This week’s episode is, like last week’s “I Ain’t a Judas,” a pause in the Woodbury-Prison action, a delaying tactic on the way to the inevitable showdown between Rick and the Governor. Unlike other filler episodes – or filler half-seasons – “Clear” is one of the strongest offerings the show has ever produced, easily on par with its premier. So much of season three has been correcting the stagnation of last year, with its slow, go no-where story that was supposedly about investigating the characters but really just managed to make a muddle of things, with strange, out of left field personality developments, interspersed with the occasional walker sighting. “Clear” is yet more proof that show runners have learned from their mistakes and have a vision of how the Walking Dead needs to develop to keep us caring about what happens to what’s left of our survivors.
I’m not usually one for heavy handed metaphors, but “Clear” manages to evoke strong emotional responses even as it bludgeons you over the head with its thematic comparisons. The set literally has the title of the episode written all over it. We’re not going for subtly here. “Clear” is all about how far the survivors have come and at what emotional cost; how better to show this than to go back to the literal start of the series in the town Rick used to protect, to a man who hasn’t appeared since the first episode? The last time Morgan was even mentioned on the show was at the close of S1, where Rick signed off on his walkie broadcasts, having never gotten a response from the man who once saved his life.
In preparation for the obvious-end-season-showdown, Rick takes Michonne and Carl on a run to an unspecified destination. Along the way, they pass the world’s last backpacker and blow past him even as the man screams and begs for them to stop. It’s not until the gang is standing in the wiped out armory of a police station that we even know that we’re now back to exactly where the show began, the small town that Sherriff Rick came from. The last time we were in this room, it was with Morgan and his son, picking up guns and walkies.
Like the little town by Hershel’s farm, this one is mostly deserted, with pockets of walkers that wander the streets and buildings, mostly easily avoidable in comparison to the hordes that were found in Atlanta. Someone has claimed this town though, setting up a gauntlet of booby traps and walker-nets to substitute for the high walls and armed forces that protect a place like Woodbury. (Comparisons abound, as I mentioned.) As the trio makes their way through the roadblocks, a helmeted man appeared on a rooftop to warn them away. When they refused to leave, it turned into a gun fight that only ended when Carl shot the man point blank in the chest.
Let’s pause here, because Rick does. He didn’t see Carl shoot Lori, though he knows his son did. There’s a huge different between killing walkers, mercy killing Lori, and straight up shooting another human being up close and personal. Even if you’re doing it in self defense. Even if they’re shooting at you. Rick stops and just looks at Carl, really looks at the boy, and asks if he’s OK with that happened. Carl seems nonplussed by what he had to do. Practical. It takes this moment, this man his son dropped, for Rick to think about what is happening to Carl. It didn’t occur to Rick to wonder about their mental health, their capacity for compassion, when all three of them drove past a lone man desperately calling for their help.
The shooter is Morgan. Rick insists on bringing him in off the street and away from the threat of walkers, against Michonne’s objections. When they finally get him inside, past some truly nasty booby traps – pit full of knives under the welcome mat, anyone? – Rick sees Duane’s death notice scrawled on the wall and insists on staying to see if Morgan is ‘ OK’. No one is ‘ OK’ anymore, Rick. Not you. Not Carl. Not Morgan.
The show has made a distinct effort at underlining Rick’s deteriorating mental state. Morgan is Rick two steps beyond. He’s the man who couldn’t kill his zombie wife and loses his son to her because of his cowardice, and then has to put them both down. He’s Rick without the rest of the survivors, without what pale comfort they can offer, or distraction or purpose. He’s alternate reality Rick, and Rick knows this, feels their kinship painfully sharp.
Scrawled on a wall on the way into town, on the path to Morgan, are the words, “No Guilt. You Know This.” No guilt for the hard choices you have to make in this world. No guilt for trying to survive, even at the expense of other’s lives. They’re words Morgan scrawled to make him feel better even as the guilt drives him crazy. And they’re words Rick hasn’t really embraced, because it’s easy to see that guilt is what drives him when he stays with Morgan, even after the other man tries to stab him in the heart. Guilt is all over Rick’s face when he finds the radio, when he sees Duane’s name, when he reads the insanity that’s written all over the walls. He even begs Morgan to return to the prison with them even though Morgan is far safer in this little one-walker town than he’d ever be at the prison, not with Woodbury breathing down the gang’s neck.
And Morgan is smart enough to say no. He knows you don’t need that many guns if your position is secure. And that anything good enough to house a group of survivors is gonna be good enough to fight over. He’s not the strong, not the brave. Morgan is the inheritor of the earth, the weak willing to hide it out alone, to not let in strangers or risk, or to even take the chance and end it all. He’ll survive, but at what cost?
While Rick is having a therapy session from hell, Carl is off on a run of his own. I’ve said before that Carl is the future of this world, a bridge between compassion and hardness. He can put down walkers and kill his own mother, but he will still rescue Tyrese and name his baby sister after fond memories of an old teacher. But we can see his face on the drive into town, when they pass the hitchhiker. Of the three, Carl seems the only one even interested in the guy – he turns to watch him as the car passes, but he doesn’t protest leaving the man behind. And then we see Carl shoot Morgan without so much as a flinch, so the episode is clearly setting us up to think he has lost his capacity for caring.
So what is Carl’s run? After seeing that his house burned down, Carl takes Michonne to the town’s café to rescue a picture of Lori, Rick and Carl that hangs on the wall. The café is crawling with walkers but Carl is insistent they go in for the photo. Judith, he says, should know what her mother looked like. That isn’t the impulse of a dead soul. Carl, not Morgan or Rick, embodies the words on the wall – no guilt. He does what needs to be done, but he doesn’t let it destroy him.
Michonne finally had more than a couple of lines last week, but this is the first episode that spends much time developing her. We can’t see, exactly, how much she changed since the walker outbreak. Unlike Carl and Rick, we know barely anything about her background. But we get hints of what the apocalypse has cost her. The way she watches Carl and knows that he’s lying to his father when even Rick doesn’t see it hints at a familiarity with children. There are several lines that hint at a very dry sense of humor that hasn’t been evident in any of her exchanges before. When Carl insists on going back into the café to get the photo of his parents after just being run out of there by walkers, she doesn’t call him stupid or crazy; Michonne understands that the photo is important, so she risks herself to go get it for him. She also comes out with a hideous faux country cat statue that she calls beautiful – and from the happiness on her face as she looks at it, it doesn’t seem like she’s lying just to make Carl feel alright about risking her neck for him.
Later, as they pack up the car to leave town, Michonne confronts Rick about his hallucinations. He is hesitant to respond and before he will admit to it, Michonne reveals she used to talk to her dead boyfriend. This world is tough. Most of the survivors have to be a little insane, just to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
On the drive back, the car passes the fresh remains of the hiker, torn to shreds by the roadblock they last left him at. The camera lingers on the sight of his abandoned backpack lying by the side of the road, and then the car reversing back into frame. A door opens. Carl takes the backpack. They drive on.
No guilt. You know this.
Next week: “Arrow on the Doorstep” will be recapped by our very favorite @Moretta while I take a couple of days off.