The Walking Dead returned after its mid-season break last night (spoilers lay ahead). Robert Kirkman has gone back to his granular storytelling roots by focusing specifically on the characters of Michonne and Carl. This is for the best; the larger-than-life storylines from the first half of this season led to great action scenes, but an overall decline for the show.
Let’s start with Carl, the most interesting character. Carl has come to know a life of zombies rather than the typical teenage experience of rebellion and suburban living. The episode did a decent job spelling that out, showing Carl’s bemusement with video games and then his live-action game of killing zombies in an unnecessarily dangerous fashion. Whereas we may have stayed out too late, perhaps driven too fast and picked fights with other kids, Carl has to get his kicks by putting bullets into the undead. It’s tough being an angsty teenager during the apocalypse.
However, one mainstay of teenage life for Carl is the sullen anger at his father. He’s furious that Rick was unable to keep his mom, his baby sister, and their group alive. He rails against Rick’s failure to protect all of them from flesh-eating zombies, roaming bandits, and a maniacal bad guy with an eye patch and a tank. This hardly seems fair. But Rick can’t respond because he has been incapacitated by injuries due to the conflict with the Governor, the same bad guy with an eye patch from the previous episode.
Carl responds to his lack of parental oversight by running around the neighborhood, eating junk food and almost getting himself killed. At the end of the episode, he realizes he still loves and needs his father, and starts to put the angst behind him. Rick awakens and recognizes the fact that Carl has become a man, able to fend for himself, though perhaps still lacking judgment.
Michonne, on the other hand, can’t seem to decide if she wants to continue on existing amongst the undead. She’s just lost the group she had grown to care for and reverts to living the way she did before she ever met our cast, walking around with two zombies on leashes. This, believe it or not, provides camouflage for her to walk in large groups of zombies unnoticed. She persists in this state for some time, remembering her lost family, memories triggered by losing her adopted family. She continues to see a zombie who looks somewhat like her, and eventually decides that she is not ready to give up on life. She demonstrates her resolve by slaughtering the 15 or so zombies who were walking with her, and then goes in search of Carl and Rick.
The Walking Dead has fallen into a rhythm of starting with individual storylines that build character and then bringing the individuals together into cohesive groups only to have catastrophe strike and these groups fall apart. Kirkman is at his best writing the individual narratives. When the plots revolve around larger groups, the action still entertains, but the quality of the story loses something.
A key factor in this episode is the development of Chandler Riggs, the actor who plays Carl. As he grows older, will he be able to carry the weight of an episode all on his own? In some ways, The Walking Dead is just as much his story as it is Rick’s.
The future success of the show revolves in part around Riggs. In this episode, he had good moments. There were also some forced ones. In particular, his declaration of “I win” after killing a zombie felt incredibly silly and unserious—though I doubt even Marlon Brando could have made me take that line seriously. Whatever the outcome, this first episode represents a refreshing start to the second half of the fourth season.