There is a poetic, peaceful — if still reliably macabre — moment in The Walking Dead's midseason premiere on Sunday that pays homage to no less than Mark Twain, our finest national chronicler of snot-nosed troublemakers coming of age.
A rare flash of wistful beauty in the AMC show's gore-heavy history, the scene involves Carl, the sheriff's kid, legs dangling off a leafy suburban rooftop, eating chocolate pudding and daydreaming, all by himself. Inured to the daily threats lurking around him, this excitable boy, who just lost another home, quite possibly a baby sister too, is reflecting on what it must be like to be a young, normal American — as a snarling zombie reaches through a window a few feet away.
After all the clatter and kaboom of the midseason finale in December — the Governor (bad dude) and Hershel (saintly dude) both killed, the prison sanctuary demolished, the entire show re-set — it's jarring but fulfilling to have Season 4's second half commence with a relatively contemplative hour. The show, so uneven in this season's first half, needed a fresh start, and it's a doozy, written with a measured grace by Robert Kirkman, who created the graphic-novel source material. The Walking Dead once again proves that the No. 1 show on cable excels when it paints its apocalyptic tale in minimalist strokes.
Titled "After," the episode follows three — just three — characters from its widespread ensemble, a surefire way to get fans grumbling, especially those who adore a certain crossbow-toting hunk. Perhaps to appease viewers who prefer more overt storytelling, a pre-credits preface features two dead (or are they?) old favorites, a bit of fanboy gamesmanship that will have diehards oohing and hashtagging.
That said, people who kvetch about this one should dump the show now. To reveal the episode's subtle twists would be cruel and potentially hazardous to my health. But I will allow — NOW'S YOUR CHANCE TO FLEE — that the other plotline follows Michonne (Danai Gurira), the katana-wielding heroine who has splintered off from the group and taken to wandering (and hallucinating) among a horde of monsters. Her arc presents a grimmer question: At this point of despair, is it easier to be living or undead? Her denouement, complete with an unsettling flashback, also packs a wallop.
Still, the hour belongs to 14-year-old actor Chandler Riggs, who now wears his character's wide-brimmed lawmaker hat not with a novelty largeness but a tighter, steelier fit. His dirty-faced Carl is furious at dad Rick, a fallen leader who still believes peace and order are possible in a world gone mad — and whose very beliefs have left him clinging to life after a near-fatal beatdown by the Governor.
The son has lost faith in the father, but is it lost for good? Therein lies the episode's oomph. Carl discovers it's liberating playing Huck Finn with a big bad gun and no lousy grown-ups around. In the end, however, even the wildest of young zombie slayers realizes it feels that much better finding your way home again.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter and Instagram.