If Season 1 was about staying alive and Season 2 was about adjusting to this new world, Season 3 of The Walking Dead has been about keeping sane in the zombie apocalypse. Rick and The Governor have been the primary subjects dealing with post-traumatic stress, but mental and emotional stability has been an issue for Michonne, Glenn, Maggie and others. Tonight served as something of a warning for Rick about the road he’s been headed down.
“Clear” begins with a sign reading, “ERIN, WE TRIED FOR STONE MOUNTAIN —J.” But Erin, we soon learn from the bracelet of a walker, didn’t make it. Rick, Carl and Michonne head back to Rick’s hometown to restock on weapons in Rick’s police armory.
They pass a desperate hitchhiker, and there’s not even a discussion about picking him up. At this point, everyone is a threat, and—even though they could use some backup against the Governor—it’s not a chance worth taking. Carl turning to look through the back window is the closest we get to compassion.
The armory proves to be ransacked, and Rick’s desperation for weapons leads the group in search of individual guns Rick knows about around town. But the downtown area has been turned into the zombie version of a bug zapper with rats and birds as bait. It’s clear they’re not alone, but they march into danger and when confronted, choose fight over flight.
Carl puts the masked gunman down after Rick has told him to run back to the car. And when the bulletproof vest and mask come off, it’s our old friend Morgan underneath. Morgan has become unhinged, we learn, and tries to kill Rick, thinking his old friend is just “a dead man’s mask.”
Life has been tragic since we last saw this caring father struggling to put a bullet in his undead wife’s brain. His son wasn’t able to kill mom either and ended up getting bit by her. The guilt of being responsible for his son’s death has pushed Morgan over the edge. Trying to reach Rick on the radio and finding only static didn’t make things any easier. The purpose that keeps him going is to clear the world of all zombies—something he failed to before.
Rick tries to bring Morgan back to reality, offering him a place at the prison and a chance for human connection. But looking around the walls of Morgan’s fortress, it would be a long trip back from crazytown. He’s been on his own for too long with too much guilt stored up. The encounter serves as a wake-up call for Rick, who’s been humoring his own crazy visions of Lori and Shane instead of taking care of the living. In trying to rescue Morgan, it’s clear Rick is choosing to rescue himself.
And Michonne, a woman of few words who’s been much more of an outsider to the group than she is in the comic books, offers Rick encouragement of her own, acknowledging that she knows he “sees things” and making that okay. Carl even declares her “one of us” at a time when Rick needs all the allies he can muster.
The tense moments we’ve come to expect (zombies waking up in a dark, musty restaurant) are balanced by quiet, philosophical moments that dig deeper into what it means to be alive without the structures of civilization. And Lennie James’ performance as a the traumatized Morgan give the episode the gravitas it needed. The episode was superbly written by Scott Gimple, who’ll be taking over showrunner duties from Glen Mazarra for Season 4. Gimple also wrote “Save the Last One,” the excellent Season 2 episode in which Shane sacrifices Otis in order to escape. It’s a good sign that the show will continue operating at the high bar set by Mazarra next season.