happened, auteur Frank Darabont was booted from the show he basically created, replaced as showrunner by Glen Mazzara, who promised to pick up the pace. Mazzara largely succeeded, not only in propelling the show forward, but in helping bring to life The Governor, Michonne and the infamous prison — three key components of TWD’s universe.
Sunday night’s episode, “After,” the first following the midseason hiatus, opened with a high overhead shot of the prison. Only now, it’s as if the Goodyear Blimp hovered right over the complex, allowing for perfect analysis of the nightmare it has become. Zombies were everywhere – clamoring over a burned out tank, swarming the field where Rick tried pastoral life, tromping all over a place that for a season and a half was a home. When Michonne braved the horde looking for survivors, she only found Hershel’s decapitated head turned to a zombie and put him (well, us, really) out of his misery.
That opening scene set the tone for a dreary, depressing episode, which played out on two parallel tracks as Carl tried to move forward too quickly and Michonne finally moved backwards too ardently. It wasn’t always clear that they would meet in the end, but we have to put our group back together somehow, and this was a very good place to start.
The episode itself opened with Rick struggling to keep up with Carl through an abandoned neighborhood. In the full light of the aftermath, we saw how badly Rick got the hell beaten out of him during the fight at the prison. Clearly, he wasn’t going to be much help battling any walkers, which would leave it up to Carl to protect them both.
What unfolded was a mini-hero’s journey from innocence to experience, where Carl faced greater and greater challenges (usually of his own making), and somehow managed to draw all the wrong lessons from each brush with death. We’ve talked about the various ways the show’s writers have focused on how Carl was robbed of a childhood: He not only had to grow up quickly, but he was forced to do horrible things to people he loved in the name of survival. For awhile we thought he might be turning into a sociopath; then he leveled out. But nothing we’ve seen more perfectly captured Carl’s experience than the scene on Sunday where he walked into a teenager’s intact room and marveled at the tools of adolescence – the books, the musical instruments, the video games! Then, after taking a look at his exhausted face reflected in the television screen, he yanked out the cord and used it to tie the front door and fend off the evil that always lurks outside.
The next day when he went exploring, Carl was really just acting his age. When he came back and yelled at his father, he was being a rebellious teenager. But the world our characters inhabit doesn’t afford the luxury of acting one’s age. The stakes couldn’t possibly be higher than when Carl found himself with a zombie’s teeth inches from tearing into his calf muscle, nearly costing him his life.
“What are we going for? Where’s the happy ending here? This isn’t life?”
Those questions, posed by Michonne’s “lover” Mike during a dream flashback, speak for the predicament in which the characters now find themselves. Through humanity-on-humanity civil wars, they’ve now managed to destroy two small civilizations, and they’re now on the road to nowhere, fighting for one more day with no happy ending in sight. The flashback was a wonderfully crafted scene that started out before the apocalypse, then small things suddenly changed to show the passage of time: a kitchen knife turned into a katana; nice clothes became tattered ones; arms and babies suddenly disappeared. The scene revealed more than just where Michonne came from or that she had a baby (we knew that); it showed us the painful history of her pets from early in Season 3, the armless, jawless walkers that helped ward off the zombie horde.
Armed with new pets, Michonne once more moved freely across the countryside until she saw a walker that looked just like her. Finally she snapped and slaughtered a dozen walkers in a fury-induced frenzy, including her new pets. This may have been an all-time low for one of our favorite characters. Then out of the blue, she saw Carl’s pudding can and we knew she would be reunited with the Grimes boys. I’m glad that the final scene didn’t end with tearful hugs while flourishing music played in the background. The world is too dark now for much happiness. The final scene aptly displaced the only joy allowed anymore – the subtle smile at the sight of an old friend and a quick joke from father to son, like when Michonne arrived at the door: “It’s for you.”
And now, a hail of bullets:
Zombie Kill Report: Our first episode back saw a solid couple dozen walkers meet their end, the majority from Michonne’s katana and the rest from Carl’s luck in spite of his stupidity. There were some long stretches of no zombies, which is fine, but the tension during the scenes with walkers more than made up for them.
A missed meal: Food played a big role in the episode. Carl and Rick fought about how much he should eat. Carl poured himself a bowl of cereal, then at it on his bed, like he would do if he were a normal teenager. Even though the shot of him eating chocolate pudding on a rooftop was vital to the plot and the discarded can served as a giant Hansel and Gretel breadcrumb, leading Michonne to them, those 112 ounces of pudding would sure have come in handy on the road. Think about all of the protein, dairy and carbs they could have rationed out over time. A special shout out to the reader who calculates the total calories in 112 ounces of chocolate pudding.
Unanswered questions: Here were our parting thoughts in December: “Is Judith alive? And for that matter, what about Beth, Sasha, and Bob? Tyrese is still alive, thanks to Carol’s girls and the tough love they thankfully internalized, but everyone is now scattered, on the run, hurt and heartbroken.” Over the next few episodes, expect more straggling members of the group to find one another, to come together in at most three or four groups, then finally reunite in the late episodes. I believe Judith is still alive (does anyone have a good reason to think she isn’t?) When Rick and Carl catch up with her it will make for a tearful reunion. So far, Andrew Lincoln is batting .500 when it comes to incredibly emotional scenes: he has one terrible case of overacting and one that he played pitch perfect. Expect him to nail another one by the season’s end.