In the midst of a season that has ranged from worst to you-ain't-seen-nothin'-worst, THE WALKING DEAD pulled off something extraordinary tonight: an episode that was good and almost great. "Clear" doesn't have to clear any real hurdles to rightfully claim the crown of best TWD ep of this season to date ("Seed" was the only other installment that wasn't outright awful). Even burdened by many of TWD's chronic problems, it was clearly light-years ahead of anything we've gotten since the series' earliest days.
In the larger context of the series, it's essentially a filler
ep, a side-story that once again comes up with a way to burn through
another hour of the season without doing anything to advance the
season's central plot. As the season's central plot really sucks, that's
also the good news.
When Rick and co. took the prison earlier in the season, it was
established that there was an armory somewhere near its grounds. The
raid on it apparently happened off camera--the characters suddenly began
carrying fully automatic weapons, set to full auto. That they've been
using the weapons in this way implies a large stockpile of ammo and if
such a stockpile exists, they've barely touched it. It could, of course, also just imply that they're idiots and one could cite this entire season and last to make that case. The stockpile is the charitable
choice. I'm feeling charitable tonight. That's what a pretty good TWD
ep can do.[*] Last week, in an effort to amp up the desperation of the
situation at the prison, the writers began playing up the idea that our
heroes were nearly out of ammo. That led, this week, to a mission to get
more of it.
Rick, Michonne, and Carl, in this search for guns and ammo,
return to the town where Rick had worked and lived before the zombie
outbreak. Entering the town police station, Rick is terribly upset to
see that someone has gotten there ahead of them and has cleaned out the
armory cage. His memory is apparently as short as that of the
writers--Rick himself cleaned out that armory back in the pilot episode
of the series. So the entire story that follows is, as usual with
TWD, built on an idiotic contrivance to get the characters to this
particular town but given the ep's merits, this is, in the balance, a
relatively minor gripe. The reason it's that town is because the
centerpiece of the story is the return of Morgan, the fellow who, way
back in the TWD pilot, found Rick when he was fresh out of his coma and
wandering through a world gone dead.
Morgan has, unfortunately, gone a little
squirrely since Rick saw him last. He fires on our heroes and has to be
shot. Carl does the honors with his trusty Beretta but though Morgan is
wearing heavy body-armor, which, in the real world, renders a Beretta's
wimpy 9mm. little more than an annoyance, TWD's writers ludicrously
render Morgan completely unconscious for an extended period, artificially dragging out their underplotted tale, as is their custom.
There's filler here. All tolled, "Clear" only features about half an episode worth of plot (and none of that
is relevant to the season's overall story). This compares quite
favorably to recent eps though--the previous three didn't,
cumulatively, contain even that much--and the half-ep-buried-in-the-ep
this week is pretty good, a tragic and atmospheric spotlight on this unforgiving world
of the dead and on what the living have lost. Other than the flaws
already outlined, it's fairly well-told. There's some surprisingly good
dialogue and character interaction. Michonne is finally made to look
relatively human rather than the empty Angry Black Woman caricature
she's been since she was first introduced. Our heroes blow past a
traveler on the highway as the ep opens, never slowing down as he runs
behind them and begs them to stop. His ultimate fate and their reaction
to it displays a level of quality storytelling almost entirely absent
from TWD. Warts and all, a lot of "Clear" provides some little hint of
the caliber of tale it could offer every week in competent hands and
reminds the viewer of the series' tragically
squandered potential. Unfortunately, it's just a detour, and next week,
things will probably just go back to being TWD.
[*] UPDATE (5 March, 2013) - "MaxJets," a reader on the IMDb message board, has pointed out that, in "The Killer Within," the 4th episode of this season, a line of dialogue establishes that Rick and co. had found the prison armory cleaned out. Thanks for the correction, Max, and fill in this blank __________ with all jokes about my self-satisfied charitability.
 Last week, as an excuse to have the characters stand around
the prison and yet again do nothing, the writers included a lot of
paranoia about GINO posting snipers outside or blocking the roads from
the prison; this week, no such concern.
 Two eps later, he explained "I cleaned out the cage back at the station before I left."
 That it's about anything at all would, alone, probably make it a cut above TWD's usual soap opera tripe.