Rick is haunted by yet another ghost from the past. But this ghost isn't dead yet. (OR IS IT?) (No.)
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Credit: Gene Page/AMC

Just about one year ago, during the bright new dawn of the Mazzara era, Walking Dead did a road-trip episode. In “18 Miles Out,” Rick and Shane took a long ride into the countryside to drop off the captive Randall far away from Hershel’s Farm. At the time, I noted that it’s basically impossible for a TV show to screw up a road-trip episode: It has all the dramatic possibility of a bottle episode, putting a small group of characters into a tight space and letting them bounce off each other; but it also moves the drama into slightly new surroundings, giving the episode’s writers the opportunity to explore the characters outside of their usual context. Well, almost exactly one year later, the sun is setting on the Mazzara era, and The Walking Dead coughed up another road-trip episode, this time featuring Rick and his son Carl on an artillery-hunting mission with mysterious newcomer Michonne.

And for my money, “Clear” was another shining moment for the series: A nicely paced short-story which simultaneously explored one of the most-discussed bits of ambient mythology on the show (Whatever happened to Morgan?) and also gave the characters an exceedingly rare opportunity to talk about something besides The Governor and Ghost Lori. (ASIDE: Walking Dead fans who pay attention to the ongoing behind-the-scenes saga probably took note that the writer of last night’s episode was Scott M. Gimple, who will take over as Dead showrunner in season 4. I’m not sure we should read too much into Gimple’s plans going forward, but this episode did feature lots of ambient bits of zombie-apocalypse atmosphere, like Morgan’s Home Alone security set-up. Gimple also co-wrote “18 Miles Out.” Thus, we can conclude that the Gimplified Walking Dead will feature lots of road trips and lots of MacGyver-esque weaponry. END OF ASIDE.)

The episode got off to a great start with Rick, Michonne, and Carl on the road. They drove right past a note left for someone on the side of the road: “Erin: We tried for Stone Mountain.” This wasn’t too different from the message left on the freeway for Sophia way back in season 2: You get the vibe that there are a lot of messages written to dead people scattered around Walking Dead‘s America. They saw someone ahead of them on the road. A living someone, too: A guy with a large backpack, on his own in the middle of nowhere. “Slow down, sir, I’m begging you!” he yelled, “Pleeeasse!” Rick did not hear his cry. Once again, you have to wonder if Rick’s whole No-New-People strategy is sound. True, Tomas tried to kill him, but Tomas was also a hard-bitten convict. If nothing else, the dude yelling “Pleeeease!” on the side of the road seems like he’d make excellent cannon fodder in the upcoming War with the Governor.

They came upon a car wreck, and the car wound up getting stuck on the side of the road. Naturally, a gang of Walkers arrived to torment them. There was lots of great visual storytelling in this episode, none of it better than when Rick casually rolled down his window, told his pals to “Cover your hears,” and nonchalantly blasted a walker in the head. (Michonne also noted that one of the Walkers had a necklace which advertised her name as “Erin.”) Rick took the opportunity to teach Carl how to give a car some traction — I might be wrong, but did he use the bones of a walker to provide that traction? Far behind them, Mr. Backpack appeared around the bend, still yelling “Pleease! Pleeeeeeeaase!”

Rick parked the car in a pleasant-looking all-American town, which had at least one more pile of burnt undead remains than most pleasant-looking all-American towns. Turned out this wasn’t just some random Smalltownville; this was the Grimes’ Family’s Smalltownville. I’m not that up on my Georgia geography, but it would appear that Rick managed to travel the entire length of the Walking Dead TV series in just a couple of hours, adding further proof to my running theory that this season of The Walking Dead is set in a magical forest that is only as big as your imagination. (ASIDE: If the TV show follows the comic book, we may never see much beyond the Georgia border, but I like to imagine that just a few hours away — maybe in Hilton Head — the survivors founded a utopia and spend their days drinking Mint Juleps and playing chess with zombie chess-pieces dressed in elaborate costumes. The men all have mustaches, like Kevin Spacey in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and the women all look like extras from Interview With a Vampire. END OF ASIDE.)

Rick led Michonne and Carl into the police station, hoping to get the rest of the weaponry from the station’s storage locker. Unfortunately, the locker had been cleared. Rick wasn’t concerned. He knew of a few guns hiding in local bars and shops. They made their way to Main Street, noting as they walked an impressive amount of graffiti. “No Guilt, You Know That” said the street art, “Turn Around and Live.” These kids today and their wacky slogans! This long approach was mostly silent; when they heard a noise, the sound of Rick drawing his gun and the sound of Michonne grasping her sword echoed throughout the street.

NEXT: It’s a sniper!

On the Main Street of Smalltownville, Rick and Co. discovered an impressive array of anti-zombie machinery. Using very basic household products, and a few cute little animals as bait, someone had rigged up a Rube Goldberg system of Walker Traps. (“And here, we can’t even fix that hole in our back fence” is what Rick should have said.) The gang couldn’t admire the machinery too much, though, because gunshots rang out throughout the street…and a man on a rooftop, covered head-to-toe, held a rifle on them.

Now, another thing that is very hard to screw up: A sniper battle. I think this is because the whole idea of a sniper takes the inherent excitement of a gunfight and adds in lots of Hitchcockian tension: A sniper scene is usually about 99% tense anticipation and 1% actual gunfire. (Recommendations for further viewing/playing: The final sequence in Full Metal Jacket, the underrated Jude Law-vs-Ed Harris Enemy at the Gates, the epic sniper dual in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, and the arcade game classic Silent Scope.) So I was intrigued to see how Rick, Michonne, and Carl — who all had short-range equipment — would handle the attacker. Michonne managed to run up to the rooftop in a couple seconds — she’s clearly been taking Parkour lessons. Meantime, the urban sniper ran down to street level, and was immediately shot by Carl. (His dad had told Carl to run for the car. I’m starting to think the only way to get Carl to do what you want is to say the exact opposite.)

There was a nice moment between Rick and Carl after the fight, when Rick told his son: “I didn’t want you to have to do that.” Rick knows that Carl has already had to perform unspeakable acts, but he still wants his son to hold onto whatever bit of innocence he has left. Fortunately, the urban sniper had on a bulletproof vest. And, in an intriguing twist, he had a face we all recognized: It was Morgan, the suburban dad from way back in the series premiere, who saved Rick’s life and gave him the 411 on how to survive in the post-zombie America.

They carried Morgan upstairs to his loft HQ, noting a series of traps along the way: Blades under the welcome mat; a tripwire at the top of the stairs with a bloody axe awaiting an unlucky newcomer. Morgan’s apartment looked like a survivalist’s most beautiful nightmare: The walls were covered in guns and graffiti’d messages. The messages were written in different colors — someone found a pack of Crayola Multi-colored Chalk! — and were all some variation on “No TV and No Beer Make Morgan Something Something.”

Michonne thought it was best to leave Morgan unconscious on his bed. “He tried to kill us, and we didn’t leave him to the walkers. He’s had a good day.” But Rick wanted to stick around. Morgan helped him; Rick figured he needed to return the favor. Meanwhile, Carl perused the Graffiti and found an extensive map of the town, including a note about “Rick’s House — Burnt Out.” We’ve mostly gotten to know the characters on The Walking Dead in their new, post-zombie surroundings, and it was interesting to see how Carl’s face fell when he realized his old home was completely obliterated from this world now. He kept away the tears by offering to go on a mission for Baby Judith: They could get a crib from the local Baby Store. Michonne offered to go with him. She told Carl not to run off on his own. Predictably, Carl ran off on his own.

NEXT: Rick and Bizarro-Rick, once againIndulge me in a tangent for a hot paragraph here. The dearly departed gonzo sci-fi series Fringe did not, on the surface, have much in common with The Walking Dead. Structurally, Fringe was an old-fashioned TV show: Essentially every episode focused on a five-act procedural short-story, with a gang of noble-misfit crimefighters saving average people from the weird things in the shadows. (Conversely, Walking Dead‘s structure represents all the best and worst advances in the TV medium post-Sopranos: Episodes play out gradually, with long cinematic sequences that can seem either thrillingly tense or weirdly lazy, depending on the week.) In fact, Fringe‘s first season set up the main three characters as very explicit archetypes: Olivia Dunham was the Supercop who cared too much; Peter Bishop was the prodigal son struggling to impress his father; Walter Bishop was the kookball scientist with a dark secret. Throw in Astrid as the Quirky Lab Tech and Broyles as the Paternal Boss, and you had a show that looked, in outline, a bit like CSI: Alias.

In their second season finale, they introduced alternate-universe doubles for most of the main cast, and everything changed. If the original Olivia was a little bit too obviously a product of the J.J. Abrams Tough-Heroine Assembly Line, Alternate-Universe Olivia was the complete opposite: A thrillseeking semi-sociopathic adventurer, willing to do absolutely anything — and lie to absolutely everyone — for the greater good. Meanwhile, Walter’s alternate-universe duplicate was a megalomaniacal dictator; Astrid’s double was an even-more-brilliant lab tech whose quirk was replaced by high-functioning autistic symptoms; Broyles was a devious double agent. It was like the show took very basic archetypes and then offered very elaborate riffs on those archetypes. Olivia Dunham by herself wasn’t necessarily an interesting character, but the show became overpopulated with so many different versions of Olivia — Alternate-Universe Olivia, Future-Olivia, Rebooted-Universe Olivia, Nimoy-Imitating Olivia. Some shows have characters with multiple dimensions; Fringe literalized those dimensions by embodying all of them.

Now. Rick Grimes is more obviously interesting than most TV show protagonists. At this point, he’s a grieving husband, a struggling father, a leader under siege, the despotic unelected dictator of a feudalistic nomad tribe, and an excellent killer of zombies. But at his core, Rick is pretty much the cowboy archetype writ weird: A lone man struggling to do the right thing in a frontier ungoverned by the rules of civilization. Rick is, very clearly, the hero of The Walking Dead — we don’t really think they’re going to kill him off, no matter how much the producers like to say that “Nobody is safe.”

But I do find it interesting that the show keeps on exploring different variations of Rick Grimes. Shane was very clearly set up as an Anti-Rick: Same job, same background, in love with the same woman, desperate to have the same life, but with a very different mentality in how best to live in the zombie apocalypse. Rick won that battle, but only by essentially becoming Shane: After he killed him, he gave the “This isn’t a democracy” speech, essentially announcing his conversion to the Church of Shane. Meanwhile, most of this season has been about building up the Rick/Governor dichotomy. That’s a much richer contrast, not least because what makes them so different isn’t as clear as Rick/Shane. (The Governor would have stopped to pick up Mr. Backpack, for instance, but he also didn’t hesitate to gun down a whole platoon of soldiers. Rick would have left them both alone — which is only “the right choice” if you’re not talking to Mr. Backpack.)

This episode presented Morgan as yet another Bizarro-Rick. It started off a bit awkward. While Rick talked to the apparently unconscious Morgan, Morgan reached under his bed for a hidden knife; when Rick’s back was turned, he attacked him, and stabbed him in the shoulder. Rick managed to overpower him, which seemed like what Morgan wanted all along. “Please kill me!” he said.

NEXT: “Did she turn?”Rick got him to calm down. He reminded Morgan that he had saved Rick from the walkers, all those months ago. He reminded Morgan about the walkie-talkie. That got Morgan talking. He turned on the walkie-talkie every morning for days, weeks, always at sunrise. There was never anything but static. “You were never there,” said Morgan. It’s unclear how to read that statement. We know for a fact that Rick contacted Morgan at least twice: Once when they set off for the CDC, and once when they left Atlanta. Did Morgan not have the walkie set to the right frequency? Was “sunrise” perhaps too vague an agreed-upon time? Whatever the reason, Rick definitely felt guilty about leaving walkie range when the Grimes Gang set off on their quest for Fort Benning.

Then Morgan told Rick what had been happening with him lately. This was Morgan’s version of The Last 30 Episodes of The Walking Dead, and it was not a particularly happy spin-off. Morgan reminded Rick about his dead wife, whose walking corpse was still trying to get into the door of her old home. He couldn’t kill her, no matter how he tried. Months later, Morgan was checking out a cellar, while his son Duane waited outside. Morgan emerged just in time to see that somehow — madly, impossibly — his wife was standing in front of Duane. Duane had his gun up…but he couldn’t shoot her. And then she attacked. Morgan took down both members of his family — and, in that moment, probably lost whatever sanity he might have had. (Props to actor Lennie James for really selling this monologue; a lesser show might have used flashbacks, but James made the horror explicit with the dead look in his eyes. Also, another note to add in the Morgan-As-Alternate-Rick theory: James, like Lincoln and like David Morrissey, is a Brit acting American.)

This weird little tale was, of course, an implicit sideways version of the saga of the Grimes family. Morgan tried to do everything he could to save his son, but he couldn’t make the hard choices — not like Rick, killing an apparently apologetic Shane in order to protect his family. Morgan’s son, Duane, saw his dead mother and could not shoot her; Carl, conversely, volunteered to execute his mother, plugging a bullet in her head while she lay dead on the floor of the prison.

The message here seemed to be that Rick and Carl survived because they cast aside their old sentimentality, but Morgan actually offered Rick an even more despairing message. “People like you? The good people? They always die. And the bad people, too. But the weak people, the people like me: We have inherited the earth.” Right now, Dead‘s America is in the Level 2 stage of the Post-Apocalypse — call it “The Road Warrior Stage” — when the survivors form into tribes and the strongest survive. Morgan seemed to be offering a vision for Level 3 where none of those tribes survive — where the Morgans of the world become a new race of cavemen, lurking in the ruins behind elaborate security mechanisms, scavenging the declining resources of the old world, nothing to look forward to except maybe dying of natural causes.

Heavy stuff! Fortunately (or not), Michonne was helping Carl on a very Carl-esque mission.

NEXT: Michonne’s no-look execution{C}Carl wanted to give his baby sister something to remember their dearly departed mother. So he went to what looked like the Grimes Family’s favorite restaurant/tavern to get a picture of the three of them together in happier times. Michonne helped out, first by throwing in a rat cage to attract the walkers, and then by executing various katana kills, the absolute best of which was a Behind-The-Back Head Stab — earning her yet another Zombie Kill of the Week trophy, although it has to be said that there are only so many more ways to kill a zombie with a sword. (OR ARE THERE?)

Carl is such an effective soldier that it’s easy to forget that he is also the son of Lori Grimes, an infamously butter-fingered problem-creator whose sole competent action on the show was her own death. Carl showed a bit of his mom’s inefficiency when he dropped the picture right in front of the hungry Walkers. He moaned to Michonne that they had to go back inside…and, more to the point, that he had to go back inside.

This is right about the moment when most people say, “Okay, Carl, sure. But make sure you don’t do something that makes the whole operation more complicated than it needs to be! Okay, sonny boy?”

Michonne instead said: “No more bulls—. You wait here. That’s how we get it done.” Then she walked inside, snuck the picture out from the hordes of walkers, and brought it to Carl. Thus begins the first chapter of Michonne’s book, The Tough Love Guide to Parenting in the Zombie Apocalypse, By Michonne K. Badass, Esq. (The K stands for “Katana.”) She admitted to Carl that she didn’t do it all for the good of his family; she held up a colorful horse statue, noting that she had to go back inside to grab it, because “It’s just too damn gorgeous.” I think this might be the first time Michonne has smiled about something that wasn’t killin’ zombies.

Back at Crazypants HQ, Rick asked Morgan to come with him. Morgan revealed that he hadn’t lost all his marbles by asking an important question: Why did Rick need so many guns? Rick admitted that they were gearing up for a battle. That couldn’t interest Morgan less. Morgan has reduced his life to the bare essentials: Food and guns. Now Rick begged Morgan to come with him. “We both started out in the same place,” he said. “You can come back from this.” (Seeing Morgan must have given Rick some perspective on his own brush with insanity…and trying to convince Morgan that he could “come back” was probably a little therapeutic, like looking in a mirror.) But Morgan would have none of it. He finally announced his intentions, what sounded like a New Age motto: “I have to clear. I have to clear.”

“Clear,” in this context, apparently means “Clear out the zombies from the traps and burn them in a pile of bodies.” Which he proceeded to do outside. Carl walked up and apologized for shooting Morgan; Morgan said, bluntly, “Don’t ever be sorry.” Again, that was a comment with lots of weight: It almost sounded like Morgan was saying, “There’s no point in being sorry anymore, because there’s nothing left to make you feel sorry, except your own useless conscience.”

NEXT: Requiem for Mr. BackpackWhen they got back to the car, there was a nice grace note. Carl told his dad that Michonne “might be one of us.” Michonne told Rick point-blank, “I know you see things.” But unlike the rest of the Grimes Gang, she doesn’t see that as a weakness. “I used to talk to my dead boyfriend. It happens.” (ASIDE: Seriously, what would you call Rick and Michonne if they got together? Richonne, right? END OF ASIDE.) As they drove away, they saw Morgan burning some zombie bodies, clearing out the detritus. It was a vision of an Alterna-Rick who had nothing left now except the basic urge to keep living. You could argue that Rick’s own life is more optimistic: He has people who depend on him. But Rick is also facing down a war, and the possibility of losing all those people. Maybe it was a vision of Rick’s future.

Now, I had a couple minor quibbles with the end of this episode. First and foremost: The Grimes Gang is currently preparing for war with a man who has, at his disposal, a few dozen soldiers and an untold amount of artillery. To my eyes, the amount of weaponry that they grabbed from Morgan’s stash looked ridiculously light. Heck, I’m not sure Morgan’s entire weapons stash would be enough to hold off Woodbury. Yet again, I’m struck by the fact that Rick might just not be a very smart tactician. He’s good at basic short-range combat: Witness the success of the Melee Squad, which moves like one unit covering each other’s back. But he should really be preparing for the Governor’s arrival by rigging the Prison as one giant deathtrap. You gotta Precinct 13 your house, dude!

Along the same lines, I’m struck again by the fact that almost nobody on The Walking Dead — besides the Governor — seems to understand just how valuable living, breathing humans are as a natural resource. It seems to me that, if Rick were just a bit tougher and smarter, he would’ve bopped Morgan in the head and taken him back to the prison. Best case scenario, he gets more time to bring him back to earth and turn him into a valued Grimes Gangbanger. Worst case scenario, he turns Morgan into a willing kamikaze soldier in the war against the Governor.

But Rick runs the Grimes Gang on a very clear mission now: No New People. (He’s making an exception for Michonne, but that’s arguably just because she helped rescue Glenn and Maggie, and also because she’s played by an actress who is a regular on the show.) That message became stark in the devastating — and darkly funny — closing moments of the episode. Driving down the lame lonely country road, they came across the old familiar car wreck. Further up on the road, they saw a wreck of a human being, blood splattered everywhere; a little further up from that, they saw the easily-recognizable backpack. They drove by, wordless. Then they backed up, and Carl grabbed the backpack. Humans might be untrustworthy; but every backpack might have a can of soup, or a change of clothes, or one more gun.

This was another episode that was light on zombie action and heavy on introspection, but all in all, I found this a significant improvement over last week’s episode, if only because Andrea was completely absent from the proceedings. We have four episodes left to go in this season, and presumably, the show will very soon stop teasing the possibility of a war and will just get to a war. Unless — theory alert — these next four episodes are all about the preparation, and Season 4 is about the war? That seems to run counter to departing showrunner Glen Mazzara’s promise of a “bombshell” finale. But maybe he means, like, an emotional bombshell? Or maybe he means the Grimes Gang will discover a copy of the Jean Harlow classic Bombshell in the prison’s DVD library? Let’s hope none of those things I just said are right.

Fellow viewers, what did you think of Dead‘s latest road trip? Enjoy the slow-burning survivor chemistry between Rick and Michonne? Intrigued to see what’s happened to Morgan since the series finale? Or were you just waiting for them to get back to the dang Prison-Woodbury war, already?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

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The Walking Dead

AMC's zombie thriller, based on the classic comic book serial created by Robert Kirkman.

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