The pilot for The Walking Dead, Days Gone Bye, has been, and continues to be, my favorite episode of the series. I was never able to put my finger on the exact reason for that being the case… until watching this week’s amazing episode, Clear… focus.
In the pilot, we followed Rick as he discovered a whole new world after waking from a coma and began searching for his family. Along the way he met with Morgan Jones (Lennie James) and his son Duane, who then explained what was going on with all the walking corpses as well as meeting a nice horse that would eventually become zombie chow. Although we get a quick glimpse of the Atlanta campers (a clumsy reveal in my opinion… would have been better to not know his family was alive yet) and eventually hear Glenn’s voice in the tank, the episode is essentially an hour and a half of Rick.
Clear is similar… we go along with Rick, Carl, and Michonne on a gun run into Rick’s old home town (not sure what it is in the show… in the comic it’s Cynthiana, Kentucky… but I think this is still Georgia) and pay another visit to the police station where he and Morgan gathered some weapons in the aforementioned pilot. We never see the prison… we never see Woodbury… we just follow this trio into, and out of, this small town… and this episode, for me at least, may be the best since the pilot.
One of the main themes of the series, and certainly of this season, is the question of how does someone maintain their humanity in the face of horribly apocalyptic situations. Clear makes the case that it is other people, community and family, that make the difference in whether or not you can keep those aspects of yourself in tact. The episode begins with our “heroes”; Rick, Michonne, and Carl, driving by a man with a backpack who is pleading with them to stop. They barely even register his presence and continue driving… not what I would consider very humane. The final scene of the episode finds that hitchhiker mutilated beyond recognition on the side of the road… they drive by, but eventually stop in order to pick up his pack. An incredibly powerful way to bookend an episode that is nothing but the examination of lost humanity.
After a very casual dispatching of some zombies after their car getting stuck in some mud, Rick and Carl have a quiet conversation about Michonne’s role on this trip… and ultimately as part of their group. Rick explains to Carl that he brought her along so she wouldn’t be alone with Merle in the prison, and also because they have a shared goal… getting rid of The Governor. The two Grimes’ don’t seem to realize, or don’t really care, that Michonne is sitting in the car about three feet from them and can hear everything they are saying. She is but a cog in his survival machine… no more, no less.
I already realized this episode was special following the hitchhiker… but it is Rick and Michonne’s exchange here, when he asks her if she has a problem and she responds that, no, she does not have a problem, that I knew her role was about to expand.
When they arrive at the police station, everything has been picked over… so Rick decides to go into town to search for some weapons that he knows to be hidden behind counters and bars. Michonne and Rick briefly debate the need to go after these guns… but the Ricktatorship is still in play… so they go.
In town, things have gotten weird. The main street has been fortified with sharpened sticks, trip wires, all sorts of booby traps, and crazy ass color coded spray painted arrows and graffiti warnings and messages together with ladders and ropes strewn all over the place. It looks like the mind of a crazed person writ large… and when someone takes a shot at a walker from a rooftop and demands that Rick and company drop their guns… we know that yes indeed, a crazed person is responsible for this madness.
After a bit of a firefight, Carl eventually steps in and shoots the sniper. To Rick’s shock, that man is Morgan… his friend from the pilot. He was wearing a bullet proof vest, so he wasn’t seriously injured, just knocked out… so Rick convinces Michonne to help Morgan back into his fortress/home and Rick decides he needs to stay with him until he wakes up. Carl wants to get a crib for Judith and Michonne is tasked with watching over him.
Now… what they find in Morgan’s home is disturbing… words, maps, names of people turned, and the word clear written on every surface… booby traps leading to the top of the stairs beginning with a number of sharp objects in a hole under a welcome mat (Michonne gets one of the best lines of the episode after Rick comments on her eating Morgan’s food with the line, “The mat said, ‘welcome'”), followed by walking up some stairs where on some plastic sheeting is written “I’m not shitting you”, a trip wire, and a very bloody ax on the other side of the sheeting with the words “I told you so” written on it. Morgan is alone, and Morgan has gone crazy… and written on the wall are the words, “Duane turned”… his son is dead. There are many other words scrawled in typical crazy-guy script… but it is the fact that Duane is gone that has the most impact.
At this point, the episode deviates from it’s initial focus and splits the story into two… one with Rick and Morgan… the other with Carl and Michonne. Both arcs are incredibly well paced, amazingly well acted, and some of the best TV that I’ve seen in a while… and they do much to inform where each of these characters are going as the series progresses.
When Carl bypasses the baby store, Michonne calls him out on it… he argues with her that he has to do something for Judith and tries to ditch her. This is Michonne we are talking about… she doesn’t give up on him. Longish story short… he wants to get into this cafe, she helps him get inside safely, he wants a photo of himself and his parents… the last picture of Lori, and the only one Judith would ever see. What is also so amazing about this scene is that it is evident that this is not just for Judith, but for Carl as well. As hard as Carl has become, he is still a child… and his behavior and actions in this episode do wonders towards reminding us of that fact.
Michonne manages to kill a few of the zombies in the cafe after their original plan falters and the photo is left behind. Like some sort of ninja, Michonne manages to get inside the cafe, now writhing with the undead, and back in a matter of seconds with both the photo and an ugly rainbow cat sculpture… to which she smiles to Carl (yes, Michonne smiled) and says that it was too gorgeous for her to pass it up.
There is so much to this scene… and it was all perfect. We get a better understanding of Carl… a bad-ass to be sure, but still a child, and still needing help from someone occasionally… regardless of how independent he feels. Michonne… finally getting some lines… and finally beginning to see the loyalty and helpfulness that we got hints of early on in this season when we saw her caring for Andrea. Perhaps it’s not others that she is wary of… perhaps it is betrayal that she fears… and it is betrayal that she feels with Andrea. Not only did she help Carl, but she managed to bond with him and endear herself to him… and by the end of this episode, Michonne will be a trusted member of the group.
Now… Rick and Morgan. I’m not going into detail with this exchange, there is simply too much… but this may be the most powerfully emotional moment the show has yet to experience. Rick spends some time looking around the room, reading the wacko-font script, waiting for Morgan to regain consciousness. When he does… he brandishes a knife and attacks Rick, stabbing him in the shoulder.
When this happened, I yelled out, “Oh shit!!”… only to be chastised by my seven year old sitting in the next room. I seriously thought he was stabbed in the heart or center mass. They cut to commercial, leaving me thinking the main character had been killed. Amazingly, Rick can brush off a deep knife wound as though he had skinned his knee.
After Rick convinces Morgan that they know each other, Morgan delivers the most heart wrenching, devastating story of how Duane had died. Because Morgan didn’t take out his wife back in the pilot, his son died at that hands (or rather, the mouth) of his mother… as Morgan looked on in terror. He then goes on to get angry with Rick for not contacting him on the walkie talkie, and Rick trying his best to let him know that he tried… that he couldn’t help being out of range… and doing his damnedest to get Morgan to understand that he isn’t thinking clearly and he has to come out of this.
This is where the episode went from a good episode into a remarkably great one. When Rick is trying to convince Morgan of his need to regain sanity, we know he is also talking about himself… and we begin to see Rick coming out of his crazy by realizing what he could easily become if it weren’t for the people around him, specifically Carl.
After attempting, and failing, to convince Morgan to join them in the prison, they head home. Carl tells his father that Michonne is one of them… and Rick and Michonne have a brief conversation that is one of my favorite scenes in both the show and the comic. She lets him know that she is aware that he is seeing things… then tells him that she talks to her ex-boyfriend. Not only do they share a mutual enemy in The Governor, they also share the mutual enemy in mental illness… and let’s face it, everyone needs a friend.
Many people have complained that this episode was too slow, too focuses on Morgan, too much like a bottle episode, or simply filler… I disagree. For me, this episode showcased what is best about this story as a whole… people who’s sanity hangs by a thread… and that thread is love and understanding of other people. Without that thread binding them together, they become unhinged and potentially worse off than dead.
I’m not wearing a dead man’s face,
Cornelius J. Blahg
PS: My apologies for getting this posted so late (that’s for you Tom)… I was at home yesterday and my home internet and cable was out for hours… by the time it came back on I was busy playing Tomb Raider. Sorry.