It amazes me how much momentum The Walking Dead still garners from its breathtaking first episode. Characters and settings have come and gone as well as creative teams, of course, and our protagonists’ approach to the apocalypse has changed to the point that Rick, once incapable of leaving a man behind, now brushes off the same anonymous hitchhiker twice in one teaser sequence. Still, my hearts skipped a beat when I saw scenes from “Days Gone Bye” in the “Previously On” opening.
As a side note, “Clear” could have done without that montage, which essentially gives away the identity of the masked gunman in the second act. Why else would the show runners bring up Morgan Jones but to catch up with him? More to the point, his return (or rather Rick’s return to him) raises an issue that’s gnawed at me since “TS-19” in season one: why didn’t Rick come back for the Good Samaritan and his son before heading off for the CDC when he was perfectly willing to risk his life for Merle? I suppose I should save this question for the previous creators, who left us with more than their fair share of plot holes.
It’s worth noting that “Clear” doesn’t resolve a long dangling thread so much as revisit a one-off character to reframe our heroes’ hardened outlook, to which Andrea alluded in the previous episode, as part of an ongoing and depressingly inevitable evolution. In “Days Gone Bye”, Rick and Morgan met as good men and then parted ways. Here, they meet again as madmen and then part ways. One can only hope the encounter will shake Deputy Grimes back into the game before his showdown with Philip, but the story works just as well if it doesn’t.
All promise seems to be lost for Morgan, on the other hand. Don’t get me wrong. I admire the man’s resourcefulness in securing Rick’s old stomping grounds. In fact, inspired bits like the spear bushes with the gooey rat center sometimes make me question the plausibility of The Walking Dead’s central premise: could the whole of human civilisation really crumble at the hands of creatures this dim-witted? Of course, as Mr Jones points out himself, the real problem lies in the survivors: “if you’ve got something good, that just means there’s someone who wants to take it.” How depressingly astute.
No one with a heart or good sense could blame the guy for losing his marbles after watching his son get munched on by his undead wife, the one walker he couldn’t bring himself to kill in “Days Gone Bye”. The details of Duane hesitating to shoot his mother and Morgan distracting the boy at the key juncture paint an image as poignant in its poetry as it is sadistic in every other respect. Things go down quite differently in the comics, so this extra layer of irony presumably comes from the sick mind of screenwriter Scott M. Gimple. The bit pays off beautifully when Carl apologizes for shooting first and asking questions later, inadvertently pouring a truckload of salt on the bereaved father’s wound. I dig what the latter’s reply tragically intimates about the new world order.
For all of his badass gun totting, I’m relieved that Carl has retained much of his father’s sentimentality. Retrieving that framed picture from a ghoul-infested dive may strike some as stupid in a way reserved only for children on television, but it denotes an attachment to human values beyond survival. Last week, I praised Woodbury for preserving a semblance of civilisation for its populace. It seems Rick as a parent has managed this without blinding his charge to the woes of the world. Otherwise, the boy might not have had the courage to save his father from Morgan or the intelligence to check for the safest course of action on the latter’s map.
As a character-oriented one-off, “Clear” also serves to cement Michonne’s relationship to the tribe, allowing her to become, as Carl puts it, “one of us”. I find it interesting that the two Grimes men ultimately base their judgment of the swordswoman not on her wisdom or usefulness to the cause but on her capacity to recognise and value human frailty. I love her brief heart-to-heart with Rick at the end of the episode, in particular his final line before handing her the car keys: “You want to drive? I see things.” It amazes me how powerful a single moment of levity can feel in a context as dire as that of The Walking Dead.
Death toll so far: eighteen. Yes, Duane counts.