Note: I wrote this review based on a press screener, so no GIFs for now. I'll try to add some within a day or two, but until then I'm stuck with AMC's production stills for art.
Hello boys and ghouls! I'm surprised you're back, given the fact that I was the only person on the earth who enjoyed last week's to-the-prison-and-back Andrea trek. I still defend my stance that Andrea rejoining the group but finding them nearly unrecognizable means a lot to the show and its themes of adaptation and survival, and that "I Ain't a Judas" was the best use of Andrea all season long (which shouldn't necessarily be celebrated, because she's been awful). Personally, I'd rather watch that version of The Walking Dead over The Governor suddenly showing up and taking potshots at the prison almost any day. But hey, what do I know?
Hopefully we can all agree (oh God, I hope we agree for the sake of our friendship) that tonight's episode, "Clear," breached new dramatic territory for The Walking Dead Season 3, and I'll put myself out there by saying it was the best of the season so far. No, it wasn't action-slammed and it didn't feature a river of zombie brains and intestinal tracts. But it was one of the most thought-provoking, enlightening, and well-written episodes of the series. That is to say, "Clear" felt deserving of one of television's grandest compliments: It felt like "a cable-quality drama."
Some of the improvements were obvious: no Woodbury, no Woodburyites, no prison, no Judith (stupid baby), no Lori, no Lori the unfriendly ghost, no "let me tell you sumptin'," no arguing about Rick being the leader, no arguing about Merle, no arguing about trusting strangers, not much arguing at all in fact, no Carol rubbing up on the nearest man, no spontaneous Beth songs, no frumpy Michonne moping in the background, and none of Andrea's hands-on-the-hips head-bobbing. Instead, the focus of "Clear" was sharper than Michonne's katana because the episode isolated its story. And it was just the kick in the pants the season needed.
You can thank Scott Gimple, who wrote "Clear," for that, and I hope his eye for telling interesting stories within an episode continues when he takes over as showrunner for Season 4. If Glen Mazzara added the right amount of blood and action to The Walking Dead, then maybe Gimple will finally bring some badly needed characterization. Looking back, it makes you wonder what Frank Darabont brought to the show except for his loyal stable of actors like Laurie Holden and Jeffrey DeMunn.
"Clear" was essentially a side-trip episode as Rick, Michonne, and Carl ventured out in a search for guns and ammo and gun magazines and maybe Guns & Ammo the gun magazine to prepare for the big battle with The Governor. You can still question Rick's timing (what if The Governor came back when he was gone?) and his choice in companions (Rick saying Carl was "ready" wasn't a satisfying reason for bringing his son on a dangerous mission, what if they'd gotten eaten and Judith grew up dad-less AND brother-less?), but the drama and character interactions worked so well, I was just happy to see The Walking Dead add substance and continue its improved characterization from last week. Heck, Michonne cracked a JOKE! ("The mat said 'Welcome,'" when Rick asked why she was eating Morgan's food.) MICHONNE! Queen Sourpuss of the New World! Time to start an open-mic night, maybe she can slice watermelons in half like a post-apocalyptic Gallagher.
Though to be fair, this episode couldn't help but be good since it was the re-introduction of Morgan (Lennie James), a character we've been waiting to run into again since the second episode of Season 1. Last week I talked about the show's theme of change, and how the amount of personal evolution for each character has been distorted through perspective. Perceived personal change varies depending on the amount of time that's passed since certain characters last saw each other. I loved putting myself in Andrea's pants and seeing The Group 2.0 through her eyes. Rick and friends, once so focused on getting back to normal with the good life on the farm, are now a lot of secession-happy survivalists who could barely bring themselves to trust their old blonde friend. Tyreese, in contrast, saw Rick for who he was at that moment, a crazy mofo. One was sympathetic, "You've changed," the other was scared, "That white boy is bat shit crazeeee!" It took a bit of empathy to appreciate what Andrea went through, because the change among the prison group was something we'd witnessed through the show, and so to many viewers it was no big deal. I loved it, but maybe that's because I'm a sensitive softy and I think the differences were proven well through practice.
In "Clear," witnessing stark evolution/devolution brought on by a world in which the dead stalk the living was unavoidable because we were all on the same page with Morgan. We hadn't seen him since the series premiere, "Days Gone Bye," and back then he was a strong man showing cracks and mourning the recent loss of his wife, but he still had something to fight for in his son Duane. In "Clear," he was a bowl of Cocoa Puffs. Since Rick last saw him, things had been really stinky for Morgan—to the point where he shacked up in a top-story storage room, built a Wipeout-style zombie obstacle course, raided the town for all the Sidewalk Chalk it had left (and wrote jibberish all over the walls with it), and most importantly, stockpiled enough guns to make Charlton Heston die from boneritis.
Seeing his old buddy in such a state was bad times for Rick Grimes, but it was also an eye-opener. As Morgan told Rick about how he'd failed by not being able to go through with killing his zombie wife Jenny—who would eventually eat his little boy Duane because Duane couldn't do it either (ugh, the heartbreak)—Rick saw a potential future for himself in Morgan. Becoming Morgan was a worst-case scenario. And when Rick was telling Morgan, "You have to be able to come back from this," he was also delivering that advice to himself. Lori's gone, but Rick still has Carl, and the madness has to stop. At the end of the episode, when Rick was staring off into the distance and Michonne told him that she knows he sees "things," the "thing" Rick was staring at could've easily been Lori waving goodbye because Rick rocketed back into reality after seeing Morgan as a suicidal, going-through-the-motions hermit. I was never a fan of Rick going bonkers and talking to dead phones and dead wives, but if Rick truly has shaken off the crazies because of this encounter with Morgan (and I think he has), this was a fantastic way to do it.
And let's all throw our thongs on the stage toward Lennie James, who delivered an outstanding performance as a distressed Morgan, broken from grief. He was absolutely excellent. I don't know if we've seen the last of Morgan, but at least Rick knows where to find him. And there's still a crapload of guns there. Put that in your pocket for Season 4, Gimple. I don't think any of us would complain if Morgan spent more time with us.
The Michonne-Carl shopping trip to Cribs-R-Us was also a maturation for The Walking Dead, most notably because it set out to fix a pair of characters that have been problematic. It started off by establishing Carl's distrust of Michonne at the beginning when Michonne drove their shiny, self-cleaning 2011 Hyundai Tuscon Limited Edition (just $18,895 MSRP for the base model!) into a mud trap. Then Carl went off on what seemed like another one of his stupid self-worth-proving "I'm a big boy" solo trips, ditching Michonne as she made a zombie kebab. It felt like trouble in that moment as we all groaned "Here we go again!" and screamed, "Stay in the damn farmhouse, Carl!" out of habit.
But Carl bit back at Michonne's attempts to overparent with such conviction that we realized he wasn't just on a quest to annoy the internet with boneheaded decisions. No, he wanted to get a picture from the town cafe, a picture of Rick, Lori, and himself. "I just thought Judith should know what her mom looked like," he said, making me feel like a total asshole for ever doubting his purpose. It hit Michonne hard, too, and in that moment it was obvious that getting that photo—essentially preserving the Grimes family for the future and holding onto humanity in this world full of shit—was worth stepping into a zombie feeding trough. Michonne ninja'd her way into the restaurant, came out with the photo (and a sweet cat sculpture), and we saw a badly needed new side to her. After the mutual display of respect and compassion between the two, they skipped back hand-in-hand to Rick, and Carl declared, "I think she might be one of us." And like that, Michonne and Carl grew leaps and bounds.
In an hour, "Clear" managed to fix three broken characters that were in bad need of fixin', both from the audience's viewpoint and from a personal standpoint. Maybe a day trip to grab some supplies is just what the other characters need as well.
– We need to talk about that hitchhiker. It was so difficult to see Rick completely ignore a person in need, but apparently everyone else was also on board. Carl and Michonne hardly flinched when the hitcher screamed after them; instead, they rushed to get back in the car and peel out. On the way back they saw pieces of the guy strewn about the highway, and snatched his knapsack. The look in Rick's eye was hard to decipher, but was there a pang of guilt in there? Did he regret not giving the guy a ride? What are your theories on the hitchhiker?
– I was so happy to be away from the prison and Woodbury for an episode. This was kind of like the episode "18 Miles Out" when Shane and Rick drove away from the farm and had it out. Such changes of pace are great for the series because they break up the monotony of sedentary life and they always seem to bring out new character development.
– I dig the rats-on-skateboards trick.
– When Michonne got the car stuck in the mud, how did that crazy zombie ambush happen? How are zombies still popping up out of nowhere in this show?
– Did Michonne kill Jenny, Morgan's wife? One of the zombies looked an awful lot like her.
Follow TV.com writer Tim Surette on Twitter if you want to: @TimAtTVDotCom