The Governor is still dead. In case anyone was worried about this, allow me to repeat the point: The Governor is now, and shall ever be, dead. The bastard doesn’t even get to come back as a zombie. Also still dead: Hershel, and that’s a bummer. His zombified head gets a brief cameo in the cold open of “After,” but it’s just not the same, especially not after Michonne stabs it with her sword. Things have changed, and if this episode is any indication, they aren’t getting back to “normal” any time soon, if at all. That’s probably for the best. The prison had outlived its usefulness from a plot-perspective, and while I’m sure The Walking Dead will find a new rut to bog down in soon enough, for now, everything’s up in the air. There’s little time to sit down and debate philosophy.
Not that “After” doesn’t have any thematic weight to it; in fact, it does a terrific job of raising a fundamental question (“Why keep living if this is the world?”) and then answering it in a way that doesn’t come off as a cheat. But part of why it works so well is that dialogue is kept to a minimum, allowing us to read into situations as we choose and draw our own conclusions. That’s important—not because it’s an ambiguous story (Rick and Carl argue, but Carl realizes he still wants his dad around; Michonne struggles again with the awfulness of losing people she cared about, but decides she wants to be around non-zombies), but because the quiet, and the room to work things out on our own, makes us more invested in what’s happening. Too often, the writers of this show have struggled to create engaging conflicts with characters who are so thinly drawn that there are no established traits to draw on. You can make new shit up, but effective drama happens when two people are at odds with each other for reasons that arise out of established personalities. But so many of the personalities on this show are so thin that when it comes time to throw people against each other, it seems like everything’s getting made up on the spot; it’s hard to get too worked up over an argument when there’s no history behind it.
“After” doesn’t resolve this problem (no one episode could), but it does auger in its focus on the few traumas that have remained consistent throughout the series. Carl’s resentment toward his father has come up before, but rarely have their fights been so convincingly, pettily real. What makes it all the more effective is that the real reason behind Carl’s anger (and, to an extent, Rick’s over-protective nagging) remains unstated for much of the hour. Sure, Carl eventually snaps and monologues to his unconscious father about what’s driving him (basically he’s pissed that Rick once again failed to protect everyone, and there’s also some general teenage angst in there for good measure), but even that doesn’t play like the writers trying to make sure we’re getting all the finer points of the argument. It’s more just like the sort of thing a young, coming-into-his-own-but-still-struggling son would do: try and tell off a parent when that parent is no in position to respond. As someone who was once a young asshole and often had shouting matches in rooms where no one could hear him, this made sense; it wasn’t the most graceful speech ever written, but it fit, just like pretty much everything else in the hour.
The Walking Dead has always been strong when it comes to visual storytelling, and that’s very much in evidence here. The zombie attacks are, as ever, fun to watch, although some of the standards (“I am totally in control of this situation—oh no, the inevitable entropy of the universe, combined with my unthinking hubris, has once again resulted in an entirely visceral reminder that control is an illusion and doom will come for us all!”) are getting old. More impressive are the small ways the show finds to tell us about the people we’ll never see. Like the note Rick and Carl find (that Michonne finds later) next to a trapped zombie: “Please do what we couldn’t! -Joe, Jr.” Even better are the moments where the past and the present combine to reinforce everything these characters have lost: Carl, poking around a teenager’s bedroom, briefly getting lost in the big TV and games before remembering that none of that matters at all anymore, and yanking the cord out of the TV to use for rope downstairs. Or Carl again, sitting on the roof of a house after narrowly surviving a fight with a zombie, eating a big can of pudding (112 ounces!) and just enjoying the day.
Carl’s arguably the star of the hour, and as much as it surprises me to say so, this works. The kid’s turn from clumsy plot device to spookily competent killing machine made him slightly more palatable, but “After” manages to make his frustrations with his father into a believable struggle to find his own place in the world. He’s stuck where most of us get to sooner or later: realizing firsthand that his parents (well, parent) are imperfect, flawed people. Only when Rick messes up, people die. Rick’s brief interest in farming still feels like an overly mannered attempt to turn a symbolic conflict (can you be a peaceful man in a world full of NO YOU CANNOT) into a literal one, and Carl’s direct reference to that conflict doesn’t make it any less clunky in retrospect. But it does help turn the problem into something that exists specifically between these two characters. It’s not “Man Holding On To Morality In A Brutal World.” It’s “For fuck’s sake, Dad, can you stop being so embarrassing and dumb and lame okay?” The latter is more petty, but there’s something real in it.
While Carl is arguing with his dad, then trying to survive once Rick falls into a temporary coma, Michonne is deciding what she wants to do next. This includes an unexpected dream sequence, a tool so rarely deployed on the show that I initially assumed it was meant to be a flashback, and while there are clearly elements of memory in the scene, if it had been meant as literal truth, it would’ve been pretty terrible. I mean, you have a small group of people sitting in a classy apartment discussing the value of an unnamed work of art while cloying classical music plays in the background—that’s like a parody of upper-class liberal urban life. But it gets weird slowly, as Michonne (who clings to the illusion that this is all real) starts polishing her sword before slipping it into a much-too-small knife rack. The whole sequence is very nicely done, as the initial phoniness gives way to an increasingly slippery reality. It’s so unexpected and strange that it breathes life into what’s most likely just another miserable backstory.
The scene also gives Danai Gurira a chance to show off some range, and she rises to the occasion very well. Michonne’s arc isn’t anything hugely new, I don’t think; plenty of characters have faced the challenge of wanting to abandon the company of others (and avoid the heartbreak and suffering that company inevitably brings), only to find that being around people isn’t something you can just give up, no matter how much it might hurt. But the way this particular story is told feels fresh and challenging, because not everything is laid out for us in the dialogue. “After” isn’t especially subtle; a character in a dream (“Mike,” Michonne’s dead lover/maybe husband/father of her son) literally asks what the point of living is, and Michonne, in a monologue, literally says, “I know the answer. I know why.” But none of this plays as belabored or overly pedantic, and the question, and Michonne’s decision, is surprisingly, almost shockingly, vital.
Maybe that’s what I’m responding to most here: that after all the misery and ugliness, the show can still find a way to deliver an ending that’s actually hopeful. Sure, that hope is going to be beaten to pulp in the weeks ahead, and the structure of an episode like this isn’t necessarily something the series can pull off every week. But the way the writers chose to tell this particular story, along with subtle shifts in approach that happened over the course of the previous half of this season, means that maybe an hour this strong won’t end up another outlier like “Clear.” And hell, even if it does, that final sequence of Michonne finding Carl’s empty pudding can; of walking up to the front door of the house where they’re staying; of her knocking on the door, and Carl and Rick tensing up, and then Rick checking to see who it is; of Rick turning to Carl, smiling, saying, “It’s for you”—that’s pretty damn great.
- The episode provides more information about Michonne’s backstory than anything we’ve seen so far: She had a son, and either a husband or a partner who was the boy’s father, and that man, Mike, made a choice after things went to hell, and it was a bad choice. Michonne even gives a little speech about it—the details are still up in the air, but it’s more clear than ever that some bad stuff went down: “Mike? I miss you. I missed you even when I was with you. Back at the camp. That wasn’t you who did it. You were wrong. Because I’m still here. And you could be too, and he could be here. I know the answer. I know why.”
- The scenes of Michonne wandering through a zombie herd and staring down a walker who looks a bit like she does were, again, not subtle, but cool anyway. It’s so much more fun to see this stuff spelled out visually, and one of the benefits of separating everyone is that the writers can’t fall into traps of endless, circular discussion.