If there is one thing you walk from the premiere episode of the second half of The Walking Dead‘s fourth season with, it is a sense of complete and utter aloneness.
From the impressive, almost awe-inspiringly aerial shot of the still burning prison, now swarming with aimless walkers, watched from the shadows by a pensive, clearly traumatised Michonne (Danai Gurira), who is forced to thrust her katana sword through Hershel’s now turned eerily-blinking head (one the saddest scenes I’ve witnessed in a series replete with sad images) to a battered Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and an angry Carl (Chandler Riggs) walking apart and non-communicative, there is a sense of isolating devastation.
It is enhanced by the seemingly endless shots of Michonne, and Rick and Carl, on whom the episode focused in its entirety, walking through deserted forests, quiet country lanes and the by now commonplace empty streets filled only with the occasional walkers going nowhere.
Michonne is particularly bereft, leading her two newly-acquired walker “pets” – all the better to blend into the walker herds my dear! – on what appear to be endless meanderings through the forests near the prison, her face impassive, lost in thought, shock and trauma.
Unlike Rick and Carl, who at least have each other – not that it matters much given Carl’s simmering resentment over Rick’s inability to protect everyone at the prison, including most especially of course, Judith – Michonne is completely alone, with no one to debrief with, and no way of dealing with the horrors of the past day or two, beyond swinging her blade with her usual ruthless, and devastatingly accurate, precision.
In fact the only “humour”, if you can call it that, in an episode of fraught and troubled small moments, and some larger frightening ones in the case of Carl’s walker misadventures, is derived from Michonne dispatching one undead person after another, often without even looking up.
It’s a casual swing thing here, a reflexive swing there and bang, down go some more walkers, never to groan and amble again.
In the midst of Michonne’s impassive wandering however, there are some moments of colour and motion, one of which gives us far more insight into her backstory that we have been privy to before.
In a scene of brightly lit domestic bliss, we see a far happier, almost cheeky, Michonne cutting up food in a kitchen while she talks to her “lover” Mike (she hates the term) and his friend Terry in a time obviously well before she took up the Katana.
The conversation is light and breezy, almost teasing, and with her son nestling contentedly on her hip, it’s a Michonne we have never seen before.
But it doesn’t last long as the kitchen knife becomes a Katana, the three adults go from relaxed and happy to pensive and dirty and you realise you’ve phased into the midst of the apocalypse, a darker scene which is quickly followed by Michonne standing childless and in shock, Mike and his friend lifeless and armless before her.
It’s then that she wakes up in the car in which she’s taken shelter for the night, walkers “pets” nearby, her grief at her recent losses stirring up long-repressed memories of life before the apocalypse, which were hinted at in passing in season four’s second episode “Infected” but find a full outworking in her trauma-laden dream.
It triggers a rather violent slaying of all the walkers surrounding her at one point, including her shielding “pets”, after which she breaks down, conducting imaginary, or re-lived conversations with a long gone Mike, swearing they could all still be with her if only they had done something different.
It’s clear she’d suggested a different course of action than the one Mike and Terry followed, one that saved her while the others including her precious child perished.
You begin to wonder if Michonne will ever be happy again …
That’s likely what Rick and Carl are wondering too as they stagger along quiet country roads, finding first a sports bar in which they dispatch a walker once called Joe who had left a note asking whoever came in “to do what I could not” and gather supplies and then finally an empty house in a small hamlet of similarly deserted, hastily vacated homes.
We’ve seen urban locales stripped bare of people before in The Walking Dead but there was something about the unending silence of this town’s streets that felt particularly unsettling, especially following the recent scattering to the winds of the prison group.
Rick is barely ambulant, his breath so loud it resembles the laboured intake of a walker – a resemblance which leads Carl to freak out a little later when an unconscious Rick refuses to wake up, his breathy rattle too close to the sounds of a newly turned walker for comfort – but Carl, irrationally angry and convinced he would be better off alone, offers little help to his ailing dad, beyond what is absolutely necessary.
Once they’re safely ensconced in a home for the night, with Rick passed out as his body attempts to heal his injuries, Carl, with the “I know everything/You know nothing” confidence of a teenage boy, enhanced by raging resentment (always a productive cocktail … or possibly not) sets out to forage for more food, his cocky arrogance getting him into almost fatal scrapes with walkers not once but twice.
It’s only after the final near miss, during which he loses his shoe, and Rick’s seemingly unending unconscious state, that Rick finally realises he needs his dad around, that his ranting and railing that he doesn’t need anyone, is simply not true.
He goes during the course of “After” from overly sure of himself teen to solo adventurer to a young man needing his dad, in a performance that confirms that Riggs is more than capable of holding an episode on his own.
It must be a great relief to The Walking Dead‘s powers-that-be that the child actor they hired, who wouldn’t have come with promises of future acting greatness, is manifestly well able to handle the transition to the more adult roles that the apocalypse-triggered rapid growing up process requires of him.
And he is impressive, conveying the full range of emotions called upon in “After”, from anger-fueled arrogance to fear and finally tearful acceptance that he needs someone, anyone but especially his dad.
Rick, for his part, once he awakes, realises that though he might still be a boy in some respects, that Carl is also a man and needs to be treated as such.
That admission, coupled with the hard lessons learned by Carl in his brief stint alone, leads to a touching but realistic rapprochement by the two, a happy ending to a gruelling episode where grinding isolation and post traumatic stress look to be the only things gained.
It is made even happier when Michonne, tracking the two from the sports bar to the house, sees Rick and Carl through the window, grins like mad, and, tears streaming down her face, knocks loudly on the front door.
Rick checks the keyhole, smiles widely and turns to Carl saying “It’s for you.”
It is a perfectly calibrated ending to a brilliantly put together episode, one which, though it focused on only three of the survivors gave us an enormous amount of insight into Michonne’s past, the advancement of the relationship between Rick and Carl, and a reaffirmation that you still need meaningful connections with other people, even in the brutal nihilistic nothingness of the apocalypse.
*Here’s the frenetic promo for next week’s episode “Inmates” which focuses on Darryl and Beth, Glenn and Maggie and Tyreese and Sasha, the other “lost” members of the prison tribe …
UPDATE 16 February 2014
Found this hilarious cartoon on the official Facebook page of The Walking Dead!