Carl-haters got a special treat tonight, as the sheriff-hat-wearing lad managed to be awful to and at pretty much everything — he's shitty to Rick and shitty at dealing with zombies. But his general ineptitude is the highlight of The Walking Dead's mid-season four premiere, a quiet episode that didn't offer much else.
First, a caveat. In my recap of The Walking Dead's mid-season finale last year, I may have gushed (I totally gushed) about the action-packed, high stakes, immensely jaw-dropping finale, calling it the greatest achievement of the human race. I now realize I was a bit overexcited at finally seeing The Walking Dead reach its full potential, and give us what was easily the best episode since the premiere, and surpassing it in a great many ways. Did it make TWD great? No, but it was excellent and gave me a great deal of hope for the show's future.
I feel like AMC's habit of splitting up seasons did not do last night's episode, "After," any good; it was a quiet episode, focused only on Rick and Carl and Michonne, with lots of silence, a few character moments, but mostly the basics of survival that Rick et al. had hoped they'd left behind when they moved into the prison. Had it aired the week after "Too Far Gone," it would have been far more palatable; three months later, it just seems slow.
Rick and Carl flee the prison. Rick is fucked up — and this isn't me and my regular penchant for profanity, I'm pretty sure his condition is medically known as "fucked up." He can barely walk or breathe. Carl, meanwhile, is angry. He's angry at the loss of Judith, he's angry at the loss of Herschel and everyone else, he's angry at the loss of his life at the prison, he's angry because his life is terrible, and because he has no one else to focus this anger on, he takes it out on his dad.
Rick handles this anger by basically passing out for two days once they find a home they can break into. It's a good call, because he doesn't have to see Carl get into two preposterously dangerous zombie situations, both thanks to his stupidity and panic under pressure: the first time he decides to lure two zombies away from their house and immediately backs into another one; the second is a zombie bursting from a door he opened that he was ostensibly expecting a zombie to pop out of. He barely avoids getting bitten both times.
Being unconscious, Rick also doesn't have to hear Carl berate him for failing to protect everyone, for failing to take care of the Governor earlier, for bothering to farm when he should have prepared for war. He even yells "I'd be fine if you died." It's the most normal thing in the world for a hormonal teenage boy with any kind of problem to blame his parents, and what Carl has endured has earned him all the temper tantrums in the world. However, his petulance makes him seem far more childish than his years, as does his massive, repeated incompetence in this episode. He's got plenty to be legitimately upset about, but he could also be a little realistic about his situation and his skills, and this episode could have featured this conflict without it being so shallow or Carl being so horrible.
The cherry on Carl's delightful sundae of wretchedness is when Rick finally wakes up and does his best zombie impression. The panicked Carl picks up his gun as his father crawls towards him (and to be fair to Carl, Rick should probably know better than to crawl slowly towards anybody while wheezing and not speaking) until Carl cries and fails to shoot his dad and Rick finally mutters something intelligible. There's no way Rick was going to die, which robs all the drama out of the moment — so we know Carl may be about to shoot his living dad, which isn't dramatic as much as it makes Carl look even dumber.
The other member this episode follows is Michonne, who had a bit of a meltdown after the events of the prison. After getting two more pets — i.e., zombies whose arms and lower jaws she's chopped off, rendering them more or less docile and which keep other zombies from noticing her for some reason (and by the way, why doesn't EVERYBODY have some of these now) — she sets off, but not before stabbing Herschel's decapitated, zombified head on her way out.
Basically, she just wanders around in the middle of a zombie herd, while taking a long enough break to go to sleep and have a nightmare about her pre-apocalypse life, including her brother, her lover, her young child (the men being her original two "pets," and her child being very conspicuously gone). It's a nice look at Michonne's origins, but the dream sequence is so obvious and weird — they keep talking about how some movie (art show?) was too pretentious, but they sound really pretentious about it themselves, and it makes it hard to get too worked up about what Michonne has lost, even though they show — with help from a Michonne soliloquy later on — that her "lover" killed himself because he couldn't handle it anymore.
Eventually, Michonne kind of snaps out of her fugue state and realizes she's walking in the middle of a herd of zombies, and kills them all (including her pets), and heads back to some footprints she passed by a day or two ago. These are actually Rick and Carl's tracks, and she follows them almost directly to the house Rick and Carl stopped at and rings the doorbell. Rick looks through the peephole — because a guess a zombie could have bumped into it — and laughs, and tells Carl, "It's for you."
There's not much going on here, but some of it works. Seeing Rick and Carl scramble to survive like they did before Herschel's farm is a great reminder of the life they lost with the prison, and really emphasizes the consequences of the last episode. Watching Carl discover a flatscreen TV that won't turn on and videogames he can't play — a brief second of joy when he thinks about his old life, then the crushing realization that it's gone for good — is fantastic. I never mind the basic survival stuff — that's what this show is, about how people survive and they choose to survive (or not) but Rick is unconscious, Michonne is practically unconscious, which leaves Carl to carry the episode, and he seems like he's trying for Joffrey's crown as Most Unlikable Boy on TV.
It wasn't great, that's for sure. I assume next week focuses on other survivors, so let's see how a Carl-less episode is before we start panicking.
• Tonight's episode was written by TWD's comic creator Robert Kirkman. I really haven't read any of Kirkman's comics other than Marvel Zombies, but I wonder how many of Carl's terribleness came from the script. I mean, Chandler Riggs isn't exactly Laurence Olivier, but I don't know how much Olivier could have done with two scenes of gross zombie-fighting incompetence.
• Tonight was the motherlode of obnoxious Carl lines. "Shane taught me. Remember him?" "I'd be fine if you died." "I was careful." NO YOU WEREN'T, CARL. I WAS WATCHING.
• Michonne had a doppel-zombie in her herd. I thought that was clever.
• The scene of Carl eating a 112-oz. can of pudding desperately needed a scene following it of Carl vomiting up 105-oz. of pudding.
• Nothing sums up this episode better than this gif of Carl completely failing to shove open a door. It was also the episode's highlight.