“You will be torn apart, by teeth or bullets. You and your boy.”
The luxury of a longer season this year allowed The Walking Dead to try something new this week – essentially a standalone episode (albeit still connected tangentially to the main plot) featuring only three of the regular characters and none of the regular settings. And, even in a show that’s gone from strength to strength this year, it was a bit of a standout; focused, intense, allowing three very important characters room to breathe and grow, while still not stinting on the horror and the thrills. It also, surprisingly, dealt with a loose plot thread we might all have forgotten, one from way back in the show’s first ever episode.
In a nutshell, this was an entire episode dealing with the quest for guns and ammunition mooted by Rick last week. Along for the ride, as proposed, were Michonne (to get a feel for how reliable she might be) and Carl (small, but hard enough to be backup in case Michonne proved to be as loose a cannon as Merle). In the course of this hour, all three got a chance to develop – even Rick, confronted by an old friend who was even more broken than he is.
That old friend turned out to be none other than Morgan Jones, played as before by Britain’s own Lennie James. Together with Andrew Lincoln and David Morrissey, this show is plainly a victim of the current trend in Hollywood to make serious TV drama with British actors pretending to be American.
To be honest though, Morgan’s return wasn’t that much of a surprise once we’d established exactly where the trio had gone to look for weaponry – Rick’s home town. This became clear as he searched the now empty police weapons locker, stating, “I used to be the police in this town”, though eagle-eyed viewers with sharp memories might have picked up on the ubiquitous signage saying “King County”.
It did make sense, as Rick knew where all the guns and ammo were in that town, but you had to wonder how small the circles were that he’d been moving in. I don’t have much of a sense of Georgia geography, but the gang have been to Atlanta, then to Hershel’s farm, then the prison (within walking distance, it seems, as is Woodbury), and now back to King County. Perhaps they might have better luck a little further afield, as that seems like a similar radius to, say, Kent.
Be that as it may, the trip there set the scene – and themes – for the episode. Michonne drove, sitting stony-faced and silent, as ever, while Carl fidgeted in the back and Rick looked grim in the passenger seat. Their determined ignorance of a frantic hitch-hiker showed us right away that (if we hadn’t got it by now) Rick is no longer the compassionate, eager to help ex-cop. Survival is more important, and nobody is to be trusted.
Which makes it all the harder to understand his choice of vehicle. Honestly, in a post-apocalyptic landscape littered with wreckage, why is he driving that suspiciously clean Hyundai Tucson? Could it be that Hyundai have offered the show promotional consideration? And why didn’t he at least get the four wheel drive version?
Still, the Hyundai’s limitations gave rise to the first of several impressive set pieces throughout the hour, as it got bogged down in the mud trying to drive around a corpse-filled pileup. Walkers were soon all over the car; and it was a blackly amusing measure of how accustomed they all are to this that they just resignedly got on with the business of slaughter. We didn’t even need to see the details onscreen; we can take it as read now that Rick, Michonne and even Carl can deal with this.
As they plainly could when they reached the town and found it full of graffiti saying things like “TURN AROUND AND LIVE”. Plainly someone had laid claim to the place, and it didn’t take much guessing to figure out who the masked figure blazing away at them with a sniper rifle could be. Incapacitating him was, as with the Walkers, taken very much in stride (with some timely intervention from Carl), and the mask was pulled off to confirm that this was indeed Morgan.
The show had drifted yet again to its comic book origins, in which the gang passed back through the town and found Morgan starving and insane, his son having turned and being kept in chains. That aspect was left out – too similar to the scenario with the Governor’s daughter so recently, I’d guess.
But Morgan was certainly no longer in his right mind. Holed up with enough weaponry to equip a small army, he’d been decorating the walls with random apparent nonsense – the word “CLEAR” repeated over and over, along with the heartbreaking revelation of his son’s fate – “DUANE TURNED”.
Scott Gimple’s clever script split the group into two pairs, giving both the opportunity to spark off each other in some intense scenes. Left to look after Morgan, Rick had to deal with the man’s frenzied hostility and madness before convincing him that he wasn’t “wearing a dead man’s face”. This led to a pair of superb performances as Lincoln and James’ characters unburdened to each other everything that had happened since they last met.
Morgan’s son Duane (named, as in the comics, after Duane Jones, star of Night of the Living Dead) had been bitten by the Walker that used to be his mother – the wife Morgan had found himself unable to shoot at the end of that very first episode. Not unnaturally, Morgan had blamed himself, but couldn’t bring himself to commit suicide, begging Rick to do it for him.
Rick, for his part, explained the loss of Lori, but still found enough optimism to encourage Morgan to join his group because, in the coming fight, “we’re going to win”. Perhaps seeing someone whose mind was even more broken than his own shocked him back to a more rational state of mind.
Carl, meanwhile, had taken off on a mysterious errand that was plainly more than the quest for baby supplies he told Rick. At first I groaned – were we back to the Carl of last year, who kept stupidly wandering off into mortal danger when no one was looking? But no, it turned out he had a good reason; he wanted to find the last remaining photo of his parents together, hanging in a local bar.
Accompanying him was Michonne, and their mutual distrust found an outlet as Carl immediately tried to ditch her. But Michonne’s not that easy to ditch, as Merle could have told him, and she was back with him within moments, the pair uneasily cooperating. The bar having turned out to be chock full of Walkers, they had to work together to achieve Carl’s objective; as they did, you could see their distrust gradually turning into a bond of friendship and respect.
It also allowed Michonne to open up a bit from the taciturn, closed-in character she’d been, as she revealed what she’d got when she went back into the bar to slaughter more Walkers (again offscreen). It seems she has a taste for kitschy cat ornaments!
By the time Carl confided in Rick, “I think she might be one of us”, she was comfortable enough with her new friends to confide in Rick, and maybe help him out a little. She told him that she knew he’d been seeing – and talking to – dead people, and made him feel a little better about it by revealing that she’d been doing it too, talking to her dead boyfriend.
Morgan couldn’t be persuaded to join the gang, so Rick left him in his fortified town, alone but with some of his nihilistic guilt alleviated. At that point it became clear what “CLEAR” meant – Morgan was going about the lonely business of clearing the town of Walkers, burning them on the pyre the group had seen on their way in. It wasn’t a happy ending, exactly; but neither did it feel too sad.
This distinctly out-of-format episode was one of the best this year (a tough task, given how good the show has been). Self-contained, deep, and with four amazing, intense performances, it gave me a lot of confidence in writer Scott Gimple, who’s soon to take over as showrunner from Glen Mazzara. It also (finally) gave some real depth to Michonne, that hopefully goes some way to countering the criticism of her as a two-dimensional comic book figure. Given the chance to do more than look surly and swing a katana about, Danai Gurira proved she’s every bit as good an actor as the rest of the ensemble, and her chemistry with Chandler Riggs’ increasingly earnest Carl was a highlight of the episode.
Next week, it’s presumably back to the story proper, as the trio return to the prison with an awful lot of guns. Looks like they may need them. But this was such a good episode, it actually felt good to have a bit of a break from the ongoing saga of the fight with Woodbury. Let’s hope the show has a chance to do a few more standalone episodes next year.