Upon its triumphant (midseason) return, the oft-criticized, ever-embraced zombie drama on AMC carefully skirted the line between new and old, forging a decided future while tidying up a messy past.
In typical fashion, following the chaos, spectacle, and trauma endured in the finale of sorts from December, the story that followed was smaller, quieter, and rightfully more intimate.
The last goodbye was paid to the prison, unceremoniously of course, with Michonne giving the final farewell. In a sight we’ve seen so many times before, and never tire of (which is good, because it happens with some frequency in this episode), she beheads walkers as the once idyllic sanctuary sits ravaged and burning in the background. A haven for too long, our heroes are now without shelter, but thankfully the show can go in new, unencumbered narrative directions.
As if Hershel’s death wasn’t tragic enough, he too is given an ugly moment’s pause, as his disembodied, zombie-possessed head is rendered lifeless by Michonne’s blade.
We’ve been here before, however. Long ago did we do away with mourning, with crying over the dead all the while they transform into the living dead. All of the characters, from the stone-cold Michonne to Hershel’s once-quaint daughters, have learned that this is a world where the deceased are not given their due. This transformation happened to varying degrees following the destruction of the farm and Rick’s autonomous leadership in the beginning of Season 3.
Thus, it was with a bit of trepidation that this half-season kicked off, as we follow a solitary Michonne and her two zombie slaves, as well as the parallel thread of a petulant Carl and his badly-bloodied father Rick. Last season was criticized for being too familiar, as (though it was yes, in the source material) a second battle broke out between Rick and The Governor in what all seemed just a bit too much of history repeating.
What played out last night, at least early on, was a path that’s too been walked before. While we see Michonne tracking through the woods, however, we endure with her a flashback, an especially frightful and memorable one at that. We learn she had a lover and a child, lived in a beautiful loft, and was clearly full of life (and chatter). That dream was quickly dashed.
Carl and Rick meanwhile, are on their own again, and Carl as he did so often in Season 2, was antagonistic and headstrong. It was taken to an extreme, though, as he lashes out at his unconscious father in a rant never before seen from the young man. That theme deviated from what we know too, as a pair of incidents later on leaves Carl seconds and inches away from death. He is left to accept his limitations, acknowledge the harsh reality around him yet again, and embrace the opportunity to enjoy the simpler things in life – like pudding.
The most telling moment, of course, comes towards the end, as a distraught Carl hears the rumblings of his father in the middle of the night, and can’t discern whether or not he is awakening from his infirmed condition, or being revived in an undead afterlife state. He holds up again, and in that moment, like the characters, we are reminded that no matter how comfortable we are in this world, anything can and does happen; anyone can die in an instant.
At once familiar, ‘The Walking Dead’ begins anew, as at least for the next little while, we will follow our protagonist in their various post-prison pockets, having been strewn about in the wilderness, left to fend without a fortress.
Next week promises Daryl, the most beloved character, as well as Glen and Maggie, among others, but this premiere dutifully presented the three most fascinating, layered figures. The evolution of Carl is the strongest part of the ‘Dead’ narrative, a former boy now a man, growing up in a world where desensitization is vital and selfishness is key to survival.
He is malleable, but like his father had to do in the past, Carl was forced to admit that he is not as strong as he shows. His weakness, of course, just like Rick, is his love for what little family he has left.