[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 4, episode 9. There will be SPOILERS.]
Television has been evolving significantly for many years now, and even though its storytelling models have changed, its methods have matured, and its content has become more sophisticated, there are still some things that remain fundamentally unchanged.
For one thing, television has traditionally been very good at beginnings; it's also been respectable – sometimes gifted – at creating the middle part of a story; and its track record when it comes to ending things has been questionable at best. That proficiency at starting things is also something The Walking Dead has become quite skilled at handling, as the mid-season premiere, 'After,' once again demonstrates.
Picking up just shortly after the Governor's moderately more successful, yet still ill-fated attempt to take the prison and kill Rick, 'After' attempts to deal with the fallout from that attack in terms that are appropriate to the context of the show. That is, anyone left standing doesn't have much time to sit around and contemplate all that was lost, as mere survival one again becomes paramount.
This is in stark contrast to the beginning of season 4, which found Rick and the rest of the survivors in the prison attempting to build a self-sustaining community that was, for all intents and purposes, safe (or safe enough) from the continuous threat of the walkers. '30 Days Without an Accident' was a new beginning for the series and its characters – one that was revealed in the relative calm of its title.
Naturally, the situation in 'After' is far less serene; Rick and Carl are found stumbling their way through an abandoned neighborhood in search of a safe place for Rick to convalesce, while Michonne finds herself in the unenviable position of having to terminate the re-animated head of Hershel, before temporarily reverting back to her wandering ways with two semi-dismembered pets at her side.
The early circumstances of the premiere are certainly dour and familiar, but they still qualify as a new beginning for at least three main characters. The takeaway here, however, seems to once again be a demonstration of how those beginnings give the storylines a much-needed sense of renewal and newfound purpose – even if it's technically the same purpose the show started with three-and-a-half season ago.
If it's just going back to the well that's fine, these are the moments that reinvigorate the audience's interest in the characters and their situations, and in the context of this particular series. They are also the moments when the show is typically at its creative best.
In the case of the mid-season premiere, that involves scaling things down in a way that makes sense given the particular storytelling parameters at play. Because long-distance communication is virtually nonexistent and because the population has been decimated, the world has become a much larger place. Food is scarce, shelter is often iffy, a trip down the road is suddenly a life-threatening experience, and the trials and tribulations of a small group of people begins to feel very big indeed. And because of that, The Walking Dead is better served whenever it recognizes that by telling smaller, more intimate stories.
This smaller story dealing with Rick, Carl – made even smaller by Rick's near-comatose state – and Michonne help make the series feel more personal, more involved with the characters and their predicaments, and therefore it's easier for the writers to develop plots and venture down avenues that have gone unexplored and would otherwise stay that way when the series gives itself over to a larger, more single-minded plot.
The thing is, the world of The Walking Dead is huge; it doesn't have to limit its storytelling as much as it has in the past. And here, in 'After,' we get the first glimpses of how the Scott M. Gimple era of the show is beginning to understand that and utilize it to the advantage of the show as a whole.
A key example of this is how Michonne is given a distinct arc that not only calls to mind the laconic wanderer she was prior to joining up with Rick's group, but also by fleshing out some of her backstory with a few unsettling flourishes to push it past a rudimentary flashback. The Walking Dead is one program that actually benefits from knowing who these people were before the zombie outbreak occurred – which in this case, involves Michonne's seemingly idyllic home life becoming distorted in a terrifyingly subjective and revealing way.
Furthermore, because the characters are all in the same situation, knowing something of their prior circumstances helps to illuminate their responses in the present; it gives weight to their actions, as we see here when Michonne cuts down a group of walkers and chooses instead to follow the tracks that eventually lead her to Rick and Carl.
The same can be said for Carl, whose journey here is essentially a brief coming-of-age/redemptive arc, after he reduces his severely injured father to persona non grata – even evoking the name of Shane – as a way of coping with the trauma of what just occurred. There's familiarity in Carl's clumsy (and in this case, life-threatening) attempts to be "a man," which again sees him walking into situations he shouldn't on the basis he no longer needs looking after.
We also see a subtle, affecting moment when he stumbles into a room and marvels at the youthful wonders of video games, posters, and books, only to use the television's power chord as a fastener for the house's front door. It's an odd position Carl finds himself in where he is essentially caught wanting to be the man who can survive on his own, and still needing to grab moments of blissful adolescence, as he does while enjoying a can of pudding on the roof of the house he just escaped from.
It's a surprisingly tender, light moment for the character that is revisited again in the episode's closing seconds when Rick sees Michonne at the front door and tells Carl, "It's for you." It's a terrifically atypical way to end things, but moreover, it proves there is room in The Walking Dead for moments of calm reflection, pleasure, humor, and even a little joy, and that the show is better for having included them.
If there's one thing The Walking Dead consistently delivers on, it is generally strong premieres. So far, season 4 has had two premieres that both offer a sense of hope for a new beginning: one for the characters, and, as we see here, one for the structure of the series. 'After' is one of the stronger episodes of the season, and for now, it's enough to make one curious about where the next seven chapters are headed.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'Inmates' @9pm on AMC.
Photos: Gene Page/AMC