A review of tonight's "The Walking Dead" coming up just as soon I go back for the cat sculpture...

"He wasn't like this then." -Rick

There have been 30 episodes of "The Walking Dead" prior to "Clear," and the series pilot remains far and away the best of those. A lot of that comes from the sense of restraint in the pilot, favoring a sense of creeping dread over the cool action and inconsistent characterization of the weekly series. And a lot of it is the presence of Lennie James as Morgan, whose performance — with all due respect to the fine work that Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus and others have done over the past three years — remains the most indelible of the series. The show has done good episodes since then, and at times excellent ones, but the pilot was something special.

"Clear"(*) finally brings Rick back to his hometown, and back into the orbit of Morgan. And, appropriately, it also brings back the quiet, unsettling atmosphere of the pilot, leading to the best episode by far of this back half of season 3, and among the series' very best post-pilot hours.

(*) Written by Scott M. Gimple, who will replace Glen Mazzara as showrunner to season 4. This script is definitely a promising sign for what's to come, though much of what's so good about "Clear" isn't repeatable on a weekly basis unless Gimple has the authorization to turn "The Walking Dead" into a completely different (and probably less commercially successful) show. 

Like the pilot, "Clear" is a very spare episode. There are only three regular characters, plus Morgan, and only a couple of minor action set pieces. (And several bits of zombie combat actually take place off-camera.) No bothering with the Governor, or Andrea, or many of this season's more problematic characters and story arcs — and the one who is around finally gets some desperately-needed characterization (more of that, and more dialogue, than in all her previous appearances, it felt like) to explain why the rest of the group might opt to keep Michonne around long-term.

And without all the usual distractions, "Clear" is just a devastating character study of these two men we met at the beginning of the series, and of what they've become since they parted company.

The Rick of season 1 is a man who would have stopped for the hitchhiker; the Rick of season 3 is a man who very plausibly would keep driving away from the poor guy, caring only about the supplies in his backpack. We've seen every step of that journey from the one to the other.

Morgan, on the other hand, has been missing from action all this time. All we know is what we see of his circumstances and behavior today, and what he tells Rick of what he's been through. But the circumstances — the walker traps that are at once effective and disturbing, the graffiti everywhere (including "Duane turned" on one wall) and the weapons cache — and James' performance are all we need to understand what an ordeal it's been for this man who hasn't had the relative good fortune of Rick Grimes, and who has the savvy to stay alive but not the strength to end his own suffering.(**)

(**) That said, I would have watched the hell out of an alternate version of "The Walking Dead" — or perhaps a parallel spin-off — that stayed with Morgan and Duane rather than following Rick to Atlanta and the quarry. It would have been a quieter, more psychological and more harrowing show — and, again, one that likely wouldn't be setting ratings records for AMC — but there's definitely some great raw material there.

All of this leads to a great duet between James and Lincoln, and another reminder of the gigantic emotional toll of life in the zombie apocalypse. We got some of this in the season premiere when we saw how efficient and yet how desperate Rick's group had become since their time on the farm; putting Rick and Morgan together again for a few hours made that point even more effective, as did the bookended scenes with that poor doomed hitchhiker.

Other than Michonne finally bonding with a member of the group, there's nothing in "Clear" that's going to have real significance to the season's larger story of the prison vs. Woodbury. After the last few weeks, though, I'd have been fine with this particular detour from that story had lasted an episode or two longer.

"The Walking Dead" is great at action and horror, but terribly uneven at plotting and the way characterization serves its plots. What it never fails at, when it's of a mind to, is showing just what it would feel like to be a living, breathing, thinking human being in a world ruled by the snarling, hungry, single-minded dead.

A great episode, and a welcome tonic to the last couple.

Some other thoughts:

* Again, they should have let Michonne speak this much far earlier than this — even if it was only with Andrea, with whom she'd established a sense of trust in the gap between seasons — but better late than never. For a few minutes there, she was something other than a scowl and a katana.

* Carl's reaction to shooting Morgan — particularly when he thought he'd killed him — helps set up some internal conflict that's going to come when the group next battles the Governor's men. Carl's become extremely capable and matter-of-fact at putting down walkers, but killing the living is something else entirely.

* Glad to see that Carl and Michonne ultimately got a Pack 'n Play for L'il Asskicker rather than a proper crib that would have to be assembled — and, worse, that wouldn't be portable in the likely event that they'd move on from the prison.

* On the other hand, are we meant to think that of that enormous arsenal of Morgan's, Rick and company only took one duffel bag's worth of stuff? Seems foolish, given the conflict ahead.

* A very strange edit in the scene where Michonne first stops Carl from going into the bar to get the photo of himself and his parents in happier times, with the abrupt cut from them at the door to Carl walking away. At first, I thought my screener had skipped, but it turns out that's just how the sequence was put together.

Once again, let me remind you again of this blog's No Spoiler rule and how it applies to this show, as I've had to delete a bunch of comments the last few weeks that violated it. Basic things to remember before commenting:

1. No talking about the previews for the next episode.

2. No talking about anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources — and, yes, that includes anything Mazzara and Kirkman have said in interviews.

3. No talking about anything that's happened in the comic that hasn't happened in the TV show yet. (Or anything that's been revealed, like character backstory and motivation.) As with "Game of Thrones," the goal is to treat "The Walking Dead" TV show as exactly that, and not as an excuse for endless comparisons with the comics. If you want to talk about the comics, feel free to start up a discussion thread on our message boards.

With that in mind, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com