Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Walking Dead: "Clear"

All good shows know that, when the action is getting more hectic and the storyline is moving fast, and the characters are on a collision course to oblivion, it’s time to slow things down and reflect on where they all are. “Clear” is one such episode.

In Woodbury, the Governor is forming an army. At the prison, Rick and co. know they’re running low on guns, and if less than 10 people are going to face an onslaught of a few dozen, they’ll need weapons. And since they’re only a drive away from the police station where Rick was sheriff, he’s decided they need to take a trip there to get those guns. What he’s faced with, instead, is his past. The police station has been gutted. The streets are unrecognizable. His house has been burnt out. And Morgan, his savior from the pilot episode, has gone mad.

Oh Morgan. From the first episode onwards, every time we see a new figure looming in the distance I say to my husband, “Is it him? The guy on the walkie-talkie?” I keep hoping we’ll see him again, hoping we’ll find out what happened to that poor man who couldn’t kill his zombie wife, whose son was huddled next to him and who clung to the sound of Rick’s voice on the other end of that walkie-talkie. When we saw Rick turn it on in S1 and there was no longer a voice on the other end, you couldn’t help but think he was gone. Though most fans held out hope that he wasn’t. After all, on a show like this, they’re not dead until you SEE them dead.

And no, he’s not dead. And yes, he was able to find the strength to kill his wife.

But not before she killed their son.

Lennie James, who plays Morgan, turns in a tour de force performance that had me on the edge of my seat, lump in my throat, chest aching for this man who spends his days trapping and killing and burning zombies, and who turns down the offer to join a group of people. While this episode was laid out like a play — a minimal number of settings, long scenes of dialogue between two people, only four characters (five if you count our poor hitchhiker), almost no music — so much more happened in this hour than in any other hour this season. What a rich, wonderfully written, superbly acted hour of television.

Where would you like to start, Josh?

Joshua: This episode is one of several this season that has taken special care to walk the viewer back through the narrative history of the show in some way, examining the fallout of various events and highlighting the toll it takes on the survivors. First, when Carol was found alive by Daryl, we saw how quickly things can change as she learned about the birth of L'il Asskicker and the concurrent death of Lori, both after only the briefest absence. Then, with last week's episode, we were shown the group's transformation as a whole through Andrea's sheltered eyes, witnessing how much a difference is borne out by the passage of months instead of mere days, just as we had with Merle and Daryl the week prior as circumstances underscored for both the elder brother and for Daryl himself how fundamentally he had changed during their time apart. And this week, we're taken all the way back to the very first episode and reminded again and again that “everyone turns,” whether it's after death or through too much hard living, into someone they weren't before.

Taken as a whole, it's a fascinating examination of these new rules of evolution, and one that punches at all the softest parts of me with alarming precision. For every encouraging sign – be it Daryl's heroic awakening or Carol's subtle sharpening into focus or Michonne's gradual movement in the direction of something more closely resembling an actual human being as opposed to a glowering action figure – there is a direct and unquestionably ugly echo. Rick's stress-induced madness; Carl's disturbing yet largely necessary ongoing acclimatization; Glenn's rage and impetuosity; Morgan's ruin and resignation; each consequence would imply that light fosters darkness, and admonishes us to caution. Because whatever doesn't kill you might alter you in any number of ways, but the only thing it's guaranteed to make stronger is your stomach.

Let's start with Michonne, who has really begun to snap into focus these past few episodes. We've previously discussed how her character on the show has been very much in keeping with the Michonne from the comics, alluding primarily to her skill, her silent scowl and her largely impenetrable nature. Within the context of the show, however, it's worked for the most part to her detriment, making her seem obstinate and unsympathetic instead of mysterious and intense. The reveal of her personality has been almost unbearably slow, and the loosening of her mask (culminating in not one but two jokes cracked during the course of this episode) is a welcome change, to say the least. I hope Carl's estimate that “she might be one of us” proves true, because aside from the obvious boon she provides their fighting force, it'll be great to have a skillful smart-ass on board as well.

Nikki: In my opening I’d originally typed, “AND… this is the episode that finally made me really like Michonne.” But I figured we’d get to her later.

Quick: name the #1 fan meme that has arisen out of this show. I’ll give you a hint:

(That last one is mine; I just couldn't resist.) 

Lori’s tried it, Rick’s tried it, Hershel’s family tried it… no one could ever keep that damn kid in one place. But in this episode, in a scene that was clearly just for the fans, Michonne says to an agitated Carl, “YOU. WAIT. HERE.” And then she leans in and really glowers at him, and adds, “No more bullshit.”

And OMFG he actually stays put!!!

Amazing. In that one moment she’s achieved with Carl what no other person has been able to: in a sense, she made him stay in the fucking house.

But beyond comic relief, Michonne’s character served the purpose of showing Rick that despite their differences, they’re all human beings. At the end of the ep, Carl says to him that she’s the same people as they are. Rick actually looks taken aback, surprised at what his kid just told him. Rick’s been so busy separating everyone — Tyrese, you are NOT one of us, you can go; Andrea, you are NO LONGER one of us, you can go — that he’s failed to remember that in the beginning, human beings clung to one another to separate themselves from the walkers. The zombie threat, as horrific as it was/is, is what brought people together against one common enemy, an enemy that was not like them. But as they’ve gotten used to the walkers as their new normal, they’ve begun to split off from other human beings around them.

Morgan and Rick were survivors together, until Rick had to leave to find his wife and Morgan stayed behind because he couldn’t leave his. Over the past year, having lost Shane, his wife, and so many others, Rick has begun to think that maybe he’s better off alone. After all, the more people who surround you, the more potential threats you’ve just created. But now he’s seen what pure solitude does to a person. Morgan is hanging on to his sanity by a thread, and we’re reminded that having several people with you doesn’t just create a physical strength in numbers, but a community that keeps you mentally healthy and sane. And he begins to see Michonne in a new light.

The moral of this story is gorgeously, heartbreakingly bookended in the hitchhiker character. Somehow this one man has survived for a year on his own (perhaps he was with others and got separated or survived a slaughter of his people) and he’s walked alone for god knows how long. When he sees the car with Michonne, Rick, and Carl in it, he’s frantic, begging them to stop as Michonne and Rick drive right past him without even slowing down. He doesn’t give up, and runs after the car all the way down the highway to the part in the road where there’s a roadblock and where their car has gotten stuck. He almost catches up, but Rick’s determination to not talk to strangers leaves the man in the dust once again, and he falls to his knees in anguish. Rick goes to see Morgan, discovers something about himself, other people, and Michonne, and drives back. And I wondered, has he changed? Will he perhaps pick up the hitchhiker, realizing this man poses less of a threat to him than just about everyone else in the world? Or will he keep his guard up? Will he at least talk to him?

But as they drive back the way they came, it’s too late. What’s left of the hitchhiker lies in a pool of blood by the side of the road, his neatly tied backpack beside it. They drive past… and then back up the car to pick up the man’s backpack. In the end, despite what Rick may have learned with his encounter with Morgan, the man’s supplies are more important to him than the man.

Joshua: One of the ways in which I sometimes struggle as a viewer of this show, and likewise in these discussions, is with holding the proper perspective. It's far too easy to transpose civilized present-day values onto these characters and situations and thereby hold them to a standard made unreasonable by the nature of their circumstances. And I think the biggest reason why that continues to be an issue for me as an audience member is that it continues to be such an issue for the participants. The minds behind the scenes do a great job of maintaining its prominence as a point of contention, and shades of this ongoing conflict of conscience color almost everything else that happens. Which only makes sense: matters of principle are one of the most accurate yardsticks against which we can determine the measure of someone's character – the key to their humanity, really – and in the worst of all possible situations, when the blacks and whites have faded so close to uniform grey, there's no better way to pinpoint who's good, and who's growing, than the way they answer these questions.

My favorite parts of the debate between Rick and Morgan came as it neared its end. Morgan called attention to the weapons and ammunition Rick had gathered from his arsenal, asked a rhetorical why, and then answered his own question: “'Cause if you got somethin' good, that just means someone wants to take it. Right?” Rick can't deny it, and Morgan offers his definitive summation, the result of having endured unspeakable horrors and, for inexplicable reasons, somehow survived. At the heart of that warped ideology: resignation. Just give up. Stop hoping for more or better; there is only this. It's now or never, because both the past and the future are far too awful to contemplate.

“You will be torn apart by teeth or bullets,” he says plainly. “You and your boy. Your people. But not me. Because I am not gonna watch that happen again.”

Morgan in the first episode, unable to take the shot.

It's a cop-out, but it's an understandable one. Morgan has lost everything, and it's ruined him. The only way in which he's managed to keep his will to live at all (and even this is arguable, considering how convincingly he begged for death at Rick's hands) is by isolating himself, developing a routine, and staying on task. He exists, but only by becoming a ghost.

Rick sees too much of himself in his old friend not to be frightened. He knows the path by which he might reach a similar impasse is close at hand and easily taken. He knows he's been within a stone's throw from completely unhinged for days, weeks, months, starting back with Shane, in that field, in the dark, and only grown worse over time, fed by fresh tragedy and despair. He knows he's made costly mistakes, and he knows that there will be more. But unlike Morgan, he refuses to resign himself to failure. “This can't be it,” he argues, wanting it to be true in his own case even more than for poor Morgan. Because he still has a son, and people continue to look to him for leadership, for guidance. Because if he gives up, there is much more at stake than just the spirit and optimism of one broken man. The stress may be a major contributor to his hysteria, but the very responsibilities causing that stress are what guide him to look beyond himself, illuminate a broader scope, and in the end, help to save him from Morgan's lamentable fate.

There were two scenes in particular this week – one for each of his traveling companions – that called special attention to Rick's enduring leadership position, but both unraveled from the same thread. It began as Rick and Carl had their discussion about Michonne as they worked to free the mudstuck car. Carl asked why she was with them, obviously irritated, believing she was meant to be on her way by then. Rick defended her behavior during the raid on Woodbury, but only a little, mostly offering a very pragmatic, bureaucratic answer by explaining that he didn't want to leave her at the prison with Merle there, that they have common enemies, a common cause, et cetera. Michonne listened to this from inside the car, already well aware of her tenuous position within the group, and pondered the implications of her stubbornly reticent attitude. Well, I assume she did, anyway, from the context and the look on her face.

I didn't have to assume long, however. When the three of them reach Cynthiana [An aside here: do they ever call the town by name in the series, or is that strictly in the comics? I can't recall.] and find the police station's gun locker empty, there is a brief debate about what to do next. Rick quickly asserts his dominance, and for the first time I can remember, Michonne backs down, immediately and definitively, adopting a tone of deference so opposite what we've come to expect from her that even Rick is stopped in his tracks by it. I think it took Michonne a while to even decide she wanted to be a part of their group at all, but it's clear now that she's made up her mind to stay, if they'll let her, and she knows the only way to make that happen is through Rick.

Later, after Carl tries to ditch Michonne on the crib run, she asks him why. In response, Carl parrots back the gist of Rick's dispassionate answer from the car, almost word for word. It wasn't the only time during this episode that we saw him studiously following cues from his father, but it was the most obvious. And I wish that Rick himself had heard it, too. But I believe he's as aware now as he has ever been of his standing amongst these survivors, of the significance of his conduct, and that any further time spent entertaining phantoms is a luxury he cannot afford. I think, as you said, that this run-in with Morgan has gone a long way toward facilitating his recovery and clarifying his vision.

Nikki: So well put, Josh! And you took the words right out of my, er, fingers. There was a discussion that popped up last week in the comments section about communication on the show, and you mentioned how it’s so frustrating that characters don’t communicate with one another at all, because if they did there wouldn’t be much of a plot left. But because they don’t communicate, Andrea makes a ham-fisted attempt to chat with the prison folk that goes nowhere, all because if they actually sat down, chatted, and made progress and a specific plan, we would lose the tension for the rest of the season.

I made similar remarks in the first season of Lost, that it was a little frustrating that everyone was so insular, but if they’d all sat down and Locke had said, “Well, see, my dad threw me out of a window and I was in an wheelchair but LOOK AT ME NOW!” or Hurley had told them about his lottery win, or Jack had explained the difficulties of his life, or Claire had confessed the real reason she’d been travelling… then what would have been left for flashbacks? Clearly it made for a much better series NOT to have them discuss things by the campfire. But on The Walking Dead, it feels more frustrating, like they’re setting up the means to communicate and then it falls through, making Andrea look like more of a dumbass than people already think she is, making Rick look like just an ass, and making the rest of them look like lemmings.

So this week’s episode changed that. Michonne overhearing Rick talking to Carl, as you say, was key, because her Sergeant Badass routine has worked well so far, as long as it was just her or her and Andrea, but now that she’s part of a group, it’s working to her disadvantage. Only by overhearing the conversation that Rick and Carl had — in a sense, letting them communicate something to her without making the characters actually communicate — does she realize this, and understand that she needs to adjust the attitude REALLY quickly in order to make this new situation work. Perhaps, like Andrea, she’s realized she’d rather be part of a community than be out on her own. (Unlike Andrea, her community doesn’t involve tanks of heads floating in liquid…)

And Rick needed that kick in the head to wake up and realize that he’s only a few breaths away from being this guy. As I said earlier, they were once very similar, coming from the same town, same situation, both married with wives. But through circumstance, Morgan has become, as you so eloquently put it, a ghost, and Rick is in danger of becoming one. But he still has a son and a new daughter. He, unlike Morgan, has something to live for.

Interestingly, with no one to talk to, and yet from what seems like some unconscious desire to leave a legacy, Morgan has begun to communicate solely through writing. His signs are everywhere, from the arrows drawn on the ground to direct the zombies to his booby-trapped street; to the signs for other humans (because one assumes zombies can’t read) with warnings like AWAY WITH YOU; NO GUILT — YOU KNOW THAT; TURN AROUND AND LIVE; JUST LEAVE; and the increasingly unintelligible scrawls on the walls that both reflect the unsettled mind of a madman, and bluntly record events such as DUANE TURNED (written in blood red).

Just as Michonne makes the conscious decision to change her attitude so she can become a part of this new family, so does Rick get a rude awakening about where exactly his behavior is headed, and you can feel a return to the old Rick as he and Carl banter by the trunk of the car. With the haunting strains of Jamie N Commons’ “Lead Me Home” playing in the background, Rick, Michonne, and Carl… go home.

 Joshua: And, now that the three of them have taken stock of just exactly what — and how much — 'home' means to them, and in particular Rick and Michonne are rededicated to presenting themselves in a way that shows their commitment to the preservation of this scruffy family, the question now becomes what exactly it will take to keep it. This week's visit with Morgan was dark and sad and quietly brilliant, but with only four more episodes left this season, things are bound to get noisy again very soon.

One more quick thing before we go: I referred earlier to Michonne's wisecracks but wanted to mention again how nicely this episode balanced the humor with the heartbreak on the whole. Though her joke about the rainbow striped cat sculpture was probably my favorite, Rick's quip after their hallucination heart-to-heart at the end, asking if she could drive because “I see things,” was great, too. But regardless what else it might contain, any episode that features rats on skateboards is an instant classic, right? (Bonus points to anyone else for whom the rats on skateboards reminded them of the U.S. reality show Real People from the early '80s. Because we're old, and that alone deserves bonus points.)

See y'all next week.


Christopher Meades said...

I loved this episode. By far my favorite of the year.

Anonymous said...

One thing that bothers me about this episode - I thought they must've been hundreds of miles from Rick's town and traveled hours to get there for no other fact that when they came upon the prison it was like "OMG - look what we found!" If it was anywhere close to home wouldn't Rick as a police officer KNOW where the major prisons in his area were located?

Anyway I love the recaps.

Also - the Governor would've totally picked the hitchhiker up.

-Tim Alan

Old Darth said...

The Walking Dead works so much better when the cast is pared down to minimum numbers. It also highlights how the show has not been able to get a handle on writing for their entire ensemble of characters.

For the first time in awhile the danger of the zombies felt palpable again. Also a much overdue episode for some quality screen time for Micchone. I really liked how the show used Carl to give us a glimpse into her character - though how she got the picture out of the cafe begs question.

I place this one with the season premiere and the pilot as my favorite episodes of the series.

Efthymia said...

I can see how leaving/never accepting the poor hitch-hiker served the episode and the overall story, but I'm still very sad and angry to see that "our" group have turned into horrible people. I miss Dale... :(

They seem to hint at it and I sincerely do hope that Rick goes back to his old self after this encounter with Morgan. I liked him during the past two seasons, he was a decent guy who maintained his humanity and tried to do his best for everyone (like Jack in LOST, although they never quite fixed him after they messed him up, and I hope this doesn't happen here).
It saddenned me that Morgan didn't go with them at the prison, though.

Nikki, really, you just now liked Michonne?! I've loved her so much since the beginning, I think I may have a crush on her! And her taking the colourful cat with her certainly wins her extra points.

In the Talking Dead they said that they sensed some possible romance between Michonne and Rick, and a friend of mine also felt it, but I don't see it. I.Really.Really.Do.Not.See.It. Not at all.

Page48 said...

Lennie James always brings his A-game to anything he's in. It's a shame that Morgan didn't go back to the prison. Hopefully we haven't seen the last of him.

Colleen/redeem147 said...

Poor Funny Hair Joel.

I guess nobody else here saw My Name Is Khan.

Austin Gorton said...

The three big things I took away from this episode (which was indeed excellent):

1. As Tim said above, it seemed odd that Rick's hometown is, what, maybe four hours at most away from the prison. Seems like that should have come up in multiple contexts (familiarity with the prison, Carl's desire to go home, etc.) before now.

2. As good as this episode was, it's somewhat disconcerting that several of the best episodes of this show, if not the best, occur so far removed from the majority of the characters and the overarching plots (such as they are).

3. While Rick ignoring the hitchhiker makes sense, at the same time, his group needs to grow (and the show needs to introduce new characters), and I'd like to see more repudiation of that worldview. Basically, Rick has reached the point Shane tried to convince him to reach before his death, which doesn't sit right with me, and frankly, it's not all that fun to keep watching characters that display such a lack of empathy towards their fellow human beings, as logical/survivalist as it may be.