Becoming the highest-rated scripted show on TV has been a blessing and a curse for “The Walking Dead.” At its worst, it feels like it is holding the hands of its millions of viewers, making sure we all get it. It has invoked heavy-handed symbolism, manufactured crises and other writerly tricks to herd us along.
Sunday’s episode, which marks the show’s midseason return, takes a different approach. It puts away the prods and tells a story that is slow and careful. It’s written by Robert Kirkman, who wrote the comics on which the series is based. The comics are better than the show, and this is the episode that feels the most like the comics.
Kirkman, who is also an executive producer on “The Walking Dead,” has said generously in the past that the “Walking Dead” writers room can come up with much better ideas than he can alone. But that isn’t true. All the writers probably deserve some credit for plotting out Sunday’s episode. But it feels like the writing of a single human being, trying to connect with other human beings. It connected with me.
The early episodes of this season featured lots of characters, but not a lot of character development. This episode, entitled “After” focuses hard on three survivors — Rick, Carl and Michonne — and gives two of them small journeys that help us really understand who they are. It could be a standalone short story.
I wrote at the end of the first half of the season that the show was starting to remind me of the bad elements of “Lost,” in that it seemed to be biding its time while the writers figured out what to do next. Both shows featured a band of survivors getting separated, wandering around, reuniting, getting separated, wandering around.
“After” has some of that, too. But it works because Kirkman passes on big, momentous moments — the kind the show set up clumsily in the first half of the season — in favor of small, authentic setups that bring real emotional payoffs.
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The show’s most egregious shortcuts and cheats have included introducing characters only to kill them. They were there only to service a plot point, symbolize something, or otherwise manipulate us. “After” lets them breathe. And makes us care if they keep breathing.
We pick up moments after the midseason finale and the catastrophic attack on the prison. Familiar-looking corpses — or just segments of them — still lay on the ground.
Rick and his Carl have a new dynamic now. The show has always played with the idea that the survivors are just as much the walking dead as are the zombies trying to devour them, and the episode explores the idea thoroughly: Rick, battered by the Governor, has an eye that seems covered by a cataract. He wheezes like the walkers do. He practically drags one leg. He’s half the man he used to be, at best.
Carl, not quite a man yet, is at his strongest. But he’s snapping constantly at his father, who he is starting to see as more of a burden than a protector.
We also follow Michonne on a sad, solo journey. At the prison, she had companionship and community. Now she’s back to keeping disarmed and de-jawed zombies for companionship. (They’re supposed to protect her from other zombies, but the episode raises some interesting technical considerations about zombie herding behaviors.)
Kirkman writes a gorgeous dream sequence that not only shows us the carefree woman she used to be, but feels exactly like dreams usually do. TV and movie dreams often veer into the horrifying and absurd. But this one does what dreams actually do, grounding us with tantalizingly real details while sending quiet, heartbreaking alarms that something is wrong.
“The Walking Dead” returns Sunday at 9/8c on AMC.