THE WALKING DEAD: “Claimed”

Each episode this half-season of The Walking Dead has been progressively better than the last, and “Claimed” continues that trend with help from a Jack London influence, Crazy Cheese, solid action, and some emotional moments that (for once) ring true.

 You were unconscious yesterday…

-Michonne

Well, I’m awake today.

-Rick

Ever since its inception, The Walking Dead has struggled with just how much of a leader Rick Grimes wants to be. A former sheriff, he’s waffled over being the natural group leader, endured a power struggle with his best friend Shane, declared himself as a semi-dictator at the end of season two, and eventually established a sort of democratic commune at the prison. With the prison destroyed, Rick finds himself back on the road and facing yet another shift in his leadership structure.

Rick and Carl are still at the house where Rick was recovering from his torso injuries when we last saw him. Now reunited with Michonne, the three seem almost domesticated in this “safe house.” Carl and Michonne laugh and joke over breakfast while Rick listens from the other room, just happy to hear Carl laughing again. When Michonne mentions their need to search for more supplies, Rick wants to go along, but she urges him to rest and recover instead. Rick has always been cautious with Carl, even more so since they lost Judith escaping the prison (it was the entire theme of this half season’s first episode), but he seems very at ease entrusting him to Michonne. Maybe it’s the family dynamic they seem to have developed? Then again, maybe it’s just her skill with a katana. Either way, Rick sends them off hunting while he crashes in an upstairs bed and leafs through a volume of short stories by Jack London. As they’re leaving, Rick tells Michonne that he values her relationship with Carl. He can’t be both Carl’s best friend and his father, too.

Meanwhile, we find Tara and an unconscious Glenn riding in the back of a truck driven by the three new characters they encountered at the very end of the previous episode. Their new companions are Sergeant Abraham Ford, a military man of large, muscular stature, mulleted scientist Eugene Porter, and Rosita, a short-shorts-wearing, midriff-bearing, pistol-wielding woman who seems to display some attraction to Abraham. When they first encounter walkers, Tara notes that Abraham is the only man she’s ever met who smiles while he’s killing walkers. He seems almost built for this dystopian environment, calling himself “the luckiest guy in the world.”

When Glenn awakes, his thoughts immediately turn to Maggie, and he tries to abandon Abraham’s group in search of her — to Abraham’s dismay. Abraham wants to keep the group together and declares that Maggie is either dead or soon to be, which infuriates Glenn and leads to a fight between the two men. While the two men grapple, walkers emerge from the surrounding cornfields (right on cue – this is just how The Walking Dead works). The group’s convoy truck gets disabled in the ensuing firefight, and they must continue on foot, but which way? Glenn and Tara still want to double back in search of Maggie, but Abraham wants to continue onward towards Washington DC where he wants to deliver Eugene.

It seems Eugene is a scientist, who claims to be in possession of classified information about what caused this zombie apocalypse to begin. Abraham claims his mission to save humanity overrides Glenn’s noble, but lesser, desire to find his wife. In the end, the three decide to backtrack with Glenn and Tara to find a new vehicle, but Tara finds herself questioning Abraham’s intentions. Eugene, as a scientist, needs to get his information to DC, and Rosita seems likely to follow Abraham anywhere, but what exactly is it driving Abraham himself? Tara, perhaps wary after trusting the Governor to her sister’s demise, doubts that it’s just his noble desire to save the world. Whatever his intentions, they’ll have to be discovered another week. This section of the story serves us up our weekly action and gore quota, and supplies the episode’s “shocking moment” with the revelation of Eugene’s supposed knowledge about the apocalypse’s impetus, but otherwise doesn’t do very much. It’s the much shorter of the episode’s two storylines, and deservedly so. Rick and crew are busy bringing the goods.

Carl is now down in the dumps. While he was laughing with Michonne over breakfast he caught himself mentioning Judith, his now missing infant sister, and he’s been down ever since. He’s enduring normal teenage adjustment issues, but with no society to have them in. All of his old world friends are probably dead, and all of his new friends are scattered and/or dead after the prison collapse. He watched his own mother die, and he fired the shot that put down the reanimated corpse of his other father figure, Shane. Now, with Judith missing, he’s especially blue. Thankfully, Michonne is willing to help. She tries to make Carl laugh with some Crazy Cheese in a spray can that she found, but doesn’t have much luck. She reminisces that she used to be able to make toddlers laugh easily. When Carl inquires, she tells him that she used to have a son before the world went to hell.

It’s the first time she’s ever told another character, and Carl is shocked. She tells him that she’ll answer one question he has about her old life for every room that they clear in the next house. Through their little game we learn more about her than we ever have. The ever quiet Michonne gets a normal season’s worth of lines in this single episode as we learn about her only child, a boy named Andre who, like Carl, was a bit of a handful. It’s a fragile moment for her. She’s starting to open up more than viewers have ever seen, and for once, it doesn’t feel forced by the writing team. These secrets seem to bond Michonne and Carl together. He needs a friend, she needs a confidant, and they find each other.

Inside the house she finds a child’s playroom filled with toys, and then the bodies of several dead girls in an adjoining pink room. It is a very creepy moment. The show does everything it usually does to set up a surprise walker attack, but, instead, Michonne finds dead children with their equally dead mother watching over their decomposing corpses from a nearby rocking chair. Is this symbolic of Michonne’s own story? Was she a doting mother with rooms full of toys and games before watching her only child die? Was Andre’s death at Michonne’s own hand, as the scene implies for the unknown girls and their mother? We’ll have to see. She won’t let Carl into the room, seemingly mothering him. Carl doesn’t need to see any more dead children. He’ll only think of Judith.

Back at the “safe house,” Rick is resting and reading. Suddenly he hears voices in the house, and they don’t sound friendly. The people who’ve survived the apocalypse this far aren’t pushovers, and Rick is unarmed having given his pistol to Carl. He hides under the bed when one of the new men comes to check out the upstairs, and he finds himself trapped when the unknown man decides to take a nap in the very bed Rick is hiding under. A fight ensues when a second man comes upstairs to claim the bed. As one of the men is being choked-out in the fight, he sees Rick under the bed, but can’t alert his friend(?) to the presence of this unknown man before passing out. Now Rick’s time is numbered. He has to get away before the unconscious man comes to and alerts the rest of the group to his presence. After Rick slips out from under the bed, he tensely evades the other members of the new group while slipping in and out of rooms. There are a lot of near misses, and Rick is finally forced to silently strangle one of the men in a fight when he stumbles onto him in a bathroom.

Finally, Rick manages to slip out one of the bathroom windows and drops down to the ground floor, just in time to see Carl and Michonne returning to the house. With no other options, Rick prepares to kill the one group member lounging on the house’s front porch so he can slip away. However, in one of the show’s most logical twists ever, the man on the porch is distracted by the reanimation of the man Rick killed in the bathroom upstairs, and Rick is able to grab Carl and Michonne and get away during the mayhem. Thank god that actually makes sense! The last we see of the trio, they’re on the nearby train tracks and see the sign alerting travelers to the sanctuary at the train terminus if they follow the rails. Under Rick’s direction, they set out following the tracks. Maybe they’ll find Carol, Tyrese, and the girls (including Judith!) in the next episode.

If we learned anything from LOST, it’s that we can glean a lot about the themes in an show’s episodes by the books the characters read in them, and that works well in “Claimed.” We see Rick leafing through a book of Jack London’s short stories while he’s recovering in bed, and Rick’s story has some connections to London’s most famous work, The Call of the Wild. That novel opens with its lead character, a dog named Buck, living a happy life of domesticity. While Rick’s situation isn’t exactly idyllic, his “safe house” and comfort with Carl and Michonne is the most domestic he’s been since leaving the prison. Buck must eventually kill and embrace his wilder instincts when his situation changes for the worse, which is mirrored by Rick killing the man in the bathroom while he’s trying to escape. These events, however, give both Rick and Buck the fortitude to survive and later find the people who actually love and care for them. They also force both characters to finally embrace their natural leadership over their respective groups. Now, reunited with Michonne and Carl, Rick makes the decision to head towards the train terminus. Obviously, this could all be a load of crap, but the show’s crew were the ones to put the reference to London in the episode. It’s just a theory (However, Buck’s loved ones were eventually killed by Indians, so if Carl and Michonne get eaten by walkers next week I’m going to feel very justified). Maybe this is what Rick’s always needed to truly embrace his place as the group’s leader.

I’ve been first in line to criticize The Walking Dead for its hollow emotional moments, but thankfully I don’t have to this week. From Carl and Michonne’s bonding and dealing with the loss of her son to the intensity of Rick’s escape, “Claimed” rang very true. It’s one of the show’s best episodes in a long time, and The Walking Dead desperately needs to embrace this episode going forward. Every episode this half season has been better than the last, and I’m desperately hoping that trend continues. Maybe, just maybe, the show can rescue itself from the maddening junk heap that it’s become lately. Here’s hoping.

Grade: A-

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