Click here to read Part 2 – “She’s not crazy, she just wants to feel everything.”
Part 1 – “and I see…red, all I see is red.”
Like all industries, TV has ass-loads of jargon. One in particular that’s come up often lately, due to the directions certain shows have taken, is the term “bottle episode.”
This refers to when a TV show – be it semi-serial like 30 Rock or entirely serial like Breaking Bad – takes a detour from the central narrative and highlights an isolated portion of its world. Some shows did this on a regular basis, like The X-Files, which alternated between bottle monster-of-the-week episodes and stories that together formed an overarching alien conspiracy plot. For others it’s a rarity, or it never happens at all (The Wire comes to mind as an example of never happening).
Sometimes this tactic doesn’t work so well. Breaking Bad‘s example of the form, “Fly,” from season 3, is a meandering if tense detour from an incredibly propulsive and action-centric 13 episode arc. Lost‘s “Exposé,” taking us inside the world of the dreaded Nikki and Paolo, is a disastrous fucking failure. But often it can pay huge dividends. The best example of this in recent memory is The Walking Dead‘s “Clear,” which was good enough to stand head and shoulders with television shows much better than it’ll ever be.
This episode brings Rick, his son Carl and the impassive Michonne to Rick’s hometown, where as former police he knows where guns might’ve been stashed. What they encounter there is…well, it’s what a better version of this show might be – a truly chilling vision of an apocalypse, a world forgotten by governments, churches and other institutions, one where the only choice is living in misery or dying in pain. The show’s problems of late largely involve its inability to move away from the pursuit of human trappings despite being in a world bereft of hope. (We’ve established in season 2 that all living humans are infected, and no cure yet exists, and the creation of one is unlikely. This makes the show lack a point, basically.)
Rick finds himself face to face with Morgan, his savior from the pilot episode, who has made their shared hometown a booby-trap-laden reflection of his broken mind. Walker corpses and some human bodies are strewn throughout the center of town. Scrawled warnings on walls and blacktop, in blood and in chalk, read AWAY WITH YOU. TURN AROUND AND LIVE. NOT SHITTING YOU. And, most often and most disturbingly, CLEAR.
In a pair of long scenes, Rick brings Morgan back to relative lucidity, even after the man first shoots from at him from a rooftop and then stabs him in the shoulder. But, he’s thoroughly shaken by the man’s complete hopelessness. Morgan exists, by choice, only to “clear” – to kill as many walkers as possible and burn their corpses. He has already done so for his wife and child, but not before seeing the former attack and turn the latter. (We learn this first on the walls – DUANE TURNED – before Morgan tells us.)
These scenes are well-written and acted enough to have worked on the stage, or in any film. Lennie James, as Morgan, plays the lucidity and mania equally well, presenting us with an unending well of pain. I was left with unshakable horror at the enormity of this apocalypse, which hadn’t happened since the show’s largely excellent, occasionally perfect first season or the premiere and finale of the uneven, frequently bad second season.
Morgan is convinced that the weak among the survivors – those who eschew any attempts at recreating civilization, who simply hide and exist until old age or starvation claim them – will inherit the remaining world. “You will be torn apart by teeth or bullets,” he tells Rick, and if the show commits to the idea that no cure exists for the plague that engendered this environment, he’ll eventually be proven right. Rick’s prison settlement will only serve as a stay of execution. To quote another great, bleak show, House of Cards, “No one can hear you. Nothing will come of this.” The only problem is what that entails for the future of the show.
Liam Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.