The second half of "The Walking Dead's" fourth season got underway with the simply titled episode "After," and in keeping with the tone of the title, the episode itself brought the series back to its very basics: three people trying to survive in a world overrun with zombies.
The December midseason finale, "Too Far Gone" brought several of the series' ongoing storylines to a head, with the villainous Governor (David Morrissey) forcing an apocalyptic final standoff with Rick's crew holed up in the prison.
Besides relying once again on the overused trope of putting small children and babies in mortal danger from the Walkers, the episode seemed too intent on attempting to jolt viewers by killing off beloved characters, such as the saintly Hershel. Many seemed to love it, but I felt the escalating body count was providing diminishing returns.
The new episode, however, leaves all that behind for the time being and instead focuses on a very tightly told tale of Rick and his son, Carl, doing whatever they can to survive after being forced from the place they called home for the last season and a half.
Meanwhile, we're finally given a glimpse inside the psyche of the normally stoic Michonne, and what we see there only serves to make the character more interesting.
Without trying hard to shock us or drag the plot along, the episode, written by "Walking Dead" comic book creator Robert Kirkman himself, gets huge mileage out of small character moments and goes a long way to making Carl an interesting character for the first time.
Since the beginning, Carl has lingered in his father's shadow both in the world of the show and as a character. But with Rick incapacitated, Kirkman made this episode a mini coming-of-age story. Rather than turn Carl into the standard cocky youth that viewers will come to despise for his cavalier attitude, Kirkman takes this one episode to help him work through that phase of his life into something more mature and battle-hardened.
But even more artfully done is the dramatization of Michonne's inner turmoil, including some insight into who, exactly, were those two armless zombies she had with her when she was first introduced. Through an artfully staged flashback, we learn they were her boyfriend and his friend, who somehow ended up on the wrong end of zombie bite and were left to be led around on a chain for the rest of their undead lives.
The joy of "After" is best captured in two wordless moments near the end of the episode. For Carl, it's the image of the boy sitting on the roof of a house, calmly and quietly eating from a can of chocolate pudding while the zombie that nearly ended his life stomps around inside the room behind him. For Michonne, it's seeing her break down and weep upon seeing Carl and Rick still alive after the massacre at the prison.
In both moments, we see each character learning to accept what is necessary for them to continue to exist in this changed world. Carl's youthful swagger and desire to challenge the authority of his father is replaced with the calm appreciation for the nicer things he can find. Early in the episode, he criticized his father for choosing to farm, but he spends his time really enjoying some chocolate pudding. For Michonne, it's realizing that she's not alone and that there are people she can really allow herself to care about.
Both developments were necessary for the characters and create a more intimate family dynamic between the three of them. Or at least, we hope it will. This week as all about the growth, next week we'll see how that pays off.