“Clear,” the twelfth episode of Season Three of “The Walking Dead,” was easily one of the more interesting ones, in no small part due to the fact that it essentially abandoned the formula made common by this season. It was a one-shot episode, removed from the overall story arc, but one that beautifully demonstrated everything that can, when handled properly, make the show so fantastic.
There’s something to be said for focusing on a small, tightly-shot set of characters, never deviating from them or their current predicaments, and such was the case with “Clear.” A unique and riveting episode, it may have had a purpose in terms of the overall storyline (gathering weapons in preparation for the coming last stand against The Governor), but it also served as a focused study of a handful of characters. As an added bonus, it also did a fine, if massively depressing job of tying up one the show’s most frustrating loose end, namely the fate of Morgan, Rick’s erstwhile rescuer from Season One.
That fate was perhaps the cruelest that the show has had to offer thus far, that of a man who spared his reanimated wife only to witness her devour his son, and force him to destroy them both. Lennie James, returning to the role, was absolutely amazing as a man who has been devastated by the strain of a world gone mad, one that has been relentlessly raining blows upon him. It would have been easy to play him for a wacko and overdo the idea of a man who simply cracked. Yet they instead chose to show a man for whom survival is literally all he has left. Morgan can’t do anything except survive, for to do anything else — to face his demons, to dwell on his past, to contemplate his future — is to relive that nightmare all over again, and instead he chooses to simply fortify and defend, over and over, without thought or purpose.
Nonetheless, there is still madness, understandably so. James perfectly captured that (aided by some utterly spectacular set design, between the ingenious traps and the scrawling on the walls), and made the character so much more than a troubled loner, but rather a fully realized, sympathetic, tragic character whose broken spirit is worn plain on his face. The idea of doing what he had to do would break any man — every man — and it was depicted with startling empathy and deftness.
Rick and Carl, meanwhile, also grew as characters. Carl is demonstrating a little more maturity each week, even if his moment of recklessness this time around was a brief source of frustration. For a moment I thought we were returning to Season Two Carl, and I was ready to wish for his death once again, but ultimately Chandler Riggs gave a solid show as a young boy trying hard to do right by what’s left of his family. Meanwhile Rick, more and more, continues to realize that not everyone can — or should — be saved. His final acceptance of Morgan’s wishes was a more than a little heartbreaking, but I applaud the show for not taking the easy route and giving us a tearful reunion and bringing Morgan into the fold. This road was a far more challenging one, but also one that felt more honest and made the horror of the world of “The Walking Dead” seem that much more real. Perhaps the most savage demonstration of this wasn’t just Morgan, but the fate of the desperate stranger that gets left behind not once, but twice, by a group that has grown so insular and distrustful that the idea of helping fellow survivors has become more of a risk — if not a burden — than anything else. Is this really what our group has become? Has been forced to become?
But more than anything else, this episode deserves to be commended — if not goddamn celebrated — for being the coming out party for Michonne. At last, we get to see Danai Gurira actually act, and damn if she isn’t pretty good at it. Does this mean that they’ve finally figured out how to handle her character? Who and what they want her to be? Because “Clear” showed that they can have all of the smokey glowering and stoic silence, yet still inject nuance and personality and life into the character. From the very beginning, where her simple, soft delivery of “no, Rick, I don’t have a problem,” spoke volumes, Michonne suddenly became real, and not just a weird, silent caricature.
It was a little jarring and more than a little frustrating, to see her evolution spring forth so suddenly. It felt less like this episode moved too fast and more like the prior ones had wasted so much time, and that is what was frustrating. But there remained that air of tightly constrained violence, of frayed nerves and quivering anger, to the character, but also a much needed dose of humanity and angst and, at last, emotion, that made her seem more whole than ever before. She displayed a keen intelligence and wicked cleverness in her masterful manipulation of Carl, from the way she persuaded him to join together, to her final, critical part in his mission that she both salvaged, as well as lent a much needed breath of humor.
“Clear” was the type of episode that frankly, this show needs more of. There’s something to be said for taking a break from the central arcs of the show and spending some time just letting the characters interact organically, in independent settings, allowing us to learn about them without forcing it to happen within the tightly confined rules of the current story. “Clear” taught us a great deal about this small group of characters, allowing more freedom and flexibility for the path of its story, and ultimately resulting in an episode far more satisfying than the past few.