A couple of weeks ago, our Jeffrey Goldberg called for The Walking Dead to move its characters on from the confines of the prison/Woodbury spheres of influence: "TWD is much less flaccid when the survivors are on the road, in part because the road holds the promise of a better future -- or at least of radical new circumstances." He also called for The Walking Dead to start exploring one of it's more unnerving latent themes: catastrophe parenting. "I would like to see Rick ... actually be allowed to adjust to a new, complicated, and dramatically interesting role," Jeff wrote, "as a father in a post-apocalyptic environment."
Well, Goldberg gets results! This week's episode, "Clear," puts Rick, his son Carl, and his number-one non-villainous dramatic-conflict sparring partner Michonne in the Hyundai and sends them off to Rick's hometown in search of weapons for a coming battle against the Governor and his Rockwellian Death Star. The results are modest for the development of the show's plot, and for the quality of its dialogue, and even just for the strength of its commitment to non-stupidity -- such as might be evidenced by zombies NOT suddenly swarming the Hyundai moments after it stopped in the middle of an open road with no zombies around. But "Clear" does show us something important that we've seen way too little of lately: character development.
Michonne, having to manage Carl after choosing to watch his back as he lights out on a mission in the name of his baby sister, not only establishes a human connection to the boy but a bond of empathy with his sole surviving parent, Rick. Carl himself struggles with how to assert himself as a too-young adult and when to step back and let the big girl take care of him. And Rick confronts a parallel-apocalypse version of himself as a bereaved husband and father. Morgan, Rick's ally from Season 1, is a wreck of his former self. Circumstances have forced him to kill his own wife and son after they turned to zombies. He's since lost his mind. But he's nevertheless lived on to find a focused and disciplined sense of purpose (one Rick might envy if the writers hadn't condemned him to phasing in and out of psychological coherence all season): to systematically trap, kill, and burn walkers, "clearing" them from the world.
All of which gave us not only meaningful character development but, despite some abiding problems with the storytelling, an ideas episode more successful than than anything we've seen on The Walking Dead in weeks, if not all season. ... Or am I just starved?
Yes, boys, Goldberg does indeed get results. No doubt the producers of TWD saw our recent exchange, and immediately trashed a series of upcoming episodes already in the can, and rewrote "Clear" to our specifications. We do get results here at The Atlantic. Of course, I would rather not have seen the episode title nod in the direction of Scientology, though it does make you wonder: Could L. Ron Hubbard's e-meters do for zombies what the CDC couldn't?
This is where I hope the show eventually goes: to an exploration of what it would take to rebuild human society.Like you, John, I enjoyed this episode, its tightness, its forward motion, and the dread it managed to produce (I've certainly noticed a drop in dread-output by the writers lately). Two very artful moments: The hapless hitchhiker, completely ignored by Rick, Carl, and Michonne, soon to be eaten by the side of the road, silent testimony to heartlessness in an apocalyptic environment (it seems eons ago that Rick was rescuing a kid who tried to kill him). And recovering the dead hitchhiker's backpack -- a nice touch. Another moment worthy of note: Carl leaning up against a set of glass doors, behind which are a half-dozen walkers, clawing at the windows. A visually arresting image, if nothing else for the sang-froid Carl evinces. And I admire the restraint of the writers, who did not allow the walkers to punch through the windows, thereby larding on one more perilous escape in an episode filled with perilous escapes (including that very cheesy "oh, look, our car is surrounded by walkers all of a sudden" moment John rightfully criticized). One other thing: It's nice to see Michonne become human. Her sullenness was getting dreary.
The best thing about this episode: No Andrea. The second-best? As John notes, this was an episode embedded with an actual idea. The completely unhinged Morgan has devised a strategy for human advancement: Bringing the war to the walkers. I assume that after Rick dispenses with the Governor (if the Governor dispenses with Rick, I'll stop watching), he'll realize his full potential as the John Connor of the Age of Zombies, and Morgan will have been his inspiration. This is where I hope the show eventually goes: to an exploration of what it would take to rebuild human society. I'm getting bored with zombie skull-crushing.
And for once, the panel is agreed: "Clear" is easily the best episode to come out of this block of episodes, and one of the strongest overall this season. Morgan finally showed up again, offering a genuinely tragic plot development for a show that often fails to connect emotionally. Michonne pulled a Carol by suddenly morphing into a different, exponentially more likable character -- and while I should probably be more irritated by the inconsistency, I'm just relieved that she didn't spend the whole episode silently glowering in the background. This was an unusually deft episode of The Walking Dead, and it came at a time when the show badly needed one. (While we're on the subject, it's also hopeful sign for the long-term future of The Walking Dead; "Clear" was written by Scott M. Gimple, who was recently announced as the replacement for showrunner Glen Mazzara, and I wonder if this very strong episode helped him get the job.)
We've all bagged on the writing quite a bit this season, so I'd like to call out one particularly nice moment in "Clear": Rick saying "I'm sorry this happened to you" to the unconscious Morgan, which is a direct callback to when he apologized to a legless walker before killing it in the series' first episode -- and a clever way to acknowledge just how thin the line between the dead and the living has become.
"Clear" invokes the The Walking Dead's pilot, still the series's best single episode ever.And that is part of how "Clear" works as well as it does: by invoking The Walking Dead's masterful pilot, still the best single episode this series has ever produced (and, perhaps, an episode it will never surpass). We finally get to see what happened to Rick's hometown, which we haven't seen since the pilot, and the results aren't pretty -- but it feels as warped as it does familiar. Morgan's obsessive writing on the walls is remarkably similar to the "DON'T OPEN DEAD INSIDE" warning that greeted Rick when he woke up in the hospital. "Clear" even relies on the same score used in the pilot, when Morgan tried (and failed) to shoot his zombie wife -- a failure, we learn, which had fatal consequences for Duane.
After my frustration with last week's episode, I'm impressed that "Clear" succeeds in the way it does, and I think it's worth examining why. To my mind, the two best episodes of the third season have been the ones that broke with The Walking Dead's status quo: "Walk With Me," which stepped away from our normal heroes for an episode-length introduction to the Governor, and "Clear," which stepped away from the prison to close the loop on our old friend Morgan and fix the problems with our new friend Michonne. It's amazing how well it worked, and it points to a clearer path for this series going forward. If I could offer a piece of advice to The Walking Dead's creative team, it would be this: Get weirder. Spend a whole episode on a single character. Use flashbacks. Use flash-forwards. You have one of the biggest hits on TV, and your audience has shown that they'll stick around even when you fumble. So take advantage of your distinctive situation, and take some real narrative risks. No, not every experiment will succeed. But if it saves us from the muddled blandness of an episode like last week's, I'll take an interesting failure every time.
A quick coda from me with a sort-of spontaneous hypothesis: The Walking Dead might reliably improve itself by paying heed to The Atlantic -- as it would by taking Scott's good advice this week two weeks from now, just as it (fine, inadvertently) took Jeff's good advice from two weeks ago this week. But what The Walking Dead really needs is to reboot itself as a story. It needs to scrap the middling approach it's settled into and to figure out how to become a show that does justice to its gripping premise, as much as to its lavish production value (most of which comes out now in the physical plausibility of the undead and often, yes, of the crushing of their skulls). It needs to believe in itself as a cable TV drama whose basic conceit and central characters are every bit as promising as those of a show about Madison Avenue advertising executives in the 1960s or an Albuquerque high school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin today.
Good luck, Scott M. Gimple ...
Images: Gene Page/AMC
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