Wow. Seriously, wow. “Clear” and the pilot are hands down the two best episodes The Walking Dead has ever aired. This one ep managed to be tense, fraught, emotional, functional, and explanative without feeling overstuffed or glaringly obvious. Like the pilot, this ep is quiet and focused, holding its gaze on only a few characters with only very brief glimpses at how the rest of the world is dealing with the apocalypse. And that’s what makes it work so well. That and it’s gorgeously crafted, from directing to cinematography to sound mixing to scoring (even if the editing left something to be desired).
This was an ep full of quiet moments. The absence of sound was just as crucial as the noise itself, and they made good use of Bear McCreary’s bombastic score and the more natural environmental sounds. Story-wise, not much happens. The goal is simple: they need weapons so they go get some. Everywhere closer has been picked clean so Rick takes Michonne and Carl (who volunteers) back to his hometown to take the guns he hopes might still be locked up in the Sheriff’s Dept. Michonne overhears Rick explain to his son he brought her along more for “keep your friends close and your enemies closer” than because he needs her. In town, ominous graffiti is everywhere (“No Guilt. You Know That,” “Away With You,” “Turn Around And Live,” “Just Listen,” “Not Shitting You”), warning the living away. A masked figure nearly kills them, and Carl ends up shooting the guy. Turns out it’s Morgan, the guy from the pilot who saved Rick’s life. Michonne and Carl go on a walkabout, ostensibly to get a crib for Lil’ Asskicker, but really so Carl can track down the last remaining photo of his family in happier times. They run a risky mission through a zombie-infested bar, but the payoff is Michonne rescuing the photo and rewarding herself with a cat sculpture. Michonne gets in his good graces (she’s smart enough to realize the easiest way to get in good with the group is through the kid), and Carl gets to act like a 12-year-old boy for a few minutes. Rick has a showdown with Morgan and ends up leaving him behind.
If Scott Gimple can transition writing an episode as great as tonight’s (and hires directors as talented as Tricia Brock) into being a showrunner, The Walking Dead is going to be in wonderful hands next season, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. This, like the pilot, is a very particular kind of episode, one that is thematically far better than what usually airs but one that is also far less likely to continuously draw a huge audience. Judging by the angry comments on the more negative reviews (not just on mine), a lot of people aren’t bothered by the lack of depth in the characters or the shoddy storytelling. “Clear” is the antithesis of that. It has more in common, structure-wise, with Mad Men (though still fails to reach such great heights) than it does with the meaningless pulp it usually squeezes out. In a single 45 minute episode we got to know Rick, Michonne, and Carl more than we have in all three seasons. Michonne got more than just lines, she got to speak, emote, and behave like a real person. Carl got to be both a bratty pre-teen and a brave soldier in a way that felt like he was a complex human being rather than a character written to have contradictory personality types to add forced conflict. Rick’s journey was a little heavy on the symbolism, but it was still streets ahead of what the show usually does.
Despite appearances, “Clear” isn’t about coming home but about recognizing your home is gone. It’s like returning to your childhood home you left as a kid and finding the new owners have added a new floor, repainted, and torn down your treehouse. It’s home in name and memories only. Rick and Carl go back to their hometown, but they never really go home. They can’t. Literally, their house was burned down; metaphorically, that way of life, way of living is gone and can never be recovered. This ep tells a very simple surface story but drops enough visual details to allow the viewers to fill in the blanks on their own. The Walking Dead rarely trusts its audience to really think about the show beyond gore, violence, and shouting matches.
Not to sound like a broken record, but there are oodles of parallels between this ep and the pilot. Fortunately, Gimple left most of the comparisons up to the audience rather than shouting them at us like the writers usually do. The sign for Erin mimics the sign and the radio signals Rick left for Morgan. Carl killed his mother, unlike Duane who died because he panicked when confronted with his undead mother. (Carl even killed Morgan without hesitation, though of course he didn’t really. It’s also worth noting this is the first time Carl would’ve killed a living person—good practice for when the Governor rolls up again. Second thought: if Carl ends up killing the Governor to save someone’s life, I’m going to be royally pissed at such an obvious plot contrivance.) Rick gets to see first hand what could’ve happened had he stayed out in that creekbed looking for his dead wife. Morgan has been isolated with his pain and abandonment issues for months, and until last week Rick was headed full steam down a similar path. Hopefully Rick will learn something from this experience.
At first that hitchhiker seems like another random redshirt like the hermit, a character who wanders into frame as a too-convenient plot device. This time, however, he functions as a road not taken. In the pilot, Morgan took in Rick, a complete stranger. Morgan owed nothing to Rick, and bringing him into his home could’ve backfired spectacularly if Rick had turned out to be more like Merle or the Governor. He risked his life and that of his son because helping people is what good people do, and only a coward would leave someone to die. But that’s exactly what Rick does with the hitchhiker. He knows he should help him—and if they crossed paths a season ago he probably would have—and that if he doesn’t he’s condemning that man to certain death, but the nice thing about being weak-willed and cowardly is that you get to shift blame off yourself and onto uncontrollable events. Rick did with the hitchhiker the exact opposite of what Morgan did in the pilot, which makes him not the good man Morgan thinks he is but the weakling he truly is. Morgan is right, cowardice is a method of survival just as strong as power and dominance, and being good only gets you dead that much faster. Three possibilities have emerged for Rick: he can go back to ruling his Ricktatorship and end up like the Governor, keep talking to ghosts on the phone and end up like Morgan, or he can try to be a good man in an evil world like he originally wanted to be. Only time will tell….
- “He’s alive.” “Do we care?” “Yeah.”
- “We’re eating his food now?” “Mat said ‘Welcome.’”
- Lennie James, you have been sorely missed.
- As a rat mommy, it broke my heart what they did to those poor little babies. I want to take them home and give them Yogies and kissies.
- Morgan can’t go back to the prison. That’d mean there are 4 black people on The Walking Dead, and heaven knows that can’t last.
- Rick is teaching Carl a lot of good lessons, but also a lot of bad ones. And Morgan’s “don’t ever be sorry” line is another in a long line of skills necessary to survive in this hellscape, but another terrible burden for a child to carry.
- I still have absolutely no concept of the geography in this show. How close (far?) is the prison from Rick’s hometown? If they’re close then shouldn’t they have thought about that as a possible hideout long before, and shouldn’t he have known about Woodbury’s location? It’s a bit of a stretch to think they’d drive several hours out of their way on such a slim chance.
Alex Brown is an archivist, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.