Welcome to the bar mitzvah episode of The Walking Dead. Carl becomes a man.
Sunday nights were looking desolate when the show took a mid-season break. Of course, that hole in your week was filled by the brilliant HBO show True Detective, so you might not have been counting the days until the second half of Season 4 returned. But if you’ll recall, a whole lot happened back in December.
Personally, this was the first new episode where my teenage daughters watched with me. The younger one had started watching late last year. She’s not caught up, but she wanted to see the new episode. When she asked at the beginning, “Who’s still alive?” it took me a minute to remember: Carl and his bloody pulp of a father, Rick. Michonne. Glenn and Maggie. Carol in exile. Daryl and Beth. Tyreese and the kids (hopefully including Judith). Bob and Sasha. Jeanette. Tara. But we really don’t know where any of them are once the prison is overrun.
“After” only deals with three of those characters. Michonne is in a zombie fugue, first turning a couple of the Governor’s men into a new pair of zombie pets. Back on her own in a zombie wilderness, her only real struggle is internal. The zombies are still are no match for her katana. But we see more of her backstory than we ever have in a bizarre flashback dream with her young son and husband—who became one of her original zombie pets. She’s got so little will to live that a herd of zombies treat her as one of their own. It’s hard to really tell the story of inner turmoil, though, and we were just left with badass Michonne killing a couple dozen zombies and deciding to snap out of it.
Carl, on the other hand, was given a much more definitive—and interesting—journey in dealing with his own internal development. He’s had to say goodbye to his childhood several times now, but this time, he realized that being a man doesn’t mean you don’t need anyone else.
He begins the episode cocksure and pissed at his dad for failing to protect Judith and the others—a throwback to the petulant Carl that used to get on your nerves so much. But Rick’s attempts at becoming a farmer instead of a leader never sat well with his son, and, with his dad too beat up to argue, he’s determined to be the one to protect himself from now on .
Everything I liked about this episode had to do with Carl walking that blurry line between boyhood and manhood. Getting nostalgic for video games and then seeing that the only useful thing about the gaming system was using the power cord as rope. Confidently leading the zombies away from the house only to be undone by his own cockiness and throwing up after a close call with death. Surviving a walker attack and celebrating by eating a gallon of chocolate pudding. It’s only when he realizes that he still needs his dad that he seems wiser than his years.
So next week we get caught up on everyone else’s story, but for now, were these two threads enough to excite you about a post-prison Walking Dead? What the hell was Michonne going on about finding an answer? And where can I find Joe & Joe Jr.’s BBQ Shack? That sounds really good right now.
Before we get to me being insensitive to the whole “becoming a man” narrative and insisting that Carl being a dick while his father was dying overshadowed his personal growth, the one question I can answer right away is the answer Michonne found. In the dream sequence flashback (which, I agree, was bizarre and at this point more haunting than 1,000 zombies), her husband goes on his rant: “This isn’t life” and “what’s it for?” and “what’s the answer here?” So those questions, which were asked ages ago and which, I’m guessing, led to her husband giving up, which eventually also led to her son’s death, are the ones she’s now answered. The “why” of survival, aka … THE MEANING OF LIFE.
SHE KNOWS THE MEANING OF LIFE, AND THE WRITERS AREN’T TELLING US.
Also, how weird was it seeing Michonne in real life, as a mom and a wife and someone who can spot pretentious art when she sees it? I was digging pre-apocalypse Michonne. Loved the attitude, loved the style. Bit strange to cut your foodstuffs with a machete, but who am I to judge?
But let’s get back on track. What is it about Rick’s family that makes them so ungrateful at the worst possible moments? I’m all for Carl’s teenage rebellion, but somehow the fact that he was acting it out while Rick was on death’s door made me hate him like it was season two all over again. I think the writers were trying to pack a redemption storyline into one episode the way they did in the excellent “Live Bait” with the Governor, but I think it came off a bit more shallow here. On the other hand, it was pretty intensely terrifying to see him flirt with death, and I think we can all probably remember echoes from our own lives. Sure, I never had zombies to deal with, but I remember taking really atrocious risks when I first got my driver’s license, and I once spun out on a narrow road and somehow managed to avoid doing anything but lightly bumping a tree. The point is that there’s a point in most young men’s lives when they’re desperate to prove their manhood, and you basically have to get lucky to avoid getting seriously hurt. I’ve definitely had some close calls, and seeing that process play out with Carl was resonant. And the scene where he couldn’t kill his dad, and essentially just gave up because he needed him so bad, was hugely effective for me.
I think we might slightly disagree in that I found Michonne’s journey pretty interesting. Maybe not for the actual plot advancement, which, you’re right, was fairly straightforward: Starts zombie herd, goes nuts, kills zombie herd, talks to herself, finds Rick and Carl. But I kind of liked what the show did in terms of disjointed imagery. The odd dream sequence, for one, but also the haunting persistence of the other zombie with dreads that served as a distorted mirror for Michonne—what she might have been if she’d given up on life. It was like seeing her ghost, and those two scenes got under my skin in a way that felt a little Lynchian.
How about a quick interlude to mention HERSHEL’S HEAD. Let me just say, Josh, that if there’s ever a zombie apocalypse and we’re in the same place and I die and any part of me remains, I state for the record that I’d like you preserve me like the Governor preserved his daughter. Just in case. Consider this my zombie will.
Two final thoughts: This will sound heartless, but your list of characters still living makes me think we need someone to die. They’re getting to the point where they feel invincible! And even when someone does die, like Hershel, it takes like ten episodes. Let’s get George R.R. Martin to write the next episode. Wait, no, scratch that … he’s crazy enough to kill Daryl.
Finally, I wanted to make a joke about how it’s only February and you’re out of the running for Father of the Year, but actually I think The Walking Dead makes sense for teenagers; beyond the gore, it packs a lighter punch than a lot of non-zombie shows. So this last one is for the amusement of Paste readers everywhere, and especially for me, who has no children but is probably not far off from that stage of life. Please list the age at which you would have let your daughters watch the following shows, in a hypothetical world where they all came out before they born: Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Mad Men, The Wire, True Detective, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, South Park.
Sorry if it sounded like I was complaining about an episode that was 50 percent devoted to Michonne. She’s clearly the most interesting character now that the Governor’s head is rotting on the field of battle just waiting to be eaten by the corpse of one of the people he duped into following him. I did love seeing her chopping vegetables instead of zombie heads, and the way that dream sequence progressed makes up for the way her thread resolved in a cryptic monologue. She’s also given a definitive answer to that age-old question of what’s the best weapon to have in a zombie apocalypse. Silly me, I’d been saying “crowbar” for years.
Again, I think I give Carl a little more slack in this instance since he just lost his sister. Is it unfair to blame Rick for that? Sure. But is it understandable to lash out in his grief? I think so. Remember that Carl spent more time caring for Judith the first few weeks of her life than Rick did—he was too busy carrying on phone conversations with ghosts. Carl being a dick is no worse than Rick being completely absent.
Hershel’s head was pretty awesome. Director Greg Nicotero brought it to the set of Talking Dead, and Chris Hardwick started to spoon it feed from his giant can of chocolate pudding. And sure, you can be my zombie pet if you don’t mind me getting rid of your jaw. (I take no chances in the zombie apocalypse.)
And it’s weird to look at your list and realize that The Walking Dead is the first show I’d let my teenaged kids watch from it. My wife really hates South Park, despite the fact that neither of us could stop laughing our way through The Book of Mormon. I’m looking forward to watching The Wire and Breaking Bad with them, but it’ll be a few more years. Game of Thrones and The Sopranos are completely off the table for my kids. And True Detective and Mad Men are probably too adult for them to even find interesting. So we watch Community, Parks and Rec, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and now, The Walking Dead. TV family hour at casa de Jackson.
So you’re itching for some more human blood? Getting chased from their home by a psychopath and herds of zombies isn’t enough. Who must die, Shane? Who?
Fair points on Carl, and I think I’m being hypocritical because I was one of the most annoyed at Rick when he kept trying to have logical conversations with a psychopath at the end of the last half-season. And I sorta/kinda forgot about Judith, mostly because her acting has been TERRIBLE so far. (Not really, but let’s be clear, this is no Baby Holly.) I think it was just the sight of Rick limping around and Carl being an ungrateful whippersnapper that got my Irish up. Can you agree with me, though, that Carl’s “I Win” catchphrase should be retired immediately? At least give me that, Josh.
As to our zombie scenario, I’m picturing a world where someone does invent a cure, and I spend the rest of my days resentful that you cut off my jaw and I can’t talk. I change my mind—just kill me.
So, who do I want to die? Let’s do this! Let’s put all human sympathy aside! Here’s my Death Preference Chart (DPC?), starting with the character I’d most like to see die. I’m leaving Judith off the list to prove I’m not totally missing a heart.
1. Dale—I know he died once already, but I’m up for it again.
2. Glenn—He’s just been too whiny for my liking lately.
3. Andrea—See: Dale.
4. Carol—In some really mundane way that’s never shown. Like, oh yeah, Carol ate some bad peaches.
5. Beth—This is your fault, Walking Dead writers, for never making me care.
6. Jeanette—Barely remember who this is.
8. Rick—This will never happen, and I’m not even sure I want it to, but it would be a classic Game of Thrones moment.
9. Carl—And the zombie that gets him looks to the camera, and says, “I win!”
10. Tyreese and the Kids—Great band name. Plus I expect big things out of that one creepy girl.
11. Sasha—I think I like Sasha more than the writers deserve.
12. Bob Stookey—There’s something darkly funny about the unreliable alcoholic continually surviving despite himself.
13. Michonne/Maggie—Both badass, plus I want one of them to end up with Daryl.
14. Daryl—You stay away from him, George R.R. Martin!
See what I’m saying, though? That’s too many living characters, even if I included a couple who are actually not living. Time to trim the fat! I’ll shoot it back to you now … what’s your list? And do you agree that a Daryl-Michonne or Daryl-Maggie couple would be great?
Yes, Carl’s “I win” catchphrase was part of his chest-thumping I’m-a-man phase, and I hope that phase has passed, unless it’s a setup for his zombie demise. (The zombie doesn’t even have to say it; he can just be wearing a T-shirt.) Whiny character aside, I think that Chandler Riggs has really grown with that role. That’s always a toss-up with child actors as the seasons go by. It’s been a pleasure watching him make the most of the zombie wasteland. (That said, I can’t wait for the rest of the world to see Ellar Coltrane in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood when it comes out this fall. Filmed over a dozen years, you watch Coltrane’s character grow up before your eyes. It’s incredibly moving.)
But back to the zombie apocalypse. I’m not quite as bloodthirsty as you at the moment. We just lost Hershel, man. We’ve got new villains coming and maybe a few good guys. I’m ready to see how the survivors fair outside of the prison walls, separated from each other. If the kids out-survive Tyreese then so be it, but having read the comics, I’ve got a feeling they’re going to need all the people they can muster.
Daryl and Michonne would be a great pairing with the added bonus that Daryl’s brother would never have approved. Just think of those badass little babies. And it would give us more reason to sign off…
Please don’t die, Daryl Dixon
P.S. – Shane, I’m ignoring the zombie will. I’ll save the jaw, just in case. And keep you in a really nice barn right next to the main house. What could possibly go wrong?