“The Walking Dead” simply refuses to let its fans walk away.
After delivering a dreadful start to the second season that transformed television’s most-buzzworthy show into its most-ridiculed, “TWD” scored with a breathtaking midseason finale that wrapped its tedious “Sophia” storyline in the most enthralling way possible.
The remainder of season two was considerably stronger, although still uneven, but by the time part one of season three rolled around, “The Walking Dead” was firing on all cylinders. It combined legitimate action at the infamous prison with intriguing characterization at the Governor’s Woodbury community, delivering the series’ best stretch of episodes to date.
But whatever magic drove the first half of season three seemed gone when the show returned in February. The first three episodes each landed at various points on the spectrum of disappointment and again prompted question about whether “The Walking Dead” was impressive enough to warrant the label of television’s top-rated drama series.
Rather than being a success story for those networks which dare to do something different, “TWD” was yet another “Big Bang Theory”-esque reminder that mediocrity is what clicks with the masses.
Then came Sunday’s “Clear” episode, written by newly-crowned showrunner Scott Gimple, who will take over for the departing Glen Mazzara next season.
Easily the best “The Walking Dead” (pilot included), the episode will clearly rank as one of the best television episodes, period, this year. From start-to-finish, “Clear” not only provided enough “action” to keep the shallowest of viewers engaged but also demonstrated the commitment to drama, emotion and characterization that is supposedly inherent to a “serious” zombie series. Throw in fine acting performances, particularly the breathtaking one from guest Lennie James, and you have an incredible “Walking Dead.”
No, nothing was done to further Merle’s integration into the prison. We did not learn anymore about how Andrea is dealing with the moral dilemma of being loyal to both the Governor and the prison survivors. We did not find out how Tyreese is adapting to Woodbury.
Instead, we focused on the “human” element of a zombie apocalypse that transcends any individual storyline. We focused on important questions concerning what dictates right and wrong in a post-apocalyptic world, what it takes to survive in such a world and whether survival is even what a decent human wants. Coupled with the first successful attempt to color the Michonne character, and you have an incredible “Walking Dead.”
Unfortunately spoiled by the “previously on…” opener, which featured a callback to Rick’s dealings with fellow survivor Morgan, “Clear” saw Rick trek back to his hometown with Michonne and Carl to gather supplies. As the sheriff, Rick was uniquely aware of which liquor stores, convenience marts and restaurants possessed guns and hoped to collect that valuable artillery for his impending war with Woodbury.
As it turns out, Rick was walking into a booby-trapped town monitored by Morgan, who had succumb to the dangers of loneliness and regret.
Without the human element to keep him going, Morgan has nothing to distract from his crippling sense of personal weakness. In the “TWD” pilot, Morgan found himself unable to kill his “turned” wife. That weakness had further ramifications; a while later, his son, sharing that same genetic “weakness,” was similarly unable to permanently kill his zombie mother, and he suffered her attack as a result. At that point, Morgan was forced to kill both of them and subject himself to a guilt far greater than the initial “kill” would have created.
Because the mental “weakness” also prevents Morgan from turning the gun on himself, he is as much a prisoner of his mind as he is the zombie-ridden world. He cannot join a group like Rick’s because it would mean exposing himself to new people about whom to care–and forcing himself into violent situations that conflict with his moral code. But he cannot end his life either, which means he must adhere to his lonely, daily routine of trapping walkers and burning their bodies.
Delivered via an Emmy-worthy performance from Lennie James, Morgan’s mentality conflicts greatly with that of Rick, whose love and concern for his family and fellow survivors is what drives him to engage in situations that ultimately result in tragedy. Morgan was also contrasted with a random passerby showcased in the episode; that traveler, who twice tried to flag down Rick’s car, died in his relentless search of survival.
In assisting Carl with an errand–retrieving a Grimes family portrait from the local cafe so that Judith can know who her mother was–Michonne finally demonstrated her humanity. Carl, who at times shares Andrea’s proclivity for being annoying but also carries an inherent likability as a result of his fast ascent into adulthood, provided the perfect companion for Michonne’s character in this quest. She was not only helping a kid and fellow group member, but also risking her own life for something that had no value to herself, and thus finally indicated a willingness to belong.
That willingness on her part eclipsed anything she ever demonstrated with Andrea (a relationship that was, depending on the moment, weirdly-controlling or ruined by undeserved skepticism), and it added a human color to the Michonne character. Now she’s not only a badass, aloof chick with a sword–she is also someone with a heart and a commitment to the prison group.
At the height of fan frustration in the first-half of season two, it was frequently noted that the show was focusing too much on the humans and not enough on the zombie action. That sentiment, though true to an extent, was also the most misleading and misguided criticism ever levied on the show.
Though the zombie action sequences can be enthralling, “The Walking Dead” is unequivocally a better show when it focuses on the “human” element.
The season two episodes flopped not because they focused on the human component of the series but because they had nothing compelling to say.
“Clear” had a great deal to say. And it provided a reminder to even the harshest critics that AMC’s flagship series has, in its wheelhouse, all the tools needed to compete with the best dramas on television.