Fans of "The Walking Dead" who aren't fans of surly Carl Grimes may not be pleased with the largely Carl-centric midseason premiere of AMC's hit. Luckily, they get a good bit of Michonne, too.

And girl still knows how to chop off zombie heads.

Showrunner Scott Gimple takes a step back from the explosive violence of the fall finale, in which the Governor attacked the prison, decapitated Herschel and unleased zombie hell on Rick Grimes and co. The new episode is quiet—if not calm—by comparison.

The premiere, appropriately titled "After" (8 p.m. Feb. 9, AMC; 3 stars out of 4), picks up just seconds after the fall finale, with the prison group scattered after fleeing the wall of zombies assaulting their home. Carl (Chandler Riggs), who is on the run with his dad, Rick (Andrew Lincoln), and the katana-swinging Michonne (Danai Gurira) take the spotlight.

I don't want to get too specific about the episode, but it continues the show's tradition of visually stunning storytelling. Despite long stretches with no talking—or maybe because of them—the episode maintains the sense of dread and loneliness this zombie-filled world begets.

That's most present as we follow Michonne walking through the woods with two newly made "pets" to protect her. She's emotionally drained after being forced to take soul-crushing action—again with the rich visuals—before leaving the prison yard. During her journey we finally learn at least part of Michonne's backstory. Flashback scenes reveal devastating new information despite being handled a bit hammily by the writers. Without speaking a line, Gurira conveys all the pain and fury Michonne feels as history haunts her.

Riggs gets a chance to really shine in the episode as well. Carl's still as bratty as ever as he bullies Rick, arguing with his severely injured dad over every decision the elder tries to make. The old man still knows a thing or two about survival, but Carl isn't all that interested in listening. Still, there's enough character growth in his scenes to make you hope the kid won't be as annoying in the future.

Gimple has promised to delve deeper into the characters' psyches and backstories in these final eight episodes. Eventually we'll find out what happened to all the group's members, but just a few characters at a time.

This storytelling change-up makes for intense character moments while keeping the tension of the ever-present zombie threat. The downside is you may have to wait to find out what has happened to your favorites, and if you aren't a fan of the characters spotlighted, you could lose interest faster than a walker eats brains.



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