For almost three seasons of The Walking Dead we have been watching our dwindling cast of survivors stuck in a quagmire, both emotionally and narratively. Episodes have begun and ended with seeming aimlessness, creating a situation out of thin air and watching as the characters blindly grope through it, terminating with either another escalation of the over-arching plot, or with a muted resolution. This plodding, ethereally-contained episodic system created a kind of entropy for the characters, never allowing a proper arc to be executed within the episode, making each survivor feel more and more like a one-note mouth piece, devoid of evolution or growth.
Yet, in spite of all of these story-telling failures, The Walking Dead remained compulsively watchable, because the situation was dire and the photography and make-up are fantastic, and on some level I think every returning viewer since the pilot knew that one day the stars would align and we would get an episode like Clear, which pays off not only on long-standing plotlines and questions, but creates a single, self-contained and fulfilling story. With that simple, yet, revolutionary narrative choice, The Walking Dead has taken one lumbering, shambling step in the direction of the quality of its AMC-sister series, Mad Men.
Cutting down on the number of characters we have to keep up with definitely helps this episode to find a more assured footing. This week focuses solely on Rick, Carl, and Michonne, who are on the road in search of weapons with which to defend the prison against the Governor’s looming threat. As they drive they pass two different things that add to the menace and melancholy of the world around them – a world that has, until this point, been left pretty much blank by this series. The first thing is a sign telling someone named Erin that a group is making their way towards Stone Mountain. The second is an unnamed hitchhiker who collapses to the ground as their car speeds by him, calling out for help pathetically as the heroes stare dead-ahead.
Before we’ve even hit the opening credits both of these objects return in subtle ways. One in the form of a zombie wearing a bracelet with the name “Erin” spelled out in beads. We see this in the midst of a comically and chillingly underplayed zombie ambush, the trio wearily glancing out of the car windows as the walkers claw at the glass ineffectually. Then, after they have killed off the walkers and unstuck their car, the hitchhiker appears down the road, and resumes his pleas for mercy and aid, which again are ignored as they climb back into the car and drive off.
These are subtle touches that create a more enriched and engrossing world. They are relics akin to the random encounters and artifacts one finds in video games like the Fallout series. From out of these small glimpses of the world brought to its knees we are able to intuit and imagine a land filled with stories similar and yet removed from our heroes. It creates the illusion of completeness and further isolation – a sense that the world is moving on unaware of this gaggle of grungy survivors.
This concept – the passage of time independent of the characters – pervades this entire episode. When Rick, Carl, and Michonne arrive at Rick’s old police station the gun cache has been cleaned out, leaving them no choice but to try to loot the bars and stores which Rick knows had hidden weapons.
This plan brings them to a section of main street that has been turned into a veritable death trap for the already dead. Rats and birds are housed in cages at the center of clusters of sharpened sticks, luring the undead with the promise of fresh meat and keeping them incapacitated. Pulleys and ladders traverse the town, creating a labyrinthine system of egress and mobility. Then there are the signs, the words spray-painted all over the walls and street. They warn people to stay away, politely yet insistently warning people off from the zone of carnage that has been created. Oddly enough, they seem as though they are written by a man possessed, a man who does not trust himself among the living, a man much more accustomed to life among the dead.
We meet this man – clad in a helmet and camouflage – when he fires a warning shot at our group, engaging them in a brief firefight, during which Carl ignores his father’s command to run for safety, and instead delivers what would be a killing shot to the man with the rifle. However, the man was not unprepared, and though he is knocked unconscious, a bullet proof vest spared his life, and spared Carl more human blood on his hands. It at first seems like a cheap trick to spare Carl some moral culpability, until Rick removes the helmet the man was wearing to reveal their assailant to be Morgan, the father from the pilot episode who saved Rick’s life and made him wise to the ways of the world post-zombies.
From here the episode branches off into two separate strands, each of which delivers on the character beats that had been building all episode. Rick has still been reeling from the guilt of all of those who trusted him who he let die, in addition to trying to hide his ghastly visions of his dead wife. Carl has been deeply questioning his father’s judgement and his fitness as a leader, as well as Michonne’s loyalty.
Michonne, meanwhile, is still living with the knowledge that Rick wants her out of the group, and will most likely want to get rid of her as soon as she is no longer needed. As Rick waits for Morgan to awaken in a room stocked to the rafters with guns and ammunition, Carl sets out to ostensibly look for a crib for Judith (Little Ass Kicker, to some) with Michonne at his side.
All season Michonne has been something of a cool missed opportunity. She was unreasonably – though rightly – nervous and confrontational at Woodbury, and then did herself no favors when dealing with the group at the prison. She existed for a long while as a seemingly one-dimensional piece of wish-fulfillment, brandishing a katana and killing with steely resolve. But she lacked a heart, or any sympathizing elements. This would be fine, if it didn’t make her something of an infuriating enemy to her own self and a threat to her own survival.
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