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“The Walking Dead” review: “After”

after

Well, that didn’t take long.

Just when I was starting to think The Walking Dead had turned over a new leaf, they go back to their same old tricks. Hackneyed dialogue, contrived character development, maddening plot holes, and perhaps worst of all: long, boring sequences where nothing is happening. It was all there in last night’s “After,” the kickoff to the second half of The Walking Dead’s fourth season.

I should acknowledge that I’m being a little bit hard on the show here. It’s not like “After” was the worst episode they’ve ever done. However, compared to the highs that Scott M. Gimple brought to the show in the first half of this season, it certainly wasn’t anything to write home about.

The story focused primarily on Rick and Carl trying to find food, shelter, and other basic amenities after the devastation at the prison. They are able to scrounge for food at a little BBQ shack, and eventually in some abandoned suburban houses. They also settle in one of these houses, where Rick takes a long, much-needed rest after sustaining some fairly severe injuries in battle with the Governor.

Because Rick is out of commission for most of the episode, “After” spent a lot of screen time on Carl. And there’s your first issue. Throughout the episode, Carl continues to be his typical bratty self, contradicting his father at nearly every turn and insisting that he can take care of himself, even though Rick is clearly just concerned about him and afraid of losing his remaining family following the death of Lori in season 3 and the potential death of Judith earlier this season (although it seems very possible that another member of the group grabbed her when they left the prison).

It makes sense that Carl would be somewhat defiant. Not only would he probably be traumatized from everything he’d seen by now (really, who wouldn’t?), but he’s also a teenager, and being defiant is just something teenagers tend to do. But after a while, the kid’s cockiness got so annoying you just wanted to slap him. Not once but twice in the episode, Carl goes out on his own while his dad is resting, and is unprepared to deal with walkers who attack him. You’d think he’d learn after the first time, but nope. He walks away from both experiences confident that he’s the freaking king of zombie-killing. The scene where he sits and eats pudding on the roof of a nearby house, smiling to himself while there’s a walker snarling at him through the window, was just too much. To the show’s credit, I will say that both of the actual attacks on Carl were nicely suspenseful. The first one was over fairly quickly, but the zombie with the maggots coming out of his head was a beautifully disgusting touch, and the fact that the second zombie came so close to biting Carl’s foot (even though, come on, did you really think that was going to happen?) was a fast-paced, jumpy bit of action.

Elsewhere in the episode, Carl yells at a sleeping Rick, complaining that he can’t take care of anyone, that he lets everyone die, and that he wouldn’t care if Rick was dead himself. This of course is after a particularly ridiculous incident earlier in the episode where Carl is tying a knot, and tells Rick, “Shane taught me? Remember him?” Yes, you little asshole, we remember Shane, especially from that time where he tried to kill your dad. But Carl’s speech to Rick about how many times he’s failed as a leader, a protector, and a father wasn’t necessarily off base. Technically, everything Carl said was true. But what one has to remember is that this isn’t necessarily Rick’s fault; in the world of The Walking Dead, leaders, protectors, fathers, and everyone else alike are almost all doomed to failure. That said, the moment didn’t quite play out the way it should have. I don’t know if it was the mediocre acting from Chandler Riggs or just how rehearsed the speech sounded, but either way, it wasn’t what I would call a good scene. The whole thing is also made worse toward the end, when a predictable climax finds Carl prepared to shoot his father, whom he believes has turned into a zombie after sleeping a whole day. (Wow, that would have been cool, right? But again, did you ever for a second really believe that was a possibility?) But in the last second, Carl can’t do it (which is good, since it turned out Rick wasn’t a walker) and breaks down crying, confessing that he does still need his father. It’s not an illogical conclusion for Carl to arrive at. I just wish the show hadn’t wasted an episode getting there, when we all knew that was where they were going.

By far the most compelling parts of “After” were the scenes that centered on Michonne. Getting her own subplot this week, The Walking Dead’s sword-wielding warrior set off on her own after the battle at the prison. In the best scene of the episode, Michonne has a nightmare recalling a former husband, child, and friend, all of whom are now dead. After cutting off some walkers’ heads in a wild rage, she eventually finds Rick and Carl at the house they’re staying in. When she sees them inside, she breaks down crying, and for the second time in the episode at that. It was another pretty predictable conclusion, but the difference is that it showed a side of Michonne we’ve never seen before. After all her toughness and self-reliance, Michonne finally has to admit that she can’t make it on her own; that she, like anyone, needs other people to survive. By this point, we’ve all seen Carl fluctuate between being moody and caring toward his father many times. But this may literally be the first episode where Michonne has demonstrated anything other than stone-faced iciness. If nothing else, it was good to see actress Danai Gurira wear an expression other than, “I just smelled something funky.”

A quick side note: How did Rick, Carl, and Michonne all stumble onto civilization all of a sudden? At the beginning of season 3, before they found the prison, the group had been scavenging around from place to place, surviving a difficult winter in what essentially looked like rural Georgia. This made it believable that the prison and Woodbury were so secluded. Yet in this episode, they appear to be back in suburban Atlanta…after walking for a day. And while we’re on the subject of inconsistency, why were they always making runs from the prison to seemingly far away places to get food and supplies? Okay, if we’re talking about medical supplies I get it, but apparently there were a bunch of houses (and a BBQ shack) that were within walking distance, and they never once thought to check them out? And finally, why did the bus that many of the survivors drove away on not circle back to at least look for the rest of the group? You would think after the battle was over, they might explore the surrounding roads, rather than just saying, “Screw it” and getting the hell out of dodge. All I’m saying is I feel like the characters on this show just need a good map.

If the preview of next week’s episode is any indication, it will focus on a separate group of survivors from the prison, also wandering around and trying to piece things back together after the fight. That’s fine, except for I’ve seen people wandering around on this show before. A lot. Please, just figure out where they’re wandering to and get them there, because I don’t think I can take much more of the same.