The Walking Dead works best when the universe is small. This might be a controversial statement but I believe it completely. By small, I don’t mean the show shouldn’t explore more settings, including different states and campgrounds. It’s always great to discover how other people are living in light of the zombie apocalypse. However, the best episodes of the show always involve a small group of survivors focusing on a singular task.
For instance, the episode “Clear” had Rick, Carl, and Michonne looking for weapons and ammunition. It was a simple enough mission, with a minor group, that lead to one of the most emotional episodes so far. “After” is a lot like “Clear” in that respect. There are the same three core characters, Rick, Carl, and Michonne, each with their own emotional storyline. Michonne deals with being alone once again after finally feeling like part of a family. Meanwhile Rick and Carl act like a typical father and son in the most untypical situation.
Not long after their battle at the prison, Carl and a bloodied Rick scrounge to find a place to rest. They find the rare house that hasn’t been ransacked for food and isn’t filled with walkers, set with a useless flat screen TV and collection of video games. It’s a dream house for a kid Carl’s age with comic books and all the cereal he can eat, but Carl doesn’t live in a time where it’s okay to be a kid anymore. Not that he really feels like one. As Rick lays unconscious for hours, Carl convinces himself that he’s not a kid and is perfectly capable of taking care of himself. While it’s obvious by now that Carl can kill with the best of them, living in this world isn’t just about being physically able to stop a walker. It’s even more important to be mentally ready.
Did anybody think that Rick was dead, for even a second? Probably not. But it wasn’t important for the viewers to think the main character had prematurely bitten the dust. It was important to show the sort of world Carl would live in if he was alone. Would he be able to fight off walkers on his own? Definitely. (RIP shoe, though.) Would he want to continue to fight without his last remaining family by his side? Turns out…no.
It was effective to show that underneath the rough exterior, Carl is still a little kid. He looks, and sometimes acts, like a total teenager, with his obnoxious quips and proclamations that he’d be fine if his dad was dead. But he still takes joy in eating big things of pudding and sleeps with his head on his dad’s lap. When, for a few dreadful moments, he believes his dad is a walker, he tearfully gives up because it’s easier to be dead than alone. “I’m scared,” he finally admits when he puts his guard down.
Even though characters like Daryl, Maggie, and Glenn are beloved by audiences, the episode benefits greatly without them. The episode is especially better for not having all of those other people from the prison, including Tyreese, the psychotic children, and all of the other characters that barely earned their names. By focusing on essential characters and their smaller moments, we get to feel more for them.
For instance, no other type of episode would have the time to allow Michonne to think back on her past. In a dream sequence/flashback, it’s revealed that she had a child (remember when she couldn’t hold Judith?) and that the armless walkers she had in the beginning of season 3 were actually her partner and his friend. It was very effective to reveal Michonne’s past in this way. There’s no way that Michonne would ever open up in a long speech to the other survivors. So this way we get to know a bit about her past without messing with her stoic characterization.
In the end, the two storylines merge. Michonne sees Rick and Carl through the window of their safe house and breaks down into tears. Rick has the opposite reaction, laughing at the sight of her. This particular group of characters is my favorite pairing. They’re the perfect familial unit. Although it will be a comfort to have the whole group together again, it wouldn’t be the worst thing for the show if these three moved on together.
- Michonne stabs Hershel’s animated head. It was a good way to connect the seasons.
- Carl: “Hey, a**hole. Hey, sh*tface.” Rick: “Watch your mouth.” Priorities, Rick.
- Carl: “Shane taught me. Remember him?” Rick: “Yeah, I remember him. I remember him every day.”
- Carl’s speech while Rick was unconscious was pretty great. “I didn’t forget while you were playing farmer… I saved you… I don’t need you anymore.” Later he says “They counted on you. And now you’re nothing. I’d be fine if you died.” Carl blames him for past deaths because he was supposed to be a leader.
- Walker inside. Got my shoe. Didn’t get me.
- Rick: “You’re a man, Carl. You’re a man.” Couldn’t be more wrong.
- “It’s for you.”