Warning: do not read on unless you've seen Season 4, Episode 9 of AMC's "The Walking Dead," entitled, "After."
The last time we saw "The Walking Dead," everyone had separated while fleeing the smoldering prison -- everyone except The Governor and poor Hershel, who both lay dead in the prison yard.
At the top of this Sunday's midseason premiere, we see Michonne standing alone in the aftermath of the battle, slicing her way through the hoard until she finds two suitable walkers to be her new walking "pets." After removing their arms and jaws and attaching them to a rope, she gets ready to head out in search of the others. That's when she comes across (ugh) Hershel's decapitated head.
The only other people we see in this first episode back are Rick and Carl, who left the prison after the showdown without baby Judith. Rick, who last told his son, "Don't look back," is beaten, broken and bruised. He's limping behind a stone-faced Carl, who looks much more like a leader than Rick at the moment.
Rick wants Carl to slow down, but Carl won't listen. When they find a roadside BBQ joint, "Joe & Joe Jr.'s," Rick wants Carl to wait outside, but Carl won't listen. Deciding whether or not to treat Carl like a man has often been a struggle for Rick and the gang, even before Lori died, but now he seems more worthy of adult treatment than ever. Still, Rick can't see it. I'm surprised he even let him into the bar!
When they find ol' "Joe" (now a walker) barricaded inside the restaurant and Rick tries unsuccessfully to kill him with an ax, Carl fires a shot to save his dad's life. But does Rick thank him? No, he once again chastises him for not listening. "Every bullet counts," he reminds his son, forgetting that they have no way of predicting how many they will ever have or need.
Right before Carl takes the shot, he picks up a note left by "Joe Jr." next to his father's barricade. "Please do what I couldn't." That message stays with Carl for the rest of the episode.
Rick and Carl loot the kitchen, then move on. They find a house that's "as good as any" and go inside to look for more food. Rick won't stop treating Carl like a little kid, even going so far as to tell him to "watch his mouth" when he curses indoors. Carl replies with an appropriate, "Are you kidding me?" that sounds like it could have come from any frustrated teenage boy, not just one who has to kill things on a daily basis for survival.
Speaking of normal teenage boys, Carl goes upstairs to find a boy's room, probably not unlike what he'd currently be living in if it wasn't the end of the world. There are books, sports equipment, and a big flat screen TV with an XBox (Side note: I was so hoping to spot a zombie game, like Left 4 Dead, in the pile of discs). Carl marvels at the set-up, but quickly removes the system's thick wires from the back of the TV to tie the front door shut for the night. That's all it's good for now, anyway.
When Rick insists that they move the couch in front of the door for extra protection, Carl defends the knots he made with the wire by saying Shane taught them to him. "Remember him?" This prompts Rick to ask if there's anything else Carl wants to say, but he doesn't, so Rick uses it as an opportunity to assert dominance over his tenacious teen by handing him a bag of pork rinds and saying, "Eat it!" But it's to no avail. Carl is his own person now, and there's no denying it.
Now, about this next scene. I often rip on "The Walking Dead" for being repetitive and, at times, frustratingly boring, but the following scene was compelling on multiple levels.
First of all, we very rarely see the survivors' lives before the walkers took over, save for Rick and Shane at the beginning of the series. And we don't get many dream sequences either, just Rick hallucinating about Lori and phone calls at the prison. Best of all, this dream was had by Michonne, one of the most mysterious characters on the show. It was already hinted that her former walker "pets" were once close to her and that at some point she probably had a child, but now we got to see what that life looked like. It was chic. It was comfortable. She had a stylish high-rise apartment overlooking the city. She served wine and cheese to her "lover" Mike and a friend while they discussed an art exhibit that was too "pedestrian." And most important of all, she had her little boy:
While at first it seems like a flashback, it becomes clearly a dream when Michonne's cheese knife turns into her Katana, and her loved ones turn into the troubled, camp-dwelling survivors who met their fate before Michonne found Andrea. "This isn't life, not anything close," her lover says, asking why they're even trying to survive. Michonne doesn't realize that she's having a nightmare until she's staring at them both like she last saw them: dead, with arms removed.
As Michonne wakes up screaming, having spent the night inside a car, Carl wakes up in the house he's sharing with Rick until they find something better. He makes some cereal and reads a book in the boy's room upstairs, experiencing a moment of normality before attempting to wake his sleeping father. Now, Rick is really hurt. He has contusions all over his body and head. Carl tries to wake up him but he can't; he's unconscious. What's worse, Carl's yelling has attracted two walkers to the front door, who look oddly familiar:
Carl sneaks out and grabs the walkers' attention by yelling, "Hey you!," because why not. He leads them away from the house while walking backwards, which is NEVER a good idea during a zombie apocalypse, and (surprise) he falls down and gets ambushed by three walkers.
But hey! Carl prevails. After killing all three of them with his gun, having them all fall on top of him, almost getting maggots in his mouth and promptly throwing up (which is understandable) he stands up, triumphant. "I win," he tells the corpses, almost as if he's playing one of those X-Box games. But this isn't "Left 4 Dead," it's his life.
Carl returns to his father, still lying unconscious on the couch. Rick asked him the day before if he had anything else to say to him, and now Carl belatedly gives him his answer. He starts yelling his frustrations, telling his father that he just killed three walkers by himself, and that he hasn't forgotten how to fight despite Rick trying to turn him into a farmer.
"I still know how to survive, lucky for us. I don't need you anymore," Carl unloads, blaming him for not being able to "save" Judith, Hershel, Glenn, Maggie, Darryl or his mom. He blames him for the Governor's attack. "He knew where we were and you didn't care! ... You were their leader. Now you're nothing," he screams. And the final blow? "I'd be fine if you died." Now THAT is some teen angst.
Carl is riding high after telling off his unconscious dad. He grabs a bag and heads out to loot some more on his own. He chooses a house, readies himself with a spiked walkway light and his gun, and (adorably) tries to break down the front door with his probably 90-pound body. After falling flat on his back, he finally gets into the house and starts his search. All's going well until he opens up the bathroom door and finds that it is definitely occupied:
Now we see Carl's "I know what I'm doing" attitude start to wane. He panics and wastes three bullets trying to put down the walker and comes THIS close to getting his shin bitten off before escaping without a bite (and without one of his shoes). After locking the walker in the room, he picks a piece of chalk and writes on the door: "Walker inside. Got my shoe. Didn't get me." He celebrates nearly dying twice in one day by eating a 112 oz. can of chocolate pudding on the roof, like a champ.
Carl's satisfaction starkly contrasts with what's going on with Michonne. She's been walking with her new "pets" through the woods, undetectable among the hoard. It's like she's commuting with walkers. It's bizarre. What's weirder, is that she spots a black, female walker with dreadlocks traveling right next to her.
She's taken aback by the similarity. She sees herself, her mortality, in her. All of a sudden, she snaps. She turns her katana on her doppelganger -- and every single one of the dozen or so walkers in her vicinity, including her new "pets." After venting her frustrations and a good cry, Michonne continues to follow footprints she's been seeing on the dirt road. It turns out, Michonne is an excellent tracker.
Back at the house, Rick is still asleep. At this point I'm wondering, is he dead? Can they kill off the main character? No, probably not. Carl is also unsure of his dad's status. He's sitting in the dark watching him sleep, when all of a sudden Rick's arm shakes. Carl grabs his gun. Rick falls off the couch and reaches his arm out to Carl, just like a walker would. He even sounds like a walker! Carl gets ready to, as "Joe Jr." wrote, "do what I couldn't," but finds himself unable to fire at his father. "I can't. I was wrong," he cries. "Just do it."
But hey! Rick speaks! Walkers don't speak! It sounded like Rick said, "Carl, go outside. Stay safe." Carl is scared. Rick's really hurt, but he's not dead.
Michonne is hot on their trail. She followed their tracks to Joe & Joe Jr.'s and finds big Joe's corpse where Rick and Carl left it. She sees Joe Jr.'s note and the five-word message brings her to the ground, crying. She's thinking about Mike and her baby, how they could still be here if not for what happened at the camp. But what happened? She says Mike was wrong, because she's still surviving. What was Mike wrong about? Will we find out more about her former camp?
Close by, Rick is alive. The scene feels almost too casual considering Carl almost had to put down his other parent just hours before. The two of them share a laugh over Carl eating 112 oz. of pudding and then sh*t gets real: Rick admits that he no longer believes they can go back to the way things were before, that he clung to that ideal for Carl and Judith. Then, Rick hits him with what he (and the audience) has been waiting to hear for a while: "You're a man, Carl. I'm sorry."
The episode ends on a high note: Michonne finding an empty can of chocolate pudding in the street, and finally Rick and Carl sitting in the nearby house. She knocks on the door. Rick sees her through the peephole and falls back, laughing before telling Carl, "It's for you."
Phew! That was quite an episode. Although we didn't get to see what's happening with the rest of the group, we learned more about Michonne than ever and finally got to see Carl become a man. Instead of a traditional rite of passage like a bar mitzvah or a co-ed birthday party, Carl got to kill zombies and eat copious amounts of pudding! Welcome to adulthood, Carl.
As for next week's episode, I'm curious if it will pick up with Darryl/Beth, Glenn/the bus of sick people, Tyreese/the little girls, Sasha/Bob/Maggie or even The Governor's ex-girlfriend and her sister? Or Carol! There are a lot of different ways in which the show can move forward, which gives me hope that there won't be another "stuck on the farm" period on the show. At least now, when people disappear into the woods, they find each other by the end of the episode.