Could this be the first happy ending — relatively speaking, of course — for an episode of “The Walking Dead”? Truly, did you ever expect you’d see an episode of “TWD” end with both Rick and Michonne laughing?
That’s “After,” the midseason premiere that catches us up on the immediate post-Governor-battle lives of Rick, Carl, and Michonne — and after a pair of major realizations by young Grimes and the katana-wielding heroine, ends in a happy reunion. But first…
Rick and Carl
It’s tough enough being a teenage boy and trying to maneuver a father/son relationship, but Carl’s doing both while seeing his family and friends being eaten by walkers (and, of course, having to do his share of killing the living and the undead).
Understandably, he’s angry, and since Rick’s the only other human at hand, he’s getting a full dose of Carl’s fury. A badly battered Rick can’t even keep up with Carl as they’re trudging along a road, looking for food, supplies, and new shelter. Carl’s annoyed that Rick keeps telling him to slow down. And when Rick starts to tell him, “Hey, we’re gonna be…,” Carl stalks off, and Rick doesn’t bother to say “okay.”
The duo stumble upon Joe and Joe Jr.’s BBQ Shack, where they argue about who will clear the place and who will be the lookout. Carl’s challenging Rick, and they enter to find what we assume is Joe Sr. — the zombie version — with a handwritten note saying “Please do what I couldn’t,” signed by Joe Jr.
Carl and Rick take Sr. out, and head out with a small bag of food. They take refuge at a random house, and argue again about clearing it. While Carl’s tying the front door closed, he tells Rick he’s using a special knot, one Shane taught him. “Remember him?” Carl taunts Rick.
Rick passes out, and the next morning, after Carl takes care of his own breakfast, Rick still won’t awaken. When a pair of walkers claws at the door, Carl goes outside and lures them away, arrogantly walking backwards until a third one joins them and he has to take on all three. He does, successfully, but has to use five bullets to do it.
Feeling super confident, he returns to Rick, who’s still out cold. That just makes Carl angry again, and he screams at Rick. “I saved you ... I don’t need you anymore ... you were their leader, but now you’re nothing ... I’d be fine if you died.”
Wiping his tears, Carl takes off to prove it, going off on the hunt for more food. He enters a house and finds some food (including the mother of all cans of chocolate pudding), but also has to do battle with a walker. Having used five of his bullets earlier, he narrowly misses being zombie chow and manages to shut the walker in a room.
Instead of pushing him towards caution, he smugly writes on the door, “Walker inside. Got my shoe, didn’t get me,” and goes up on the roof to eat pudding, looking over the world like he just conquered it.
Back at the house with Rick, Carl is startled when a wheezing Rick stirs. Was Rick dead? Is he now undead? Carl thinks so, and as Rick’s wheezing gets louder and he reaches his hand out towards Carl — admittedly, in a walker-like way — Carl grabs his gun, points it at Rick, and begins to cry.
“I can’t! I was wrong,” he says. “Just do it,” he continues, and sits back to wait for Rick to attack him.
“Carl, don’t go outside. Stay safe,” Rick says, prompting Carl to admit he’s scared, and that he is happy his father is not dead, and not a walker.
Later, after Carl impresses Rick with the tale of his food mission, Rick tells him, “I know we’ll never get things back to the way they used to be. I only clung to that for you, for Judith … now she’s gone … you, you’re a man, Carl. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t need to be,” Carl says, and they both jump when there’s a loud knock at the door. Carl grabs his gun, and Rick looks through the peephole and laughs.
“It’s for you,” he says.
Michonne is on her own after all her friends have scattered, so she fashions herself a new pair of walker “pets.” After having to stab the reanimated head of Hershel, she takes the pets and walks to the nearest road outside the prison. She spies a set of footprints, and decides to ignore them and go into the woods with the pets. There, she freely walks among a pack of zombies, who seem to accept her as one of them.
See the cast of "The Walking Dead" on "Conan":
Flashback alert: In what we soon find out is Michonne’s dream while she’s taking a nap inside a car, she recalls her boyfriend Mike, his friend (Terry? That’s Mike’s friend in the comics), and her son. Their happy, playful conversation turns to frightened talk of the new world and the camp they’re staying in.
Mike wonders if there’s any point: “Why?” he asks about their efforts to survive. Michonne remains optimistic, until suddenly Mike and Maybe Terry morph into bloody and armless versions of themselves, and she begins to scream and wakes up from her nightmare.
While continuing to walk amongst the walkers, after her dream, Michonne gets angry and begins attacking the herd. She frantically swings the katana around, taking out walker after walker (we counted 21) until all of them are dead. She cries out, exhausted, and then walks out of the woods and back to the road where, this time, she follows the footprints.
They lead her to the BBQ joint, where she finds Joe Sr., as well as the note left by Joe Jr. She slumps down and talks to Mike. “Mike, I miss you. I missed you even when I was with you, back at the camp. It wasn’t you who did it … you were wrong, because I’m still here. You could be, too. And he could be. I know the answer. I know why.”
Crying, Michonne picks herself up and leaves the BBQ shack. Following the footprints, she walks into a neighborhood, and spots a giant empty can of pudding. Continuing on to a porch, she looks inside the front window and sees Rick and Carl. Laughing and looking upward, she nods her head and knocks on the front door.
Despite Mike’s claim that there would be no happy endings, this kinda qualifies as one, right?
* Can’t go wrong with an episode written by “TWD” creator Robert Kirkman and directed by producer and special effects whiz Greg Nicotero, but an especially brilliant touch: the bookends of Joe Jr. being unable to shoot his undead father, and a super cocky Carl realizing he was in the same boat when he thought Rick had died, turned, and was about to attack him.
Sadly, when the situation was reversed, father Mike apparently was able to kill his son…
* Chandler Riggs, the actor who portrays Carl, is fantastic throughout the episode, but two especially sweet moments: when Carl enters the teenage bedroom full of books, posters, video games, and a reading nook, and when he sits on the roof eating the giant can of chocolate pudding (all 112 ounces of it, as he later tells Rick). Both things you can imagine Carl might have taken for granted pre-apocalypse, and which allow him, briefly, to experience those simple joys in the walker world.
Now share your feelings with the group, "Dead"-heads: Did you think Rick was just incredibly beaten from the fight with The Governor, or did you think he was dead, too?
And how satisfying was that peek, finally, into Michonne’s backstory? What, exactly, do you think Mike did? Did he kill their son, and himself, to avoid dealing with life in walker world? Is that the reason Michonne cried when holding baby Judith, and why it has taken her this long to choose not to be alone?
"The Walking Dead" airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.