Last week I mentioned that The Walking Dead is a deeply flawed show. I stand by that — I enjoy the show, but it's despite lack of characterization and ridiculously straightforward dialogue (let me put it this way; I'm hard-pressed to think of a more popular show whose characters audiences merely tolerate, not enjoy). I mention this because last night's "Clear" is just about perfect, easily the best TWD episode since the pilot, and one of the best episodes of television of the entire season.
Let's start with the recap before we talk about what makes the episode so great, though. Rick, Michonne and Carl are of course driving to find more guns and ammo for the upcoming World War Woodbury; Rick has this idea that he'll be able to return to his old police station and the armory there. On the way, they pass a hitchhiker who desperately begs them to stop, although they don't even slow down. It would be a cold, grim moment on its own — but then the car gets stuck in the mud, forcing Rick to improvise a way for the car's tires to get traction. It's a chance for Carl to ask his dad why he brought Michonne — but it's also a chance for the hitchhiker to almost catch up them, screaming frantically for help, as the car again drives away a second time.
When the group arrive in Rick's hometown, Rick is oddly perturbed to find the armory empty — but he remembers a few bars downtown that had guns under the counter. As they walk into town, Rick starts to notice a plethora of spray-painted message on walls, the streets, everywhere — and then, once they reach downtown, they discover a veritable warzone, full of stakes, blades, wires and more, designed specifically to catch wandering zombies.
And that's when someone from the rooftop yells for Rick and the others to put their weapons down. The man is armored and wearing a motorcycle helmet, which should be a giveaway if the "Previously on!" didn't do it for you. Rick fires back while Carl hides and Michonne runs into the building to intercept him. Unfortunately, the man comes down to the street and has Rick cornered until Carl, Devourer of Souls, steps out of the shadows and shoots the man in the chest.
Rick discovers the man is wearing body armor, meaning Carl has not actually killed his first living human being, although he's sure knocked one the hell out. Rick takes off the motorcycle helmet, only to discover it's Morgan — the man who helped Rick out back in the pilot. The guy Rick was trying to reach on the walkie-talkie before things got too messed up to bother with it.
Rick and Michonne carry the unconscious Morgan to his extremely booby-trapped apartment, where they make two discoveries: 1) Morgan has an acquired a massive arsenal of weapons, and 2) Morgan is crazy as hell. Like, he makes Rick at his Ghost Lori-chasing craziest look like the model of sanity. Morgan has been the one scrawling messages all over town, and decorated his entire room with his tidings of doom.
Michonne is quite content to grab the guns and go, but Rick won't abandon the guy who helped him when he first woke from his coma (although he does bind his hands, just in case). Carl announces he's going to the baby store around the corner to grab a crib for Judith, and Michonne announces she's coming to help, if only because cribs are heavy. After a moment's hesitation, Rick lets them go.
Of course, Carl isn't just after a crib — he's after a picture of his family, framed on the wall of a random restaurant. He doesn't want Michonne's help, but Michonne gives it anyways — and, instead of sulking like she normally does, she talks, smiles, jokes and wins both Carl and the audience over, finally.
Unfortunately, the restaurant is full of zombies, more than both of them can take on. Taking a cue from Morgan's obstacle course, the grab some of the caged rats, put them on skateboards and roll them into the building; as the zombies crowd around the little meals on wheels, Carl and Michonne sneak in and grab the picture. Of course, there has to be an unseen zombie and a close call or two, but they get the photo — so that, as Carl points out, Judith will know what her mother looked like.
Meanwhile, Morgan has woken up, grabbed a knife he hid under his bed, and precedes to free himself and try to kill the hell out of Rick. He succeeds in stabbing Rick in the shoulder before Rick manage to grab his gun — at which point Morgan simply begs, sobbing, for Rick to kill him.
As it turns out, Morgan is much, much crazier than Rick has anticipated. He doesn't remember Rick at all, and is pretty sure Rick is just someone wearing a dead man's face. Rick uses the walkie-talkie Morgan still has to break through to him, which works… until Morgan starts screaming in agony how he never heard Rick on it. Rick explains he and his people kept getting pushed back, and it's true, but it hardly matters.
Morgan eventually reveals what happened to him. As we saw way back in the pilot, Morgan couldn't bring himself to shoot his zombie-fied wife; and one day when he and his son Duane were on a supply run of their own, his wife ate his son, because he was unable to shoot her, too.
Now, the loss and the guilt has cracked Morgan, and understandably so. He tells Rick that he and his son will die either by zombies or bullets, and it's actually kind of refreshing to see someone completely devastated by the harsh reality of the situation. It's infinitely sadder, scarier and more effective than a dozen character deaths, because Morgan is right.
Rick tries to get Morgan to come with him back to the prison, but Morgan very astutely notes that Rick is taking a shit-ton of guns from him, and he's obviously taking them for a reason. But more importantly, Morgan is too broken. Rick desperately wants to believe he can help — probably more for his own sake — but Morgan wants no part of it, choosing his solitude and his insanity instead. He doesn't want to heal, he doesn't want to get over what he's lost. He only wants to die, but is too weak to even do that. And so Rick, Michonne and Carl leave, armed and restocked… only to pass by the hitchhiker's backpack and sleeping bag, next to a long smear of blood. And then the car backs slowly up... to grab the backpack, and then drive soff again.
If you just read this recap, I imagine you'd be hard-pressed to know what makes "Clear" so great, and honestly, the plot is only a tiny part of it. First of all, the episode benefits enormously from ignoring the Governor, Woodbury and everyone else at the prison, because too often TWD feels the need to show us these other characters even when there's nothing for them to do. "Clear" is lean, but it never flags.
Second of all, "Clear" is telling a story that's not just another chapter of the overarching Woodbury/Prison plot. It feels like its been forever since TWD did a stand-alone episode, and to its detriment — "Clear" feels like something has actually happened, a story has been told, and not just another endless chapter in the Woodbury/Prison war.
Third and most importantly, "Clear" gives us a glimpse of these three characters as actual people, and not just things that run from zombies. Rick is forced to confront one of his failures and recognize he can't fix it. More importantly, he comes face-to-face with a mirror of his own madness, and reaches some kind of understanding. Michonne gets to be likeable, something I've desperately wanted since she first appeared on the show. And Carl? Carl gets to stop being the Tiny Saint of Zombie Annihilation and be… human.
I've bitched a lot about how Rick doesn't seem much better than the Governor, but after "Clear" I care about Rick again, for possibly the first time this season. Michonne has been genuinely unlikable so far, and after "Clear" she might be my favorite character. And Carl, I stopped thinking what an awesome little psychopath he and started being worried about how insanely traumatic his life has been.
It sounds ridiculous to say that one episode could so radically change my opinion of The Walking Dead in general or these characters in specific, but "Clear" genuinely is that great. It's the kind of great that will make other episodes of TWD better, because we will be more invested in these three from this point forward. I realize I've been entertained by TWD in season 3, but I haven't truly cared. Now I care… and now, for the first time in a long time, I'm genuinely scared for the characters. And that, my friends, is how The Walking Dead should be.
Incidentally, "Clear" was written by Scott Gimple… who is replacing Glen Mazzarra as TWD's new showrunner. If this episode is any indication, then the best is definitely yet to come. Assuming he doesn't get fired like everbody else.
• I'm pretty sure The AV Club's Zack Handlen said this first, but The Walking Dead does silence better than pretty much any show other than Mad Men.
• That said, tonight's dialogue was superb, especially Michonne's. Which is extra cool because I'm pretty sure she barely talked more than T-Dog before. Also, it was funny, something I don't recall saying about TWD ever before.
• I also believe this is the first time actress Danai Gurira has ever been allowed to let Michonne smile.
• The "Michonne helps out and finally becomes part of the group" development was obvious the minute Rick picked her to tag along last week, but it was incredibly welcome all the same. I know comics fans love Michonne, and with good reason, but she's been a disaster on the show.
• I am completely confused as to how Rick's hometown is close enough to the prison to make this supply run plausible. On the other hand, the episode was so good I don't give a shit.
• One of the reason's this episode was so great was the cinematography. There were some great shots in the episode, especially with the hitchhiker, being kept deliberately in distance as Rick tries to ignore his existence.
• Actually, the whole hitchhiker thing is amazing. Even after all the gore and character deaths, it's one of the most brutal moments in the entire series. The fact that he begged them twice is traumatic enough; the way Rick and crew slowly reverse to big up his sleeping bag and supplies? Devastating. (Also, another fantastic shot.)
• I've been super annoyed by Rick's craziness these past few episodes, but that exchange with him and Michonne at the end made it all worth it.
• I apologize if you were expecting funny quips in the Musings (or expecting me to try to be funny) but all I really want to talk about is how great this episode was. Sorry!