What We Learned From Last Night's Devastating 'The Walking Dead' And The Future Of The Show

I’d mentioned in the Weekend Preview on Friday that The Walking Dead — which is in something of a holding pattern, arranging the chess pieces for the final showdown between Woodbury and the prison gang in the season three finale — was due for a flashback or a bottle episode, another wheel-spinning episode to give showrunner Glen Mazarra some time to formulate the battle lines. Honestly, I was dreading the potential of that particular episode, worried that it’d something akin to one of Darabount’s episodes in season two, a forest-walking episode that provided little narrative momentum and even less character development. A snoozer.

Last night’s “Clear” wasn’t a flashback or bottle episode, but it was a side-trip episode, which fulfilled the same purpose. However, I was wrong to dread it: “Clear” turned out to be one of the best episodes of the series’ run, although it was the episode I suspect ultimately cost Glen Mazarra his job. Let me explain why, and because of the nature of the episode, we’ll skip the numbered list this week.

Two things struck me in the first minutes of last night’s episode, the 12th of the third season (there are four remaining). 1) it was clear early on that the focus would be entirely on Carl, Michonne, and Rick’s scavenger run, and 2), that we’d probably learn a lot about the future of the series from this episode because it was written by Scott Gimple, the man who is set to take over for Glen Mazarra as showrunner next season. What can we deduce about Gimple’s style from the episode? That the action may be slowed down, but that under Gimple’s supervision, The Walking Dead may benefit greatly from better characterization, more levity, and a better sense of humor.

Why? Because in 42 minutes last night, we learned more about Michonne than we have all season long. We now know she has a sense of humor. We know that she has been eager to be a real part of the prison gang. We know that she’s caring, that she actually has a personality, that she can be playful, and that she’s straight. WHAT? That actually came as a bigger surprise to me than it probably should have, but given her mysterious relationship with Andrea, I’d suspected — like most — that she felt something more than simple friendship toward her. (Of course, knowing that she had an ex-boyfriend doesn’t rule out the possibility, but it at least makes clear that she is capable of a romantic relationship, and that in the past, it’s been with men). Yes, Michonne is still the bad ass we’ve always known her to be, but now she’s something more: She’s a character, someone who we like and with whom we can better relate.

Moreover, late in the episode, when Michonne revealed to Rick that she knew that he was seeing people, and that she often used to talk to her ex-boyfriend, it brought out a better sense of humanity in Rick. No longer is he a crazy Ricktator, with some serious control issues, we also know that he

But the big surprise last night, of course, was the return of Morgan, who we haven’t seen since the pilot episode. The Walking Dead has had Morgan in its back pocket for three seasons, and they chose to bring him back at the exact right time. Morgan is the guy who saved Rick way back in the day, gave him shelter from the walkers, and explained to him the situation after Rick awoke from a coma. At the time, Morgan was reluctant to take his son and leave his home, but he was even more hesitant to put a bullet in his wife’s head, who had turned into a walker. That indecision would ultimately cost Morgan, as his wife eventually took his son, Duane, and turned Morgan into the crazy recluse he is today.

Last night’s episode tied up that loose end that’s been dangling: We know what happened to Morgan — the ORIGINAL TOKEN BLACK GUY — and his journey over the last year is typical of the world’s remaining survivors. Hard. Devastating. Filled with loss. Moreover, his speech — about how it is the weak-willed who survive, about how everyone will eventually “be torn apart by teeth or bullets” was the most emotional scene of the series since I don’t know when; since the death of Lori?

On top of learning about the fate of Duane, “Clear” was gut wrenching reminder of what we have been missing since Darabont was booted from the show: A sense of what the stakes are. The Walking Dead is not just about killing zombies, and the war with Woodbury. It’s about survival, and Rick — in his heartfelt speech to Morgan in trying to get him to return with him to the prison — addressed something that hasn’t been addressed in a very long time. What is the point? Is there any hope?

Rick, for all his stoicism, still feels like there is something more to this life than simply hanging on, or as Hershel alluded to last week, the value of spending a few more days, weeks, or months with his family. Rick thinks there is something beyond “time.” More than a reason to survive beyond revenge against The Governor. He thinks there is hope for the future, despite losing his best friend, and despite losing his wife.

Morgan, however, is too far gone. He’s lost too much, and the only thing keeping him alive is his weak will, his inability to end his own life. At the end of the episode, Rick left Morgan behind. Morgan is not that interested in surviving; I think he wants to cling to the pain of his loss, and nowhere is that more painful than in his own home, haunted by the memories of his dead wife and son.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the purpose behind side, side-trip that Carl and Michonne took — to retrieve the last remaining photo of Carl, Lori, and Rick as a happy family, for the benefit of Judith “Lil Ass Kicker” Grimes — but I appreciated immensely the value of the exercise. It brought Carl and Michonne together. Rick, Carl and Michonne escaped with a few extra weapons, but more importantly, the side trip brought them together as a family. Michonne is “ONE OF US.” Also, I absolutely loved this shot:

But as I was alluding to earlier, my suspicions is that it was this episode that might have cost Mazarra his job, not because Mazarra hasn’t been good (and the first half of season three was outstanding), but because Scott Gimple’s screenplay brought the episode back to what I think that Robert Kirkman wants more of out of the series: A sense of character, and of hope. Mazarra has been all action and zombie killing, and chewing through plot, but Gimple brought reintroduced the emotional core of The Walking Dead. Part of what made the first half of the season so successful was the emotional losses of several characters who we’ve built a relationship with, but as more characters are introduced, it’s important to rebuild those emotional connections. We didn’t feel much in the loss of Oscar and Felix because they weren’t real people to us. But if Gimple can apply what he did with last night’s episode to the rest of the characters on the show, if he can get us really emotionally invested in them, The Walking Dead could mature from a great, action-oriented show into an emotionally-heavy action oriented show.

I don’t think we’re going to lose Michonne anytime soon (I haven’t read the books, so I could be wrong), but if we do, imagine how much more devastating it will be after last night’s show than it would’ve been otherwise. Before, we were losing a bad ass, now we would lose a bad ass with a personality and a sense of humor and someone who cares for Carl. Moreover, when someone you like cares for someone else, it elevates your opinion on that someone else, too. In adding dimension to Michonne, we now have more respect for Carl and Rick, as well, who we were reminded were father and son, who are not always at odds, and who actually love one another.

Finally, I love what Gimple did with backpack guy: It would’ve been so easy, and I think something that the show usually falls prey to, to have the hitchhiker appear and force a confrontation or more bloodshed. But I think what Gimple did, in leaving backpack guy for dead was perfect: It reminds us of what is in store for those who have survived, but it also tells us that the prison gang is a very tight-knit family, and it takes a lot to become “ONE OF US.” In a way, backpack guy’s death tells the true story of how hard it was for Michonne to become part of the family.