This week’s episode of The Walking Dead is the closest thing to a bottle episode as the show can get, focusing only on 4 characters in a very specific situation that focuses on a particular theme without generating too much plot motion. The questions the episode explore make us stop and think about the psychological state of the post-apocalyptic world: what do you do to earn trust in the apocalypse, what happens when you earn it, and what happens to you if you don’t? We’ve already seen the beginnings of the paranoia people have when introduced to other survivors. We’ve seen the darker, evil side of how to handle people intruding on your property. But what about madness? The episode builds itself perfectly to show the complex, kaleidoscopic angles of how trust, and fear of it, can shape our actions.
The show opens and closes with the lone, nameless hitchhiking survivor. It’s a stark image for the cold open to see a very alive human man screaming for help as Michonne, Rick, and Carl drive past. Rick and Michonne don’t give him a second thought – we’ve already seen how untrusting these two are when introduced to new people. Kind of perfect actually that they are paired together here in this episode. Carl is the only one who gives pause and looks back upon the lonely hitchhiker. When they are stopped, it gives the hitchhiker time to catch up. But by the time they get moving again, they linger a moment watching him run down the hill. They shut the doors and drive away, coldly showing they refuse to trust some guy on the street, even if he is the only one still alive on this long, lonely road full of walkers. This moment is bookended perfectly when they drive past again – his body is torn apart along the side of the road. They stop to pick up his pack – the only useful thing the guy could offer them – and leave.
We find out after the cold open that Michonne, Rick, and Carl are driving to Rick and Carl’s old town to find more weaponry for the war against the Governor and Woodbury. Their mission is interrupted by a rooftop shooter who shoots wildly at the group as they navigate eery booby traps and alarming signs all over town to turn people away. It ends effectively with Carl shooting the man in the chest. They discover the man was wearing a bullet-proof vest and Rick shockingly recognizes him as Morgan, the man who first told him about the walkers when he awoke from his coma. Rick insists they take him to shelter and alert him of their arrival – something that would appear out of character to Michonne and Carl, who look at the man as they would any other newcomer. This critical moment where Rick decides to be humane towards another human sets off the dramatic turns of the episode.
Rick, Michonne, and Carl study the shelter Morgan designed for himself, where they conveniently find enough guns and ammunition to compete with the Governor in the impending war. The elaborate design of each of the structures outside and in paired with the creepy spray painted warnings on every wall and hanging cloth would lead the viewer to believe the protection of this town was orchestrated and run by another community even more fearful and protective than Woodbury. As Morgan comes to, and as Rick studies closely the writings on the wall, it becomes clear that Morgan is a lone survivor driven mad. Frantic scrawlings on the wall track what has happened to each survivor in the community that Morgan once held in Rick’s old town, with the word “CLEAR” appearing every now and then. These “CLEAR” declarations are contrasted with the largely scrawled “EVERYONE TURNS” – a truth we learned in seasons past. Morgan has an excellent acting moment here, confiding in Rick what has happened to him since – his wife turned and killed his son before his eyes. The effects of this and his ultimate loneliness have shifted his survivor instinct from one of practicality to one of desperate fear, the evidence of which is perfectly contrasted against Rick’s very recent experience of his visions of Lori. Rick has touched the brink of madness – thankfully, the community he built has helped pull him out of a mad state and approach his hardships with a little bit more logic. For Morgan, the loss of his community sparked instead a state of madness. Left only to his own devices, he has stopped trusting the human race – he looks upon humanity and life bleakly, seeking out people who are “clear” and will not either turn, leave him, or both. His anger towards Rick for not being able to respond back on the walkie talkie comes out, and is a reflection of his inability to learn to trust anyone again. Amazingly, Rick absorbs this stoically and understandably. Rick exchanges his story about his family with Morgan, and it’s almost as though we’re watching his sensibility return to his bloodstream. Seeing the extreme of what insanity and mistrust can do to you is definitely a catalyst for changing habits for Rick.
Meanwhile, as Rick decides to have his moment with Morgan, Carl hints at having his own agenda for returning to town. He insists on going on a run alone. Michonne – having heard Carl and Rick confide in each other when the car was stuck that they don’t trust her and want to kick her out of the group once the war is over – picks up on Carl’s hidden agenda and seeks out an opportunity to instill herself as a trustworthy piece of the puzzle that is The Walking Dead universe. Carl stubbornly insists to be left alone and wisely tricks Michonne into a brief diversion to ward off walkers. The great part about this pairing off is that we’re able to see sides of Carl and Michonne that have otherwise been inaccessible due to the need to move along plot for the larger group. Carl, having stepped up to the plate in his brotherly role, is on a mission to find a photo of Lori in an old hang out for the family. Michonne sheds her stoney side to level with Carl. Even though we know she is following him to earn his trust for survival purposes, a bond starts to grow here, something that seems genuine. (I mean, there’s definitely a message being sent to the audience by placing Michonne in a motherly role for Carl where one is now missing) She helps him through the walker-infested diner where he picks out an old family photo hanging above the bar, and even shows a bit of character by revealing she snagged her own keepsake from the bar. Instead of staying cold, Michonne knew that to survive, she had to melt the iciness and learn to trust, and the steps she took with Carl in this episode are big steps towards setting her place within the Grimes prison camp.
Of course, the apex of all this is how Rick and Michonne decide to handle each other. The two are actually aligned in what their instinct would be toward newcomers – they both immediately look upon others with suspicion and evaluate what they could gain out of trust and loyalty from these newcomers. Prior to this episode, they both have shown each other that they are not as willing to trust the other. As the once unlikely trio prepare to leave town, Rick and Michonne approach each other, each having acquired something new in their psyche, and meet a point of resolution. Carl plants the seed by saying to Rick, in so many words, that Michonne is “one of us.” As Michonne approaches the car with the guns, she takes a moment to level with Rick – she, too, has had visions of her long lost loved one. The trip has sealed the deal that these two strong, leader forces can, in fact, combine for the greater good.
Though we took a departure from seeing the rest of the gang, this episode fortified the ideas of how far trust and distrust can go, and solidified an alliance that will come into play in the upcoming war between the prison and Woodbury.