"Is it time for Walking Dead to Kill Rick?" Alan Sepinwall wondered earlier this week, and now we know why: Andrew Lincoln's defeated group leader spends much of "After," the first episode after the prison massacre that closed the fourth season's first half, nursing his injuries on, with his son, Carl, literally and figuratively trying on his father's sheriff's hat for size. But in spite of benching the show's star player, "After" is one of The Walking Dead's best recent episodes, effectively building tension and letting character beats settle between zombie attacks.
Although The Walking Dead has replaced members of Rick's group as quickly as they've been killed off, it's never re-established an ensemble dynamic it built up during its first two seasons, under the guidance of ousted creator Frank Darabont. Since then, the show has struggled to individuate its characters without breaking them away from the group, especially since so much of its character-development energy has been lavished on Rick. As Sepinwall writes:
The amount of time devoted to Rick's tedious, circular struggle winds up making it very hard to service the other characters. There are people who have been on the show for years whose names I still have to be reminded of (Beth, Hershel's younger daughter, to name one), and others who have been around since the beginning who remain ciphers (I still could not tell you what motivates Glenn beyond basic survival and his love for Maggie).
That energy is doubly squandered because Lincoln is such a wooden, restricted actor whose glum joylessness reflects the show's grim monotony: Both fight to survive without giving us any sense of why or what for. At one point, Car tells his unconscious father, "I'd be fine if you died," and as a viewer, I feel the same way.
Without full-blooded characters, The Walking Dead increasingly resembles a kind of post-apocalyptic procedural, with survivors as interchangeable as Law & Order's supermodel D.A.s. More thought goes into finding new ways to kill walkers than new things for the living to do.
That's why "After" is such a breath of fresh air. Barring Michonne's dream flashbacks, the episode has three speaking parts, and two of those characters don't speak much at all. The scenes of Carl exploring a deserted town evoke the similarly engrossing "Indifference," with Rick and Carol hashing out their different visions for the group's future. (Incidentally, although she hasn't been seen for five episodes, Melissa McBride's name remains in the opening credits -- the first season where that's been the case -- so I'm still holding out hope that she'll return soon. The show doesn't have so many good actors it can afford to write them off, and McBride has become one of its best.) Of course, "After" still has its de rigueur scenes of Michonne slicing through zombies with her Samurai sword -- the people who run the show still know their core audience mostly tunes in for the kills. But it's shown a welcome and long-overdue willingness to shift gears in its fourth season, and though it seems unlikely to turn into a great show, it's making strides towards being a good one.
Darren Franich, Entertainment Weekly
The laser-focus provides a showcase for the best and worst aspects of The Walking Dead. The Best: Very few shows on television have such confident visual storytelling. The opening sequence of "After" is dialogue-free: It’s composed entirely of background noise, Greg Nicotero's zombie make-up, and the face of Danai Gurira, who can accomplish a lot with a grimace (and unfortunately has to accomplish a lot with a grimace.)
Zack Handlen, A.V. Club
Carl’s arguably the star of the hour, and as much as it surprises me to say so, this works. The kid's turn from clumsy plot device to spookily competent killing machine made him slightly more palatable, but "After" manages to make his frustrations with his father into a believable struggle to find his own place in the world.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
It's an interesting approach to go this quiet and simple after the mayhem at the prison, and I do think the idea of Carl as a kid who is growing up entirely in this hellscape is promising. But Chandler Riggs isn't a strong enough actor at this point to carry this much silence.
Melissa Leon, Daily Beast
Writer and executive producer Robert Kirkman has said that the show is testing out new episode formats in the back half of season four, including some that will focus on only a few characters at a time, in order to "dive deep into who these characters are and what’s going on with them." It's an admirable goal. If the show pulls it off, it won't even need to kill off Rick.
Roth Cornet, IGN
Ultimately, the measured, almost hypnotized progression felt right for where the characters were. This was about letting the dust settle, taking stock, and accepting things for what they are.
Kevin Fitzpatrick, ScreenCrush
It remains to be seen if the individual character work can prove as effective or fresh with the other factions of the group, but at least for now, "After" is exactly the step The Walking Dead needed to take toward reminding us why we fight, and for the viewers, why we still care who lives and dies.