'Walking Dead' Season 3 episode 12 recap: 'Clear' - Hello, old friend

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walking-dead-rick-carl-michonne-clear-season-3-amc.jpgHalfway through the second half of "The Walking Dead" Season 3, we get a stellar installment that raises the bar for what's to come. In some ways a diversion from many of the show's ongoing arcs, in other ways an example of the series at its best, "Clear" is likely to be remembered and singled out by "Dead" fans for a long time to come.

It's something of a tradition at this point for AMC dramas to produce an episode that isolates a few characters and burrows in on major themes. "Mad Men" had "The Suitcase," "Breaking Bad" had "4 Days Out" and "Fly." Even "The Killing" had "Missing."

walking-dead-morgan-lennie-james-amc.jpg"Clear" fits nicely into that mold, while also serving as a callback to Frank Darabont's brilliant pilot episode in several key ways. First, by paring back the ensemble to focus once again on Rick (this time paired with his son, Carl, and a near-stranger, Michonne, he's not sure he can completely trust). Second, with the surprise return of Morgan Jones ( Lennie James), who hasn't been seen since that first episode. And third, by honoring and reasserting the show's firm grasp on visual storytelling, on prime display throughout the hour.

The episode opens with Rick, Carl and Michonne on a mission: They need to find more weapons for the inevitable war with the Governor. In one more way the episode returns to the series' roots, that mission brings them back to where Rick and Carl used to work and live.

Once the trio encounters Morgan the story splits into two halves: Rick catching up with his old friend, and Carl determined to reclaim something important to him while Michonne plays unwelcome (but ultimately essential) bodyguard. Both of these halves are simple, direct and expertly handled. "Clear" is a quiet episode, rich in atmosphere and relatively low on narrative incident -- all elements it has in common with the pilot -- but also one that allows us to see familiar characters in fresh ways and watch them take steps in new directions that will probably be very important as the season wraps up.

Rick and Morgan's reunion is more than just an unexpected meeting between old friends. (As Andrew Lincoln himself says, it's like Rick looking into a mirror and realizing where he's heading.) Morgan has lost his son, Duane, and the experience -- recounted by James in a harrowing and enthralling monologue -- left him numb in every way. He exists now as an isolated killing machine, refusing any meaningful contact with other people, and eliminating the world of as many walkers as he can before he makes his own inevitable exit. As he tells Rick, everyone's fate now is to be "torn apart by teeth or bullets."

Rick does every thing he can to help this man the way Morgan once helped him, but it's a lost cause. "You're not seeing things right, but you can come back from this. I know you can," he pleads with Morgan. He might as well be pleading with himself. What's not lost -- at least not entirely -- is Rick's sanity. Rick knows the dangers of this world all too well, but reconnecting with Morgan could be just the key he needs to understand the dangers of disconnecting from it too.

walking-dead-chandler-riggs-carl-clear-season-3-amc.jpgCarl's journey is even more complex. He begins distrustful of Michonne, and irritated that she's even with them on their mission. He's the one who shoots Morgan (while the man is still wearing head-to-toe body armor and firing on the unwelcome interlopers), an act that shocks Rick and perhaps wakes him up a little to what Carl has become capable of, for better and worse. But the revelation of what Carl is so desperate to find -- a picture of him with his parents in better days, the only image left of Lori, as a keepsake for baby Judith and himself -- proves that as hardened as he's become, Carl's humanity is still hanging in there.

And Michonne's self-appointed role as Carl's guardian ("I can't stop you but you can't stop me from helping you," she tells him), turns out to be the only reason Carl both succeeds at his mission and makes it out alive. Together they're able to outsmart a bunch of walkers, get in over their heads, and still finish the job.

There are a lot of lessons here for the characters moving forward. Carl learns he can trust Michonne and maybe ask for help every once in awhile. Michonne learns she can open up and perhaps reclaim a little of her former life (her "too damn gorgeous" souvenir shows she has interests beyond killing walkers and staying alive). And Rick's realization should put him back on the path to sanity, and maybe even happiness.

"Clear" looked at four people living in a world gone mad, and reaffirmed that the only way to stay human is to embrace your connections to other people.

Other highlights:

- In an episode all about interpersonal connections, the "Tragic Tale of the Hitchhiker" is an elegant short story all its own. Michonne has made it inside Rick's circle, but not everyone is so lucky. (Or, from a more cynical point of view, perhaps even deserving?)

- While current showrunner Glen Mazzara almost certainly played a role in the success of this episode, the writer credited is Scott M. Gimple, who was officially announced this week as the showrunner for "The Walking Dead" Season 4. Gimple's track record now includes "Clear," "Hounded," "Pretty Much Dead Already" (Sophia's in the barn!) and "Save the Last One" (Shane sacrificing Otis). That's a pretty heartening list of credits for fans worried about another shift at the helm.

- Similarly, director Tricia Brock's contributions to this episode are the stuff Emmy nominations should be made of. It's her first "Dead," but hard to imagine it will be her last.

- Give it up for funny Michonne. After finally having the chance to confront Andrea last week, Michonne seems to be coming back to life and we're seeing all new sides to Danai Gurira's sterling performance. Michonne hasn't been known for her way with words, but among her many great quotes tonight: "I used to talk to my dead boyfriend. It happens."
Photo/Video credit: AMC