Walking Dead “Clear” revives a dying show

The-Walking-Dead-Clear

For all its millions  of viewers, The Walking Dead has never been bullet proof to headshots from critics and fans alike. But a few weeks ago, in the midst of a pretty bland third season, AMC aired a one-shot episode that at first seemed wholly irrelevant to the season’s major arcs. Already we had a bizarre trio of leads (Rick, Carl, and Michonne) and an ironically unclear mission. For a show that’s played it safe for the past 20 episodes, everything about this felt off in the best way possible.

The Walking Dead is a very different show from when it started. Not unlike one of the show’s biggest influences, LostThe Walking Dead used to be home to a series of flashbacks and intercut story arcs that heightened tension and fleshed out other areas of the show’s universe. Perhaps the most famous exhibition of this is Shane’s great and final turn in season two’s “Save the Last One.” The episode used flashback to build upon Shane’s guilt over sacrificing a partner for the greater good. The show presented the moral grey areas of the end of the world by challenging and engaging the viewer with multiple points of view. Like a film noir, it engaged in an investigatory plot that worked perfectly. Two or three showrunners later, the ongoing zombie apocalypse seems destined to shed itself from the narrative smarts that its fans and critics continue to hope it will reclaim.

The show’s third season, by and large, has whisked away any semblance of this kind of narrative intrigue. After all, it’s much more comfortable hanging on to the painfully familiar and rarely exciting trials of quarreling neighbors. And while the characters, new and old, continue to inspire audiences to seek out the show, the actually gripping aspects of the show are generally lost.

But there are always exceptions.

“Clear,” more than anything else, understands the strengths the show was built on and, more importantly, understands how to build on them. Director Tricia Brock, a vet of shows like Breaking Bad and Twin Peaks, makes a clear division between the society these characters have created and the world that now exists. The cold open alone shows Rick take out a horde of zombies and turn his back on a real-live human hitchhiker without flinching. For a guy that spent most the show’s run crying, this is hardly the same Rick who woke up in that hospital bed three years ago. Brock highlights the characters’ journey through the actors’ performances and subtle plot points that show the passage of time better than a title card ever could.

Brock also uses her setting to show how isolated Rick has become. In the below still, the walls envelop our heroes in shadow, seemingly clocking them, as well as blocking them off from the rest of the world. They are small, insignificant, and literally in the dark about what the rest of the world has been up to.

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The episode’s writer, Scott Gimple tours Rick and Carl around their former home, forcing them return to their hometown and revel in how foreign it’s all become. Brock and Gimple elevate the situation by re-introducing another element from the show’s beginning: Morgan, the frightened father of one who saved Rick’s life in the pilot episode. Things haven’t gone well for Morgan. While Rick has been forging a new society of sorts, Morgan has alienated himself from the world entirely, turning Rick and Carl’s hometown into one big booby trap.

In Morgan, Rick sees a bit of himself, as well as the deteriorating face of the world around him. Morgan can no longer deal with the outcome and turns his rage towards zombie and human, much in the same way Rick did during the cold open. Rick is on a similar path and the revelation of seeing Morgan causes his character to change and grow. The two warm up a bit by the end of the episode, learning that isolation and fear are terrible ways to get an audience to care about you.

Ultimately, it is this very human message that’s at the heart of “Clear.” By taking a micro situation, Brock looks at the macro state of the world. She turns these small moments of the characters past to accentuate the person that they are becoming. It’s a smart way to make an episode of TV, especially when some of the most vocal criticism comes from these characters acting stupid or just plain unlikable. In a show about zombies, it’s important to remind us that there’s still a heart beating in Rick and Carl, and “Clear” does that magnificently.

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