The Walking Dead: "After" (Season 4: Episode 9) Recap/Analysis | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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The Walking Dead: “After” (Season 4: Episode 9) Recap/Analysis

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Feb 11, 2014 Web Exclusive
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[Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the latest episode of The Walking Dead, “After,” then read no further.]

The first moments on “After” are telling. Taking an aerial view of the aftermath of The Governor’s ruinous attack on the prison where Rick Grimes and his band of survivors had tried to establish some semblance of a normal life, we see a smoldering tank surrounding by zombies. A few yards away, in the prison yard, lies a disemboweled horse. These scenes recall the very first Walking Dead episode, where Rick rode into Atlanta to look for his wife and child, only to meet a swarm of walkers that took down his horse and left him hiding in a tank with a gun to his head, the one moment where we see Rick surrender all hope to the reality of the new world. Just like that first episode situated viewers in a world where death waits around every corner, this episode reorients us to that same reality, where everyone is vulnerablesearching for food, shelter, and safety. If anything, considering what they’ve lost, the place where “After” restarts the series is even bleaker.

As fans of the show’s tense first season will attest, The Walking Dead is most compelling when the characters are defenseless and the settings are constantly shifting. No doubt, the writers are in an unenviable position, tasked with pleasing both the fans who favor action-packed gore as well as those that prefer the careful storytelling that provides the show’s richest drama. “After” strikes that balance about as well as any episode in the show’s history.

Left alone to survey the damage at the prison, Michonne walks through charred ruins, beheading any zombie that approaches her while picking out her candidates for new “pets,” two former soldiers from the Governor’s army whose arms and jaws she removes to render them harmless so that she can move undetected among the walker hordes. Finding Hershel’s now zombified head, she uses her katana to bring a final end to his storyline. Blinking tears out of her eyes, she leads her pets to a dirt road where she finds Rick and Carl’s muddy footprints. Pondering the moment, she apparently decides that she’d rather not risk getting close enough to anyone that losing them can hurt her. She walks into the woods instead, her pets as her only company.

If Michonne is emotionally shattered from the trauma of losing the prison and her tie to all her friends, Rick and Carl aren’t doing much better. Limping several paces behind his son, Rick is a broken man, warbling like Tom Waits with a broken jaw and wheezing like he has a punctured lung. Carl is hardly sympathetic. “Hey, we’re going to be…” Rick says, unable to finish his sentence when Carl shoots him an icy glare.

This is far more than normal teenage angst. Carl, quite rightly, is recognizing that his father’s leadership (or lack thereof) is in no small way responsible for bringing them to this moment. After entering a BBQ restaurant to scavenge for food, Carl doesn’t wait for his father’s instructions, in fact, openly defies him by wasting a bullet on a walker when Rick fails to take it down with an axe. After separating to gather supplies, Carl returns with a more impressive stash than Rick. “I win,” he says with a smirk.

It gets worse. After breaking into a house, Rick tells Carl to be more cautious as he moves from room to room, looking for threats. “Hey, asshole! Hey, shitface!” Carl yells, informing his dad that the walkers would have already emerged had there been any. After tying a knot to hold the door shut, Rick suggests adding a couch barricade for safety’s sake. “It’s a strong knot,” Carl says. “Shane taught me. Remember him?” Yikes. Low blow, Carl.

It gets even worse. With Rick having slipped into an apparent coma (something that Carl seems to regard as nothing more than a particularly deep nap), Carl confidently leads two walkers away from the house and is nearly eaten when a third one sneaks up on him, eventually shooting all three. Returning home victorious, Carl informs his still comatose father that he saved him from the walkers at the door. “I don’t need you to protect me anymore,” he says, going over the litany of friends from the prison group that are now gone and presumably dead. Rick was entrusted to keep them safe, to protect them from The Governor he knew was waiting to attack, but he failed. “Now you’re nothing,” Carl says, wiping away tears. “I’d be fine if you died.”

Not far away, Michonne’s sanity is slipping. In what at first appears to be a flashback, we see her preparing dinner while talking to her lover, Mike, and his friend in a swanky apartment. In the show’s most surreal moment since Rick was hearing voices coming out of a disconnected phone, Michonne appears to be discussing the relative merits of an art exhibit, unaware that the timeline has shifted and the conversation has moved on to debating the pointlessness of trying to survive after the zombie outbreak. Cradling her toddler, she tries to steer the topic back to dinner as Mike and his friend become more frantic, their clothes and demeanors changing as the plot jumps forward. Eventually, their arms disappear, revealing them to be her original pets while her child vanishes from her arms. In that one artfully strange scene, we are told more about Michonne’s backstory than we had learned to this point. She wakes up in a car, her new pets hovering outside.

Symbolic of her inability to deal with her traumathe death of her child, the loss of her lover, the end of her former lifethe pieces of her current personality fall into place. We now know why she is so stoic and guarded, so hesitant to open up, even to those close to her. Walking in a small zombie herd, almost indistinguishable from them, she spots her bedreaded undead doppelganger wandering alongside her. As if shaken by seeing a version of herself that is as dead as she feels inside, she cracks, hacking away at every walker within reach. Shaken into the realization that she needs some human company if she’s going to have any hope of continuing to survive, she finds Rick and Carl’s tracks again and begins following them.

But if Michonne is figuring out she needs to find strength in others, Carl is moving in the opposite direction. Breaking into a house in search of food, he clumsily allows himself to be overpowered by a walker that gets close enough to chomp down on his shoe. Seemingly nonplussed, Carl scrawls a brief tribute to his outwitting a lamebrain on a door and then sits on the roof eating a massive jar of pudding while the same walker helplessly reaches for him from a nearby window. Back home, though, his demeanor has shifted. Thinking Rick has died and turned as he twitches and groans, Carl can’t pull the trigger on him as he reaches toward him. “I can’t. I was wrong,” he sobs. His father passes out after telling him to stay safe, and Carl cries as he cradles his dad’s head. “I’m scared,” he says.

This is The Walking Dead at its best, taking the timeless theme of intergenerational tension and adapting it for the zombie apocalypse. In the span of one episode, we see Carl go from a defiant, arrogant teenager to a newly humbled young man who has learned that despite all he has been throughlosing Sophia, shooting zombie Shane, putting down his motheris not quite ready to face the world without his dad.

If the first half the season was designed to illustrate the hopelessly naive nature of Rick’s hope that he could retire his guns and rebuild his life with his new family in a prison, this episode was all about him dealing with the world he tried to block out of his mind. “I know we’ll never get things back to the way they used to be,” he admits in the episode’s final moments. “I only clung to that for you, for Judith. Now she’s…gone. And youyou’re a man, Carl.” But, even if this episode is about as hopeless as any in the show’s history, it ends with one of its most uplifting moments, one of the only episodes to end with a smile, in fact. Hearing a knock on the door, Rick and Carl brandish their guns and take off the safeties. Looking out the peephole, Rick sees Michonne and collapses on the couch and laughs. “It’s for you,” he says to Carl.

What this means for the future: Now reunited, Rick, Carl, and Michonne form what’s probably the strongest group to emerge from the post-prison melee. Additionally, since all are major characters, they are likely to get a lot of screen time together. Could there be a romantic relationship between Rick and Michonne? More importantly, can Michonne survive the rest of the season after receiving this much character development?

What you might have missed: When Rick and Carl find the walker in the BBQ restaurant, there’s a sign that says “Please do what I could notJoe, Jr.” As the restaurant is called “Joe and Joe, Jr.‘s BBQ,” it appears that the son could not put down his own father, something that Carl repeats when he can’t shoot Rick.

What to look for next: It appears that the next episode is going to feature plotlines with Daryl and Beth, as well as Tyreese and the children who saved him from being shot, Lizzie and Mika. Will Beth become a zombie-slayer like her sister, Maggie? Will Daryl be able to keep himself from turning sullen now that he has lost his post-apocalypse family? Most importantly, will Tyreese be revealed to have saved baby Judith before escaping the prison chaos? (And, if so, will he be able to keep her safe from the psychopathic Lizzie?)


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