A review of "The Walking Dead" mid-season premiere coming up just as soon as I eat all the pudding...

After a promising start, the fall run turned into a mess with the return of the Governor and the utterly nonsensical confrontation at the prison that followed. The only upside of the situation is that it forced the characters out of the prison, a setting that was getting stale, and has scattered them to the five winds, some in unlikely combinations.

"After," though, primarily focused on the central duo of Rick and Carl, with Michonne (who has already traveled with those two before, in last season's "Clear") the only regular character to appear. But it's a different Rick/Carl dynamic, both because Rick is so badly injured that he's first useless, then unconscious, and because Carl, believing that his sister is dead(*) following the death of his mother and so many other people in his father's care, has decided that he's tired of doing what his old man says and is tough enough to do things on his own.

(*) Having read your arguments and thought on it in the days after the previous episode aired, I'll now allow for the possibility that Judith isn't dead and the infant carrier got bloody in another way. But if that's what happens, that only makes the show trying to trade off the horror of her apparent death even lamer (and a repeat of the period from season 3 where everybody thought Carol was dead for five minutes).

With Rick out of action, and with the suburban development they find relatively zombie-free, Carl gets to simultaneously act like a kid and a grown-up, taking charge of their protection and supplies even as he hangs out in the room of a boy he could have been if the world hadn't gone all to hell. He gets too cocky a few times, but ultimately survives and even gets to enjoy a lot of pudding.(**) In the end, the kid wins out: for Carl's stated contempt for Rick, when the time comes for him to put a bullet in the daddy he thinks has turned into a walker, Carl can't bring himself to do it.

(**) Albeit not $240 worth of pudding.

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.

More intriguing was the Michonne subplot, which finally gives us concrete answers — even in the context of dreams with dream logic — about who and what she was before the apocalypse. She had a husband lover, and a baby, was well-to-do and cultured, and not at all the monosyllabic samurai warrior we've come to know. Of course, her having lost so much helps explain why she's this closed off to the world, and why she might briefly consider walking with zombies rather than making connections with more people who will die like Hershel.

The episode's most promising moment comes at the end, as the two stories converge with Rick telling Carl, "It's for you." Not only is it a rare funny moment on what's usually a deadly serious show, but it's also a ray of hope in a show that is very very hopeless. The unrelenting misery is what eventually led me to give up on the comic book, and with Robert Kirkman involved, I suspect that may be the ultimate tone of the show, but even brief pockets of optimism — especially after a catastrophe like the prison's destruction — are very welcome.

Speaking of the comics, let me again remind you how this blog's No Spoiler rule applies to this show:

1. No talking about the previews for the next episode.

2. No talking about anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources — and, yes, that includes anything Gimple and Kirkman have said in interviews.

3. No talking about anything that's happened in the comic that hasn't happened in the TV show yet. (Or anything that's been revealed, like character backstory and motivation.) As with "Game of Thrones," the goal is to treat "The Walking Dead" TV show as exactly that, and not as an excuse for endless comparisons with the comics. If you want to talk about the comics, feel free to start up a discussion thread on our message boards.

With that in mind, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com