The first thing we see is a sign, scrawled letters on pink poster-board: “ERIN WE TRIED FOR STONE MOUNTAIN.” Then a car drives past, and because our heroes are in the car, that’s who the camera follows, but the sign stays with us. “Clear” is full of language, words spray-painted across storefronts, chalked in manic desperation on walls, and that sign tells right away to pay attention. It tells a story, or at least starts one. Over the course of this season, The Walking Dead has tried from time to time to fill in the margins with hints and glimpses of other survivors, people not affiliated with Rick or the Governor who are struggling to stay together long enough to get somewhere safe. Here is more evidence of a larger world, but the thought put into it, the fact that whomever wrote that sign had plans, makes it more than a visual detail. It creates a story, and then lets us try and fill in most of the pieces on our own. There’s tension in that sign. Did anyone ever read it? A few minutes later, we get the answer. The car, with Rick, Michonne, and Carl inside, gets stuck on the side of the road. Walkers attack, and you see, briefly, that one of them has a bracelet that reads ERIN on the beads. So, whether she saw it or not, she’s dead now. But the story still lingers. Is someone missing her somewhere? What happened to her group? And how does that hitchhiker fit into all of this?
“Clear,” the best episode of the third season so far, and possibly the best episode since the pilot, is full of stories we have to put together ourselves. Plot-wise, it’s relatively sparse, sticking to just one group of characters; Rick and the others are on a gun hunt, and by the end of the episode, they have the guns they need, plus a few other things. Only one person dies, and he doesn’t even get a name. There are no cut aways to Woodbury, no glimpses of how Merle is trying to integrate his redneck ass into the main group, no pained looks from Andrea about how morally conflicted she is. The hour has focus, and focus is a wonderful, wonderful thing, especially on a TV show like this one which has struggled so long to build its characters up. Sticking exclusively to four characters gives writer Scott Gimple a chance to delineate relationships, humanizing figures who so often seem to exist solely to suffer for our pleasure. Rick gets to be cold and deeply sympathetic. Carl gets to be eerily detached and boyishly charming. Michonne gets to smile, and be a badass, and make a good joke.
And Morgan—you remember Morgan, right? Lennie James from the pilot, the guy with the son named Duane, and the dead zombie wife he couldn’t bring himself to kill. Well, he’s back. Rick takes Michonne and Carl to the sheriff’s office where he used to work before the world ended, and finds the gun stash has already been raided. The town is covered with ominous graffiti, and before too long, the trio finds a part of main street has been covered in cages, spears, parked cars, and skateboards. It looks random until they closer, and see that someone has created a zombie killing field. Apparently operating on the assumption that the parties responsible have fled or died, Rick and the others push forward; then somebody in a bulletproof vest and motorcycle helmet fires a warning shot and tells them to leave town. It’s Morgan, and he doesn’t recognize Rick; in the end, Carl has to shoot him in the chest to get him to back down. (Worth noting that the bullet proof vest isn’t obvious until after Carl pulls the trigger.) Rick insists on carrying the unconscious Morgan inside, which turns out to be more dangerous than it looks—the building is booby trapped, in including a knife pit under the welcome mat, and a hanging ax. (In front of the ax, a sheet that reads: “NOT SHITTING YOU.” On the ax handle: “TOLD YOU.”)
Last time we saw Morgan, he was frightened and tense but undeniably humane, rescuing Rick despite his doubts, introducing him to his son, and parting with our hero on good terms; they even promised to keep in touch via walkie-talkie. Now it looks like he’s lost his mind, and Rick becomes determined to save him, in that half-nuts way he takes on some tasks that makes it obvious he’s probably going to fail pretty hard. Carl decides he wants to go get a baby crib for Judith, and Michonne goes with him, despite Carl’s protests; this splits the rest of the episode into two plots, one following Carl and Michonne as they wander around town, having adventures, the other staying with Rick as he tries to talk some sense into Morgan, and convince him to come back with them to the prison. Despite the split, the sense of focus remains. In a sense, the entire episode is a kind of outlier, a pause in the middle of an otherwise strongly serialized narrative to give us a chance to connect with a few of the characters and give us something more to chew on. So to speak.
What’s impressive about all this is that, for the most part, Gimple’s script isn’t trying to re-invent the wheel. Everything in the episode follows pretty logically from everything else; there are no stunning twists (even the reveal about Duane’s death was somehwat foreshadowed in “Days Gone Bye”), and the motivations for behavior are straightforward, with only Rick’s desperation digging really deep into his past. But it still feels revelatory, because we’re getting to see these few people as individuals who aren’t just at the mercy of whatever desperate straits they find themselves in. This is most obvious with Carl and Michonne. Early in the hour, Carl asks his dad straight out why Michonne came along with them for the gun run. Carl doesn’t trust her, he doesn’t like her, and he doesn’t get why his dad wants her around at all. Rick’s explanation (he didn’t want to leave her at the prison with Merle around) isn’t exactly an endorsement. None of this is hugely new—Michonne has had a hard time fitting in with the group, with any group, for her whole time on the show. But having Carl bring the bad feelings out in the open is important. In other episodes, this would just be filler, characters complaining about each other to kill time before, well, Kill Time. Here, it’s establishing a problem that needs to be resolved.
The key difference being, Michonne hears the entire conversation. It’s magnificently dickish, really; Rick and Carl, kneeling outside the car not five feet from where Michonne is sitting, complaining about how awful she is, apparently unaware that car’s aren’t soundproof. (Which isn’t to say that either of them realize that she’s listening in. More that they don’t even consider it, like she’s some kind of alien who probably doesn’t even speak English.) The moment is excellent, encouraging us to sympathize with the potential outcast, as well as providing her with a definite, and important, objective: to win these assholes over. Michonne has been ill-served by the show for a while now. Her feud with the Governor, despite all the good reasons she had to hate him, made her look nearly as unbalanced as he was a times, and the lack of dialogue makes her hard to read, despite Danai Gurira’s best efforts. I’m not sure if “Clear” is the first time she’s been allowed to loosen up, but it feels like a huge step forward, with only some minor changes. Instead of a grim killing machine, she comes across aspragmatic, determined, and smart, at times funny and more than a little sad. Before, she was a concept. Now, she seems like a person.
Her adventures with Carl show how much that shift matters. This isn’t rocket science: Carl tells his dad he wants to get a crib, Michonne, realizing she has to win the kid over somehow, tags along. He tries to lose her, and man, she gets mad when he does, because it was a stupid move. Carl’s shift into uber-competent robot boy has helped to make him more tolerable, but it’s only a temporary solution. He’s still a kid, and the ways “Clear” finds to remind us of that without turning him into a moron help to make him more real, and more vulnerable. Like the fact that he wants to risk his life to get the last picture of his mother out of the King County Cafe. Yes, this wasn’t the most practical allocation of resources. It’s just a photograph, and I could see mocking the kid for risking his and Michonne’s life to get it. But it works, because it makes sense. There are a few themes running through the episode, and one of the big ones, one of the ones that’s always present on the show, is why you struggle to stay alive in the face of overwhelming horror. It comes up in Rick’s conversation with Morgan as well, but what it boils down to is, the only way to stay whole, to stay sane, is to keep risking horrible death. If you give up and isolate yourself, try and close off from the world and kill anything that comes close, you’ll be safer, but you’ll be in Hell. Carl has been closing off a lot lately, and his determination to get this image of his mom (for Judith’s sake, he says, but also for his own) show that he’s trying to hold on. Plus, his clever use of the tools at hand (so that’s what those skateboards were for) makes the mission a little less foolhardy; and when disaster strikes, Michonne gets a chance to prove her worth yet again. Plus, the gag about at that rainbow colored cat was delightful.
Meanwhile, Rick is trying to find some reason to hope, and not having much luck. It turns out Morgan’s initial craziness is just the effect of having been on his own in hostile territory for so long; the two men fight when Morgan regains consciousness, and Rick gets a knife in the shoulder, but the situation eventually calms down. Which isn’t to say Morgan is a happy man. He’s responsible for the traps and the graffiti; he’s the one who raided the sheriff’s office and stole all the guns. And now he’s begging Rick to kill him. Something he says, amidst the accusations and the despair and the self-loathing, stands out. He tells Rick that the good people, like Rick, and the bad people will always die; it’s the weak ones, like himself, who live. Setting aside for the moment whether or not Rick is a good man anymore (his complete apathy towards that hitchhiker at the start of the episode isn’t very friendly), Morgan’s assessment is a strange one that nonetheless fits what we’ve seen so far. Sure, Rick isn’t dead yet. Nor is the Governor, nor a fair number of other people. But what sets apart the show’s heroes and villains is their determination to do something more than just survive. Rick doesn’t just want to live. He wants, needs Carl to live, and the others, and more, he decides the prison is a good place for them to stay, even when that place is threatened by outsiders; even when the easiest thing to do would be to move. He wants to carve a piece out of the world for himself and his own, just as badly as the Governor does, and that’s the motivation of the strong, the doers, the leaders. They are people who take risks, and people who take risks in this brave new world are people who die. Everybody dies eventually, of course. But the ones who stick their neck out and try and impose their will on the world tend to die sooner, and with more screaming.
But people like Morgan, at least in Morgan’s own estimation, can’t seem to expire. Admittedly, he’s got himself well-insulated, and all those traps and guns and warnings do not look like the work of a man who yearns for death. Yet it makes a certain kind of sense. Morgan’s crime is that he couldn’t let go of the past; he couldn’t shoot his dead wife, and so his dead wife eventually killed his son. So now he has nothing to live for, but he doesn’t have the strength of will left to take his own life. Which leaves him trapped. He can’t join up with Rick’s grip, no matter how much Rick wants him to, because that would mean connecting with people again, becoming vulnerable, risking himself and having to suffer when his new friends die. And he can’t commit suicide, because that would require a different kind of courage. So he’s stuck building his traps, covering the walls with his writing, sending messages to strangers he’ll never see. (Those warnings aren’t for the zombies.) The conflict with the Governor has represented one kind of potential outcome for Rick—someone who denies the real horrors of the present, who seeks to create a perfect heaven by destroying anyone who he thinks might be a threat. Here’s another: a man who couldn’t make the hard choices, and is stuck in a place where he has no choice left at all but to run down the same narrow path until something finally does him the courtesy of eating his face.
Essentially, this has been the major conflict of the show from the beginning: how do you survive in a world where basic human decency is the same as a death wish? And “Clear” doesn’t offer any answers. It does, however, find a way to rephrase the question. In the end, Rick, Carl, and Michonne leave with their guns. Carl, having got the photograph he was looking for, is now on Team Michonne; just as important, he seems more like a kid again, even apologizing to Morgan for shooting him. Then Morgan tells him, “Hey son, don’t ever be sorry,” and you can hear the ghost of Duane behind the words. Back at the car, Rick stares off at something, and Michonne tells him she knows he sees things, and it’s okay. “I used to talk to my dead boyfriend. It happens.” “You wanna drive,” he asks. “Yeah.” “Good. ‘cause I see things.” And it’s such a perfect moment, because you feel like, okay, these folks are probably screwed, but at least it’s still possible for them to be friends. At least they can still be kind and funny with each other. At least there’s some hope that you can survive and not lose what made life worth living.
At the start of the episode, they drove past a hitchhiker screaming for help. They ignored him twice. On the drive home, they pass the hitchhiker’s mangled corpse on the side of the road. They go by, then stop and back up to pick up his pack. Because of supplies. It’s possible to still be human. But there are limits.
- I wonder how long that car ride was? I had no idea the prison was that close to Rick and Carl’s home. (Then again, I don’t really follow the geography of the show that well.)
- Gurira gets some great moments; I especially liked her line reading of, “No, Rick, I don’t have a problem.” (Also funny: “We’re eating his food now?” “The mat sad ‘Welcome.’”)
- I love the cut from the start of the zombie attack to the aftermath; we’ve seen people fighting off groups of walkers so many times it’s a nice change of pace, almost a joke, to see it taken as a matter of course. Besides, this particular story isn’t really about zombie killing.
- News that Glen Mazzara was out as showrunner was disappointing, given how far the third season has come under (presumably) his leadership. But Gimple is replacing him, so maybe it will all work out, at least until Gimple gets fired somewhere in the middle of season 4.
- Great to see Lennie James again. It’s too bad they’re not making him recurring, but there’s a power to having him out there on his own. I wonder if we’ll see him again.
- Rick, trying to win over Morgan: “We found a prison. The fences keep ‘em out.” “Is that where your wife died?”
- “You will be torn apart by teeth or bullets.” Worst fortune cookie ever.