It hadn’t happened yet, but I could feel it coming. Same as it had with TRUE BLOOD and a few other shows — they burned up too quick and shook me off as I lost interest and they lost quality.
Maybe it’s a consequence of my fickle nature or some other deficiency in me, but I can’t abide seeing a once-loved thing hopelessly ensnared in a death spiral, and that’s what it was starting to feel like when I watched THE WALKING DEAD.
Last night, though, I learned a lesson: don’t count this show out.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
“Clear”, the 12th episode of the show’s third season began with Michonne, Rick, and Carl on the road, driving past a desperate hiker who cried out for them to stop.
The opening scene seemed to ever-so-slightly echo the overall feel of “18 Miles Out” — last season’s 10th episode which was co-written by Scott Gimple, who wrote this week’s episode, and who will take over as showrunner next season — with the hiker resembling that lone walker in the field that Shane locked onto in the beginning and at the end while Wye Oak played hauntingly in the background.
Like that episode, this was another change-of-pace outing. An off-speed pitch meant to cool things down, re-triangulate Rick, and take him away from those “things” that he keeps seeing at the prison.
You Can’t Go Home Again
Off the road, Michonne, Rick, and Carl go back to the Grimes’ hometown and to Rick’s old police station in search of weapons for the coming war with the Governor and Woodbury. Unsurprisingly, it’s empty and our trio is left to wander into town. A town not seen since the pilot episode.
To me, the pilot is the high watermark for this show, and one of the top 10 episodes of television that I have seen in the past few years. Sadly, it was done in a different time by a different creative all-father, the irreplaceable Frank Darabont, whose absence is still felt, especially as the show has embraced action above story and gore above tension.
With that said, “Clear” quite possibly stands out as the second best episode of THE WALKING DEAD’s entire run, due largely to the fact that there is a restored emphasis on both story and tension, which allows this episode to feel like the ying to the pilot episode’s yang.
See, this isn’t the same town that Rick left behind. It belongs to the dead and the broken now, and the center of town is now a crude Rube Goldberg inspired set of traps built and maintained by a rooftop gunman who threatens and then fires upon Michonne, Rick, and Carl before Carl shoots him right in the body armor.
The big reveal of who the gunman is is certainly anti-climactic. It’s good to see Morgan again, due in large part to the unbelievable acting prowess of Lennie James, but this is a different man, a man driven mad, further toward that end than Rick has ventured thus far.
Morgan is filled with anger and disbelief. He yells that he doesn’t know anyone and that Rick is wearing a dead man’s face. He says that Rick can’t get clear and then he stabs him before begging for death while surrounded by his pained wall scribblings.
Finally, Rick shows Morgan the walkie talkie to jog his memory, prompting Morgan to remember and then to shout at Rick about broken promises while seething with jealousy over the relative fortune that Rick has experienced in a world that has seemingly been sapped of all such possibilities.
They could have left us to ponder what happened to Duane — Morgan’s young son who he lost along the way. His death alone would have justified Morgan’s disintegration, but they went deeper. They mined the the abyss.
Sure, they could have more closely echoed the comics (but no they actually couldn’t, because the proximity to the Governor’s daughter made that an impossibility), but instead, Gimple completed a circle started with Darabont’s pen, recalling Morgan’s reluctance when he had his un-dead wife in the crosshairs of that rifle that Rick gave him.
Duane’s death plagues Morgan because of his inability to kill his wife when he had the chance. It plagues him because she came back for them and because — in a brilliant twist — Duane was unable to do what Carl did. He was unable to kill his mother like Morgan was unable to kill his wife before everything went tragic and red, no doubt because of the way that Morgan had sheltered Duane, a luxury that Rick and Lori never had.
As if all of this didn’t twist our guts into a bow, Morgan then asked Rick about his son before telling him that he would die too.
“The good people die. The bad people die too. But, the weak people, the people like me, we have inherited the Earth.” says Morgan, before refusing to join Rick at the prison because Morgan has no want to see the people that he cares about getting torn apart again.
“I have to clear” says Morgan, accepting his stint in purgatory and his need to clear a conscience that is likely stained permanently.
Pulled out of the Fire
While Morgan and Rick are holed up in Morgan’s heavily fortified apartment, Michonne and Carl venture out into the town to get a crib for Judith. Carl has something else in mind though, and he pushes Michonne to let him get a family picture off the wall of a local cafe.
We’re getting used to seeing Carl’s expedited maturity and his eager ascent toward becoming a contributing member of the group, but in this moment of childlike innocence that occurs moments after Carl shoots a man who was coming at his father, we are reminded of his youth and naivety. We also have rare photographic evidence of Carl staying put (below).
We can understand his motives, even though they are foolish in that moment: Carl wants Judith to know Lori, to know what she looked like and what they were before the world fractured and then broke. The odds of the situation and the circumstances of that pursuit mean so little to Carl because in that moment, he is just a kid who wants something.
I have to also add that the cafe was as creepy and well done as the church in season 2. The walkers were truly frightening and this show hasn’t been frightening lately, just obvious, relying more on volume than atmosphere.
Danai Gurira shines on her own in this episode, but her interactions with Chandler Riggs are the best part. For what feels like the first time, we are getting a chance to see a bit of Michonne’s humanity and even a sense of humor. More than that though, we see the potential for her to be Rick’s able lieutenant and confidant thanks to Carl’s endorsement of her and also her brief moment with Rick where she relates to his penchant for seeing “things”.
Away With You
The end is visual electricity. Michonne, Rick, and Carl drive away slowly as Morgan continues his work, carrying out a sentence that he has levied upon himself. “Away With You” screams the words written on a wall next to him. “He’s okay” says Rick, lying to himself and Michonne.
The truest moment of brilliance (aside from Andrew Lincoln and Lennie James’ acting), though, comes a moment later as they drive back past the wreckage on the highway and the camera lingers on a shot of a still corpse in a car before they come across the shredded remains of the hiker. He isn’t still out there roaming like the walker in “18 Miles Out”, he is another one lost, and yet they stop to pick up his baggage — a fantastic metaphor for the overall impact of this episode on Rick, because he doubtlessly walks with Morgan’s baggage on his shoulders now, despite Morgan’s warning to Carl to “never be sorry”.
For the first time in I don’t know how long, I felt something more than disappointment or hollow adrenalin while watching THE WALKING DEAD.
Endless praise goes out to Scott Gimple and director Tricia Brock (in her first stab at directing an episode of THE WALKING DEAD) and the effects staff for putting together the impossibly detailed town center, the creepy cafe, Morgan’s haunting graffiti, and as usual, a frightening group of zombies.
As for Morgan, I do not think we will ever see him again, and despite my admiration for Lennie James, I am okay with that. In my view, Morgan’s longer-lasting return in the comic book mostly failed to make much of an impact after that initial moment of return. Also, this was perfectly timed and there is a slight symmetry between the book and the show with regard to the toll taken on Rick in the days before he re-finds Morgan.
Will Rick be changed by the events of this episode? I honestly don’t know. Rick often gets visited by the epiphany fairy, only to brush off the effects soon after. This was a big problem in season 2, and hopefully not one that rears it’s ugly head again over the course of these next few episodes.
Let’s face it: if we see Ghost T-Dog two episodes from now, the impact of this episode will be lost. Really, the same could be said if Morgan re-appears. His present state needs to stand as a warning to Rick, a Dickensian horror story that hints at what Rick’s future can be if he keeps favoring isolation.
“You have to come back from this.” Rick says to Morgan, more for himself than for Morgan, because he needs to believe that there is always a way back to normal, even though the evidence suggests that there is not.
For now though, “Clear” stands out as a sterling accomplishment, a piece to this season’s overall puzzle and a reminder of how good this show can be when all pistons fire and the creators stay true to their initial ambitions.