The mid-season fireworks, which saw the prison attacked, Hershel (Scott Wilson) decapitated and the Governor (David Morrissey) slain, were so explosive that the second half of season four really has a lot to live up to. This comeback instalment, After, was a much quieter and reflective episode than the one before, and by focusing on just Rick (Andrew Lincoln), Carl (Chandler Riggs) and Michonne (Danai Gurira), we are left in the dark as to the fate of the others who escaped the prison.
With Rick and Carl trudging off together, and Michonne going it alone, this was a narrow episode that switched back between each storyline. To say Rick looks a little worse for wear after his brutal confrontation with the Governor would be a vast understatement. Battered and bloody, his voice is even croakier than usual, and in his incapacitated state, it's up to Carl to take charge.
The tension between the two, as Carl starts to disobey Rick's orders, presented some Oedipal overtones to the two's relationship. Carl, caught in puberty between child and adult, has constantly battled his dad's desire to protect and shelter him from violence. In a nice subtle moment, he smiles in delight at seeing in an abandoned teenage bedroom a large TV and stacks of video games, before shutting out the childish thought and using the TV cable to wrap around the door handle.
More clumsily handled was Carl's soliloquy against his unconscious dad later on, chastising him for not protecting the group, and ending on the particularly callous line, "I'd be fine if you died". The episode has done such a great job in showing us rather than explicitly telling us Carl's anger and immaturity, from him losing his shoe to a walker and later eating a whole tub of chocolate pudding on the roof of a house, that there was no need to resort to such a lazy monologue.
Much better handled was Michonne's section, as in a wordless opening sequence she hacks out two new armless zombie pets on a leash, before putting Hershel's dead-eyed decapitated head out of it's misery. Kudos to The Walking Dead; it's the only show that can make a silently mouthing severed head both disturbing and moving.
With Hershel's head a painful reminder of his departure, the lack of people in this week's episode did also reveal just how few interesting characters are left in the drama. Michonne, a favourite from the comics, has always been ripe for further development, and she got it here in an audacious dream sequence.
From it's colour-drained look, stylistically simple editing, and predominantly non-diegetic soundtrack, The Walking Dead normally tries to ground the viewer in reality as much as possible. We have had flashbacks before, and Rick's hallucinations last season, but Michonne's dream here is by far the most experimental thing they've ever done.
Part dream, part flashback, it shows Michonne initially talking with former lover Mike (Aldis Hodge) and friend Terry (Brandon Fobbs) in what appears a cosily middle-class Atlanta apartment. But the apocalyptic present starts to bleed in to this idyllic past, as first the knife Michonne holds turns in to her katana, before Mike and Terry turn in to the armless zombies we saw Michonne keep by her side when she was first introduced.
We'd had teases of her past life before, but never shown that she once had a partner and child. The events at the prison bring these painful memories back to the fore, and after she spots a strikingly similar walker to her, Michonne works off her hurt and frustration with a cathartic slaughtering of all the walkers around her.
Whilst we're not explicitly told the reason for living that she says she's found, the later shot when she discovers Rick and Carl tells us as much. The burst of joy she experiences upon seeing the two reveals how much they mean to her, and the hope she cherishes through their companionship. These three might be reunited, but we now need to find out what happened to everyone else, from Maggie to Glenn, to Daryl to Tyrese, after they fled the prison.