Since its Wintermission, The Walking Dead had suffered a little from the insularity of Woodbury vs. the Prison. Back and forth, back and forth; it wasn’t as dull as Life on Hershel’s Farm, but there were only so many directions it could go, to and fro, until what will surely be the final showdown between Rick and the Governor.
Tonight’s episode, Clear, opened the field back up. Two words: Road Trip. Rick and Michonne hit the road with Carl on a weapons run. In addition to walkers, they encounter another Human refugee on the road. Good or bad, we don’t know. But just the sight of him, desperately trying to flag them down and then follow them as his faded orange backpack clanged while he ran, was a good moment for the show. There is a World out there. There are other Survivors. It’s a little like the moment in 28 Days Later when the jet flies over. Civilization isn’t completely dead. Not just yet.
But Rick and Michonne ignore this fellow traveler, despite his desperate pleas. It’s an ongoing meditation in Clear. Carl doesn’t understand why they even bring Michonne along on this run, but Rick explains they have common interests, at the moment. “Just for now.” She, of course, can hear this entire conversation, and she knows she is not really one of them. She is still Other. Merle may be a racist pig who’s tried to kill everyone, but he is Daryl’s family. And he is already more “us” than “them.”
But it gets better. They make it to Rick’s old stomping grounds for a weapons raid, only to discover that Fort Apache’s already been taken. Still, as any smalltown southern sheriff would, Rick knew of a few heavily armed shopkeepers, and next they come across a new booby-trapped, graffiti’d, barb-wired fort. They are about to make themselves at home and scavenge supplies, just as a sniper tries to repel them with a warning shot. He counts down from ten for them to go (very generous), and then he opens fire. “Drop what you got and you go.”
Michonne thinks she can take the sniper’s perch. Rick tells Carl to get to the car, but it’s ultimately the Kid who saves their bacon — getting what would’ve been a kill shot on the sniper if he hadn’t been wearing body armor.
They unmask him and… it’s Morgan. For those who don’t recognize him on sight (and are thinking, like Michonne is, ‘wait. Who the hell is Morgan?’) there’s plenty of exposition. It was Morgan who took Rick in in the early days (of Season One, when Frank Darabont was the showrunner), when Rick needed a hand. Back then, Morgan and his son were trying to make it — Morgan’s late wife was wandering the perimeter, zombiefied. They bonded, and then time and the apocalypse took them on their separate paths — each with a son. While Rick’s been off in CrazyTown, Morgan has been amassing quite the survivalist stockpile over in LooneyVille. Rick insists they wait for him to wake up. He can no longer just take what he wants and go.
Michonne and Carl head off on a run for baby ass-kicking sister supplies, while Morgan and Rick catch up on old times. You didn’t write! You didn’t call! They compare Father Knows Best notes. Morgan couldn’t quite bring himself to kill Zombie Wife, and one day as he was raiding a cellar (echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s feel-bad father-son post-apocalyptic drama, The Road), Mom showed back up. Who knew Zombies eat their young? Everybody but Morgan, apparently. Subtext: Carl is still alive partly because he had no such reticence — he shot Lori in the head after she died giving birth to baby Judith (presumably… it did happen off camera).
They get reacquainted. They scuffle. Morgan stabs Rick in the shoulder. (Hope it’s only a flesh wound.) It’s admittedly a little melodramatic. “You know me!” “I don’t know anyone anymore!” Their parallel tracks are spelled out a little too explicitly. (We get it!) But it’s a nice full circle nonetheless. Rick tries to prevail on Morgan to accompany them back to the Prison. But Morgan’s staying put. He won’t lose anyone else. Who’s crazier? The jury’s still out.
This episode was written by next season’s showrunner, Scott Gimple, and it probably isn’t an accident that it marks a bit of a return to Darabont territory — a marked directional shift from Season 3 showrunner, Glenn Mazzara (in a series that changes showrunners like Spinal Tap changes drummers). Gimple wrote last year’s superb Sophia-Emerges-From-Barn episode, so it seems like fans are in good hands.
The episode also works as a stand-alone (much like the recent controversial “One Man’s Trash” episode of Girls, the Sunday night counter-programming to Walking Dead). Confined to essentially four characters, leaving out the rest of the cast and the usual settings, it functions more like a small movie than a TV series.
‘Clear’ was filled with shattering small details and touches, from the charred-zombie woodpile to the name ‘Erin’ scrawled in graffiti, and then echoed on the ID bracelet of a grasping zombie hand. The walkie-talkie reappears from the series pilot, and it’s almost a character itself. The meditations scrawled throughout Morgan’s compound — ‘Away With You,’ ‘No Guilt, You Know That,’ ‘Turn Around and Live,’ ‘Just Listen,’ ‘Everyone Turns,’ — are equal parts Howard Finster (appropriate homage to the series’ Georgia setting) and Wile E. Coyote. The walls might feel a little overtly art-directed, but it works. It’s Carl who first notices that the hieroglyphics and maps include “Rick’s house.” It reads
Taken. Burnt Out.
The walkabout Michonne and Carl go on (in search of a picture of Lori) feels a little contrived and stage-y (to say nothing of implausible, even given the context), but has the intended effect of humanizing our Warrior a little, just in time for the upcoming War with the Governor. It gives her an opportunity to straight talk Carl, “no more bullshit.” The Road Trip episode has, as intended, bonded the three of them (just as an earlier one destroyed Rick and Shane).
Aisha Tyler joked on the after-show, Talking Dead, that this is all Carl has needed all along, a sassy black nanny. “She might be one of us,” Carl tells Rick as they pack up the hatchback. It’s all very Clara’s Heart.
But the darkest humor is reserved for the final scene. The three of them drive back the way they came, and as the landscape streams by, a trail of viscera leads them past what’s left of that poor hitchhiker from the cold open. Possible emotions play across Rick’s face as they journey on. Cut to: the faded orange backpack, abandoned on the bloody asphalt. And then the SUV reverses into the frame; the passenger side door opens, and we see the backpack disappear into the vehicle; Carl has retrieved it. (It’s like the moment in Fargo when William H. Macy drives to the top of the parking garage and sees his father-in-law’s dead body. The next sound is him popping the trunk latch.)
Because there is just never an R.E.I. around when you need one in the Zombie Apocalypse.
How You Can Attend the Walking Dead Season 4 Premiere
Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman will be judging the Walking Dead Fan Contest.“Fans make videos trying to prove that they are the ultimate Walking Dead fan. And then I’m going to be judging those things.” The winner gets to attend the Season 4 premiere party. Winner will be announced after the March 31 Season 3 finale.
Also, AMC now offers a Dead Yourself app.
Walking Dead Season 3 Episode Recaps