The Walking Dead Clear

“Clear,” this week’s episode of The Walking Dead, strips away nearly everything that has defined the series so far this season — the prison, Woodbury, the Governor, Andrea’s weekly bouts with stupidity — and instead offers us a version of the show in its simplest form. The end result? Easily the best episode of the season. Maybe even the best episode of The Walking Dead‘s entire run so far.

The whole hour is devoted to the supply run we saw Rick, Carl and Michonne head out on last week. We learn the three are returning to Rick and Carl’s home town, where Rick hopes he’ll find some guns and ammo still stashed away at his former police station. Sadly, it’s been emptied save for a single bullet, but a further canvassing of the town turns up something even more remarkable — Morgan, the friendly father who saved Rick’s life all the way back in the pilot. Except Morgan isn’t the same man Rick left behind all those days ago. He’s lost his son Duane in the time since, as well as most of his mind. Now he sits in a self-made fortress, one surrounded by zombie traps and covered in the spray-painted ramblings of a lunatic. When he first spies Rick and company, he threatens to kill them unless they drop their weapons and leave. But the trio outmaneuver him, and Carl blasts him into unconsciousness by shooting him at close range, a fatal shot for sure if not for the flak jacket Morgan was wearing. Morgan has all the firepower the group needs to go to war against the Governor, but Rick feels guilty about sneaking away with it. He owes Morgan more than that. He needs to speak with him, to find out how the kind man he knew turned into the broken soul before him.

And that’s it. That’s the story. There are no cutaways to the prison or anything else going on The Walking Dead universe right now. The entire show is carried 100 percent by just four actors — Andrew Lincoln, Chandler Riggs, Danai Gurira and a returning Lennie James. All four are absolutely fantastic. The script — written by Scott Gimple, who will replace Glen Mazzara as showrunner next year — never directly spells out that Rick sees the kind of devolution Morgan has undergone and wonders if his visions of Lori mean he’s traveling down that same road. But Lincoln makes sure you can see that concern on Rick’s face, especially when he tells Morgan, “This can’t be it. You’ve got to be able to come back from this.” Rick may as well be talking about himself there, and Lincoln conveys that notion clearly through his performance.

Meanwhile, Riggs has never been better as Carl. I haven’t counted myself as part of the Carl fan club that seems to have sprung up of late. Just because the kid is no longer an annoying character doesn’t exactly mean he’s a good one. But he’s vital to this episode, and Riggs does great work in the scenes where he returns to a local cafe to pull down a photo of his family that he knows hangs on the wall — one he can give to Judith, so she can someday know what her mother looked like.

During the last few weeks, it seemed like the writers started making an effort to turn Michonne into an honest-to-god character rather than a one-note glower machine, and this week they actually succeeded. Gurira is even given jokes. Two of them! GOOD ONES! (I chuckled softly at “the mat said welcome.” I laughed even louder when she couldn’t leave behind the rainbow-colored cat sculpture because “it’s too damn gorgeous.”) Michonne came to this show as a prepackaged badass, but the writers made the mistake of never treating her as anything more than a cool-looking action figure. Finally, someone realized there needs to be more to Michonne than just a shiny katana, and, in “Clear,” Gurira proved she’s capable of doing so much more than what she’s been given. Let’s hope it’s a continuing trend.

And, lastly, James returns to the series to book-end his part in the pilot and absolutely kills it. It’s a showy performance, what with Morgan screaming nonsensical rants about needing to “clear,” but James is so effective we never doubt the pain this man’s gone through on the path to his current state. And Morgan isn’t confined to the crazy talk. Gimple gives James some nice pulpy dialogue like “you will be torn apart by teeth or bullets,” as well as a great speech where Morgan declares, “The good people, they always die. And the bad people do, too. But the weak people — the people like me — we have inherited the earth.” It’s chilling, neck-hair-raising stuff on a show that’s mostly elicited only eye-rolls over the last few weeks.

And it wasn’t just the big things this episode got right. There were also all these little world-building odds and ends that gave “Clear” a kind of texture that’s been missing inside the dank prison and on Woodbury’s streets. Morgan’s zombie-proof living quarters were a triumph of script and production design, from the spears and barb-wire that dotted the perimeter to the graffiti that covered his walls to the rats in cages that he used as zombie bait. (And which were later put on skateboards to assist Carl and Michonne.) Little stories were embedded into the big story. During the drive, the trio pass a handmade sign that says: “Erin, we tried for Stone Mountain — J.” Then later, during a zombie attack, we see a female walker wearing a bracelet that says “Erin.” And then there is the great black comedy that is the tale of the hitchhiker, who Rick decides to ignore not once, but twice. The third time they cross paths, the hitchhiker is dead, but Rick and company decide to stop this time … to snatch the poor guy’s backpack. That little throw-away side story constitutes better writing than you sometimes get during an entire three-episode stretch of The Walking Dead.

So what does this episode’s excellence mean for the series as a whole? That when Gimple gets the reins next year he should just murder half of the cast and send a smaller, more focused group on a cross-country journey to scour post-apocalyptic America? Honestly … yes. It probably means exactly that. But the odds of the show moving in that direction are long, and in the short term, you know we’ll be right back to the war against the Governor next week. It’s a bummer, because when The Walking Dead stops trying to juggle a million characters (half of them underwritten) and instead just picks a few to tell a self-contained story about trying to survive in this awful, hopeless world, it can provide a level of thrills and entertainment that actually deserves the boffo ratings the series pulls in on a weekly basis.

Follow Bob on Twitter: @robertbtaylor