The Walking Dead gets it right

Those familiar with my blog will recall a recent post in which I decried the writing job on American Horror Story: Coven. I’m pleased, on the other hand, to praise the writing for the latest episode of The Walking Dead.

Scribed by Dead creator Robert Kirkman, and based on two of the issues from the Dead comic series, this past Sunday’s episode, “After,” was riveting and deeply moving from the start.

As fans of the series know, the humans who had been occupying the prison are now all on the run following a devastating attack by the Governor in the midseason finale. Prior to Sunday’s episode, I had been growing a bit critical of the Dead because the cast had grown too large and the prison setting seemed, well, confining. But with everyone on the run, without the shelter of the prison walls, the show has taken a turn for the better.

“After” focuses heavily on Rick, his son Carl, and huntress Michonne. Both Carl and Michonne endure deeply emotional crises that require them to make life-changing decisions. In Carl’s case, he starts off as deeply angry at his father for failing to adequately protect the community at the prison. He believes he is capable of surviving on his own and would be better off without having to look after Rick. When he kills three walkers on his own, he declares: “I win.”

But when Rick falls into a coma from his injuries and reawakens, Carl mistakenly believes Rick has become a walker. In facing a decision to kill his own father, Carl finds he can’t do it, revealing that he still needs him in his life, that he’s not ready to take things on by himself. Fortunately, Rick isn’t quite “dead” yet. Rick realizes that Carl has grown up and declares him a man.

Michonne, meanwhile, goes on her own journey of self-discovery. After coming across Rick and Carl’s tracks in the mud, she opts not to pursue them and go her own separate way. Ever the loner, it took a couple of seasons for Michonne to feel at home as part of Rick’s group at the prison. But after losing everything, it seems Michonne isn’t willing to put her faith in anyone else again and can do better on her own. She thinks back to her earlier life in which she had a child, a boyfriend or husband and possibly brother, all of whom she lost to the dead plague.

With her life at a crossroads, Michonne joins a herd of walkers, literally, by disguising her presence among a pair of dead she has enslaved. All of them walk aimlessly toward some unknown destination, mindlessly numb to anything and everything. At this point, she notices a walker who looks very like her, which only serves to make her snap. In a fit of rage, she kills the entire herd of walkers. Finished, she backtracks to where she found Rick and Carl’s footprints and follows them to the house where the pair are hiding out. She, too, has discovered that she doesn’t want to be alone, that she does want to be with others.

If good writing is about the transformation of characters — and all the how-to books, conferences and webinars say it is — then “After” is the perfect sample script/episode that every writer should take to heart. Not only was it an emotionally moving episode for Carl and Michonne, it was a deep examination of their characters and what motivates them.

Next week’s episode, and subsequent episodes, are supposed to focus on some of the other survivors of the prison attack. If they prove to be as emotionally powerful as the past one, this will be a welcome change of pace for a series that had become overloaded with too many stock characters.

I’m hoping we also see more scary scenes like the pile of walkers attack on Carl. This is a show about zombies, after all. With some exceptions, the zombies have become all-too-easy to dispatch and, frankly, somewhat laughable. If worked into scripts like they were in “After,” the scare factor will be back big time.

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