‘The Walking Dead’ Season 4 Recap, Episode 9: ‘After’ [Spoilers]
Season four of The Walking Dead, AMC’s television adaptation of the Eisner Award-winning Image Comics series created by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore and drawn by Charlie Adlard, has returned from its mid-season break. ComicsAlliance’s John Parker is back again to see who lives, who dies, and who has a cathartic moment where they turn to the camera and say "Don't you get it? We are the walking dead. We are the walking dead."
With The Governor dead, the prison overrun, and the survivors scattered to the wind, Rick and Carl butt heads over their roles while Michonne gets used to being on her own again.
The second half of Season 4 begins with Michonne, as usual, on her own again, making her way through the horde of walkers as they amble toward the prison like it’s no big deal. Michonne’s journey this season has been about her growing beyond her role as the loner who doesn’t need anyone and accepting that keeping herself emotionally quarantined from the rest of the group isn’t ultimately what she wants. When she cried while holding Judith, she showed the first crack in that stoic surface; when she gave up the faraway searches for The Governor, she embraced the idea that she was a part of a community, and maybe even a member of a family again.
So of course that was all ripped away from her by The Governor’s revenge, and Michonne is once again preparing for a protracted period of solitude and steeling herself for the type of struggle that she’s been through before. After taking a pair of walkers as protectors, just as she had when she first saved Andrea, she has to take the first of many emotional poundings when she comes across the disembodied, undead head of Hershel.
Admit it. You had a sad little moment there, didn’t you? Seeing Hershel, bloodied and dead-eyed and animate? We all know by now that the folks behind The Walking Dead get off on killing the beloved, but in that opening scene, it was almost meta how much they spit in our faces and yelled IDGAF. Personally, it’s moments like Michonne sticking her head through Hershel’s temple that get me going in a manner which is only slightly perverse. Despite its flaws, The Walking Dead will kill just about anybody to make for a good story. Though some characters are obviously safe for their importance to the story or the coolness factor, characters like Hershel and Dale, all-around lovable guys that at the times of their deaths were pretty much the heart of the show, are cannon fodder for our reactions.
We catch up with Carl and Rick, and it’s immediately clear that we’re in store for a lot of father-son stuff, aided considerably by Chandler Riggs’s entrance into puberty. In the comics, Carl was probably about 10 after the prison went down; Riggs is 14, is developing a manly voice, and probably has to be told to shave off a wispy moustache before filming. Makes you wonder how they’ll be able to keep up this stuff around Season 8.
Carl has seen his father fail again, and is intent not just on reminding him of it, but of making the point that he’s a man now, and has armpit hair and everything. Now that Rick and Carl are out on their own again, Rick is really screwed: not only is Carl his greatest love and responsibility, he’s also his biggest critic, and in that really snotty period where he thinks he knows everything.
In case we didn’t get the overt message about the father-son stuff, we got a subtle one when Rick and Carl head into a restaurant called Joe and Joe Jr.’s. Carl comes across a napkin with the message “Please do what I couldn’t” written on it by Joe Jr, referring to the zombie trapped behind a wall of chairs. Obviously, the good ole boy zombie has got to be Joe Sr. When Rick can’t kill Joe Sr. with just an axe, Carl shoots the walker, even though Rick told him not to, and thus begins all the competition between them.
Not only has Carl seen Rick fail for the umpteenth time, he also watched his pappy get the piss kicked out of him, so Carl feels pretty chuffed throughout the episode, and challenges Rick on just about everything he can. Carl shoots because he thinks he knows better than his dad, that he is better than his dad, that he’s a better survivor, he’d be a better leader, and on and on. He makes that point by bringing up Shane.
Bringing up Shane might sound like a light-hearted eighties sitcom, but it’s actually about Carl sending two messages to Rick: you suck and back off. Not only is he implying that Shane did a better job taking care of him, but he’s also reminding Rick that he killed his best friend, and that Carl shot zombie-Shane in the head, thus saving his dad’s life. It’s not just an argument, or Carl pushing back because he’s hit that age, he genuinely thinks he’s better at this apocalypse stuff than his dad. All of which is fairly interesting and everything but what about Judith? She probably got eaten, right? My god, the horror!
While Rick and Carl take the apparent mastication of baby Judith pretty well, Michonne is going through some stuff in the most Sopranos way possible. As she dreams, we finally get our first glimpse at Michonne’s life before the apocalypse, and it looks pretty sweet. With Michonne, there’s always been this sense that she had to have been pretty badass before the world turned, but now it’s clear that she is what the cataclysm made her. Before the walkers, she had a husband/boyfriend, a brother, and a son, and they all survived the initial outbreak together. It was something that happened in the days that followed that left her alone, some mistake that got them all killed.
This is quite different from the comics, in which Michonne was divorced, and had lost her kids to her ex-husband. It’s also quite better. In the comics, MIchonne has always come off as the character who was dark and impenetrable because it’s just a cool thing to do; in the show, she has a real reason to be so messed-up. It’s not the first time the show has had much better character work than the comics, and it won’t be the last.
Back at Rick and Carl’s, while Rick lays on the couch in an ass-whupping-induced coma, Carl starts the morning by picking up his gun belt. The sight of Rick reluctantly strapping on the gun-belt was repeated quite a few times in the first half of Season 4, so of course Carl’s attitude about his dad is shown by grabbing the belt like it’s no big deal. Unlike Rick, Carl actually wants to be a gunslinger. That’s why, as much as he hates his dad right now, he’s still wearing the hat. Because he’s still just a stupid ####### kid.
Carl is a survivor, he’s tough, he’s cool, he’s a surgeon with a handgun, and he has strange urges now. But even though he’s 14 and has already done some crazy stuff, he’s not a man – he’s just a kid and kids are stupid. They need to be told when to eat and to do their homework, and don’t walk backwards for the length of three football fields to get rid of zombies. Everybody in the world knew that walkers would come up behind you at some point, Carl! You didn’t think of that because you’re just a stupid kid!
Carl barely makes it out alive and says “I win,” because in some way, there is a large part of him that still thinks of all this as a game. Can you really blame him, when it seems like he’s on that level where all the zombies are wearing clothes from the 1800s.
With Rick still comatose, Carl completely unloads on him, shouting everything that we all knew: you failed, you suck at this, everybody is dead and gone and I’m way better at this than you. You really want to hate Carl for being a crappy little kid, but he’s got a point: he did have to shoot his own mom, after all. He goes out on his own again, and whether he’s planning on coming back or trying to get his own spinoff series is up for grabs.
While Carl goes out on his own with a certain amount of joy, Michonne can’t take it anymore. After seeing a walker that reminds her of herself (she probably thought to herself “I am the walking dead. I am the walking dead.”), she loses it and cuts down her walker-self, her new walker-dogs, and everybody else in the walker-pod with relative ease. But it’s not killing walkers that’s hard, man, it’s living.
Really, really, really alone again, she breaks down for real. She can’t be on her own again, she can’t handle being in her own head and reliving the trauma, replaying her old life, reminding herself of her loss, and she absolutely loses it. It looks a little like Willem Defoe’s death in Platoon. When she finds Joe and Joe Jr.’s, for the first time she talks to her husband Mike, something she often did in the comics.
So...her feelings are pretty complicated. She misses Mike but blames him for her loss, and makes the point, much like Carl, that she’s a survivor. And we may never find out exactly what happened, but it’s messed-up enough to make her utter something as cryptic as “I know the answer. I know why.” Is she referring to why she survived, or is this actually an episode of Lost?
Carl comes to understand that he is just a kid, and he can’t go on without his dad. After returning from another zombie-filled romp with independence, for a moment Carl believes Rick to have died and turned. Without hesitation, he yanks Rick’s gun out its holster and levels it, ready to kill his second parent. But he breaks down, crying because he just can’t do it, because he was wrong, and because he’s scared. It’s important that Carl have this realization, that he is a kid, and no matter what he needs Rick, and Rick needs to try to protect him.
But it’s also important that Rick understand that the little bird has to fly on its own, and he tells Carl that he knows that life in the prison was just an illusion, and that Carl’s a man now. It’s not one hundred percent true, but Rick genuinely thinks it is, and one could see the rest of the season being a great bonding session for Rick and Carl who still have not talked about poor baby Judith being eaten alive by the undead.
Following a trail of footprints and empty pudding cans, Michonne finds Rick and Carl, giving herself the human contact she needs to keep going, and Rick and Carl a nice third to ease all this tension and avoid conflict for the second half of Season 4, “The Hunt for Judith’s Parts.”