Before we dive into the second-half premiere of The Walking Dead’s fourth season, can we take a moment to bitch about these breaks? It’s been more than three months since we saw the prison in flames. Granted, that’s a more reasonable hiatus than, say, the eleven-month wait for Breaking Bad to finish its last campaign. But in a culture where everyone’s binge-watching — even my parents just devoured Game of Thrones on DVD — pausing the action for months at a time really kills a show’s momentum. And it encourages all but the hardest-core fans to either wait until the whole series shows up on Netflix or bail altogether.
For those of us who hung tough, last night’s installment was, from a storytelling perspective, like slamming on the brakes of a runaway train. The “mid-season finale” back on December 1 was a rollicking bloodbath, as the Guv rolled up on the prison with a new posse, a wild gleam in his good eye, and a tank. By the end, Hershel was executed, the Guv was skewered, and what’s left of the gang had been driven out and scattered in all directions. Is Judith alive? Where’s the school bus headed? Will they find a new safe haven — the Georgia Dome or an abandoned luxury hotel, perhaps? For the answers to these and most other questions, we’ll have to wait. Like the survivors themselves, the show takes a minute to catch its breath, focusing only on Rick, Carl, and Michonne.
It’s no surprise that between the two parties, Michonne’s story line features half the dialogue and is twice as compelling. Moments after she dispatched the Guv, we see the amateur samurai standing outside the prison, alone, as is her way. She adopts two new flannel-clad pets, and then stumbles across something that makes her pause — Herschel’s disembodied head, with eyes milky-white and mouth chattering. (Repeat: Zombie Head Hershel!) It takes a lot to shock a hardened badass like Michonne. But as much as she’s seen and suffered, the sight makes her pause. Hershel gave them shelter; he healed the sick and provided a steady, understated leadership. He was preachy without being pushy. Hershel’s death, more than anyone else’s so far, is likely to affect all the survivors on a deep level.
For all the sweet sword-swinging action Michonne usually finds herself engaged in, her best moments in this episode are the quietest ones. When she comes across the tracks that Rick and Carl left behind, she decides to go it alone and chooses her own path. Later, as she trudges through the forest with a mini-herd of zombies, one that’s awfully similar — a woman with braids — seems to gnaw at something deep inside. (Perhaps she sees the fine line between being human and being one of them. Or realizes there’s no point in suffering through life in Walker World alone.)
But best of all is a long-awaited glimpse into who Michonne was before the apocalypse. The creative flashback comes in the form of a dream, as we see her in a swanky apartment, debating matters of art with two handsome guys — one of whom is her “lover,” Mike. (She’s as grossed out by the term lover as we are.) She serves wine and cheese; they laugh. Then the nightmare unfolds, as they turn bloody and the conversation moves from aesthetics to a debate over why life is worth living. Michonne holds a child. Her cheese knife turns into a sword, and an eyeblink later, Mike’s arms are missing. It seems to confirm what we’ve long suspected — Michonne had a son, and her old pets were people she knew, Mike and his pal.
Michonne’s dream leads to tears, anger, and the beheading of the entire herd she was rolling with. There’s another revelation when she finds the roadside BBQ shack that Rick and Carl cleared out. Michonne allows herself a rare minute of vulnerability and talks to her dead beau: “Mike, I miss you. I missed you even when I was with you. Back at the camp. That wasn’t you who did it. You were wrong. Because I’m still here. And you could be too. And he could be … I know the answer. I know why.”
This raises two questions. First, what did Mike do? Suicide seems like the answer. Maybe their baby died and he couldn’t keep going; perhaps the answer to Mike’s question — why live in this hell? — was to give up. Michonne says she knows why, but doesn’t explain. Instead of talking, she acts — doubling back to the path where she saw Rick and Carl’s tracks. Why keep going? The answer seems clear — because there are people out there who need her, and she needs them, too.
Most immediately, two of those peeps are Rick and Carl, who’ve picked a hell of a time to work through some father-son angst. Yes, Carl is really annoying in the episode — leaving his battered old man to stumble behind him, trying to be the alpha dog, not sharing a primo can of chocolate pudding — but give the kid a break. He’s lost his mom (okay, technically, he killed her), thinks his baby sister is dead, lost a grandpa figure in Hershel, and may never see his cool big bro Daryl again. That’s a lot for a kid to handle. So he does what any boy his age would do and acts like a dick. Daryl ties better knots than you, Dad! People were dying and you wanted to play Old MacDonald, Dad! I’d be all, like, fine with it if you just croaked already, Dad!
Of course, just as Rick predicted, Carl comes up one bullet short when he’s fending off zombies. (What happened to his crack-shot gun skills? It took him five rounds to take down three walkers at close range.) He also breaks one of the cardinal rules of this world — do not walk backward. Later, a zombie nearly chomps his leg. (How many times have we seen that moment, as a walker grabs someone by the foot? I’d put the over/under at twenty.) Though it’s abundantly clear that Carl won’t last a week on his own, he sees his near-death experiences as victories — I won, the walkers got my shoe but not me. Not until he almost accidentally executes his father does Carl admit he’s scared shitless.
The next morning, Rick acknowledges the heavy toll this world has taken on his son: “You’re a man, Carl. You’re a man. I’m sorry.” As much as he tried to preserve some semblance of childlike wonder and innocence in his boy, that’s all gone. (I’d say this was obvious back when Carl was forced to execute his mother, but hey, I guess Rick’s had other stuff on his plate.) He also delivers the episode’s best line, as a certain sword-wielding babe knocks on their door and he tells Carl, “It’s for you.”
This episode seems to set the tone for the “back eight” — a slower pace, and more “psychological horror,” as Andrew Lincoln has described it. The show is usually best when it balances human drama with old-school scares. The first half of this season did that well. It will be interesting to see if a slower pace, and a scattered band of survivors, will prove as compelling — and fun.