The pre-credits open of this week’s The Walking Dead was the scariest thing I have seen on television in a long time. The leaden, expository dialog. The characters coming to a personal understanding of themselves and sharing it, out loud, with the viewer. The subtext of a relationship dragged, kicking and screaming, into the text. And then the knowledge that King Exposition himself, The Walking Dead comic writer and co-creator Robert Kirkman, was writing the episode. It looks like a terrifyingly bad hour of television is ahead of me, I thought.
How wrong I was! Yeah, Vatos has some missteps, but on the whole it’s an excellent episode. The tracking of Merle created a nice bit of tension that told the story of the racist goon’s escape in an intriguing, visual way. The revelation of Glenn’s former career was delivered nicely, and without seeming like backstory being filled in. And while the Latino gang started off deeply troubling (and cartoonishly racist - a hallmark of the comic book version of The Walking Dead that keeps threatening to seep whole into the TV version) their story ended up in a nice, if not particularly original, place. And then there was a zombie attack that removed many of the characters whose names I don’t know! Bonus!
I want to go back to some of last week’s TV Talk and answer some thoughts from my colleagues, which I swear ties into this episode. Last week I thought was a wheel-spinner - a lot of people futzing about in camp and not much actually happening. Henri and Meredith disagreed, saying it established characters and all that, but my problem comes with the fact that this is a six episode season - you can’t stop at the halfway point and do the ‘Here are our characters’ episode. They need to be getting established all along, or to be getting established while there’s also story going on. And Vatos does that (except for the horrible opening scene). Glenn gets established as a tactical wunderkind (which makes his decision to drive the alarmed car to camp last week all the more bewildering), while the relationship between Dale and Andrea gets nicely sketched when we see that she feels comfortable just ransacking his RV for wrapping paper, and when he calls on her to back him up in his interest in keeping time. That’s deft work, and it doesn’t get in the way of storytelling.
Meanwhile, I really like what’s been done with Daryl. While Merle has been mostly a joke of a character, Daryl (is this a reference to Newhart?) has sides to him that promise complexity, smarts and fun. His decision to use Merle’s severed hand to scare the kid into giving up the Latino base* was inspired. And I like the way that Daryl immediately wanted to get Glenn back; he has a loyalty that I doubt Merle would exhibit.
The hidden nursing home felt like the original Dawn of the Dead meets Hurricane Katrina. One of the interesting things that Romero hit upon in the opening of that classic film is the way different cultures deal with their dead; white American culture has come to a place where we keep ourselves away from not only our dead but our elderly. In Dawn this led to a tenement full of the dead who people refused to burn, while in The Walking Dead it leads to a bunch of gang bangers caring for old people at a nursing home. Rick’s decision to walk in there locked and loaded, while another example of him being a big selfish hero (“What am I going to tell your family,” indeed, T-Dog), it’s rousing to see him stand up for Glenn. And we got the best of both worlds - the stand-off AND an adorable gramma leading Rick into the secret lair.
But something kept coming to mind during the scene: why are guns so hard to come by? Maybe this is my culture insensitivity showing, but I suspect that the area in and around Atlanta, Georgia probably has plenty of gun shops. Maybe they got looted in the initial days of the outbreak, but I’d like to have someone come out and say it. This brings to mind the other pressing question I keep having - why is everybody so obsessed with Atlanta? I’ve been there, and I know that like many other major American cities it is surrounded by vast suburbs and exurbs. There are a zillion big box stores outside of that city, in areas whose smaller population densities would mean a proportionally smaller zombie density. I’d be off to the outskirts with a Yellow Pages in my hand (you can get those at any library), checking out the last known addresses of gun stores and Costcos. But that’s just me.
Anyway, the zombie attack at the end was pretty great, and I kept waiting for the reveal that Merle had led the whole shambling horde to the camp. However they got there it was interesting to see how unprepared everyone was. As opposed to the vatos, the honkies had let their guard down in a big way. The lesson here has to be that nowhere is safe, although I bet this is a lesson they will forget again and again and again as the show goes on (otherwise we’re going to have a show about people living in a bunker and no zombies). You had to see the attack coming, although I was surprised that it came before the end of the season (and that’s from someone who has read the comics; I think the series has gone enough off the beaten comic path that any smaller story changes are plausible and likely).
Jim’s little gravedigging thing was very obvious, as was the death of Amy - the moment we learned her birthday was coming I knew her jig was up tonight. It’s like when a cop in a movie is three days out from retirement - he’s just as good as toast. What I didn’t like about Jim’s gravedigging was the attempt to paint Shane as a fascist or something. I’m still Team Shane, and I think that the decision to stop Jim from killing himself in the field was a smart one, and one that was good for the group. Jim’s well-being is the group’s well-being. Ed’s marriage is, frankly, the group’s business at this point. There’s a reason why you get put away when you try to kill yourself - rampant suicide is not good for society. Jim’s gravedigging death wouldn’t be good for that little society they’re building up.
In fact I find the presence of two cops in the group something that actually devalues the tension of rebuilding society. Cops are authority figures. They’re trained to be that. It makes sense that the cops would step to the fore and keep the peace. There would be tension if either of these cops were dummies or monsters, but the show has been so even-handed with Shane that he seems like the best option for everyone. He’s just taking care of business. If anything he’s been too lax, since they were taken so badly by surprise at the campfire. And there isn’t really anyone else who seems like a viable option: Jim’s a fruitcake, Daryl’s a wacky hick, Glenn’s a loner, Dale’s the wise old man who would obviously rather advise than make decisions. T-Dog is whatever (I have no real grasp of this guy’s character), and then there are a couple of other guys whose names I don’t even know and who might well be dead after tonight (is the guy who looks like the dude from Man vs Food still alive?).
Anyway, I’m just stanning Shane at this point so I’ll stop. But I do wish there had been a better conflict in which the issue of Ed’s beating was brought up; Jim obviously needed to be stopped for his own well-being.
So I’m back on the train after a bump last week. I like the way that Daryl seems like he could even evolve into Rick’s number two, and I like that Lori had very little to do this week, saving me from coming to dislike her any more. And I like that this attack seems guaranteed to spur the survivors on to somewhere else; I’ve had about enough of the base camp. Let’s leave the beach for the caves, as they used to say on Lost.
* by the way - what was the point of kidnapping Glenn? I’m assuming they intended to hold him hostage for the guns, but how were they planning on getting back in touch with our characters?