If you're anything like me, you were bowled over by the fantastic pilot episode of The Walking Dead, and you couldn't wait for more. And if you're anything like me, you were a bit dismayed at the drop-off in quality between that episode and this one. The pilot was so spectacular that I'm still hooked, and there were a lot of things to like in "Guts," but the difference between them was rather precipitate.
It needn't have been this way: With new and vital characters being brought in, and the show's universe being significantly expanded, this should have been a strong, confident second step. It starts out well enough, as we spend some time at the survivor's camp on the outskirts of Atlanta that we briefly glimpsed in the first episode. It has an almost unreal quality to it, more like a communal camping trip than the remains of a group of shattered survivors. But this only reinforces the essential human qualities that they all depend on: their petty jealousies, bitching, and efforts to reduce the tedium make them more real. We meet Dale (Darabont favorite Jeffrey DeMunn), poking around the engine of his RV, which forms the center of the group's activities. We see teenage Amy (Emma Bell) picking what she hopes aren't poisonous mushrooms. And we see that Shane and Lori's relationship is a lot more intense than previously indicated, as they sneak off for a rough quickie in the woods, with Lori genteelly removing her wedding ring beforehand. (Shane sneaks up behind her and startles her, which, given their circumstances, is an act of near-suicidal recklessness. Even in the face of Armageddon, the horn-dog will not be denied.)
Meanwhile, back in Atlanta, Rick is talked out of eternal entrapment in the tomb of an abandoned tank by Glenn (the engaging Steven Yeun), a young scavenger who's leading a party into the city to search for supplies. The fast-talking Glenn is used to doing things on his own, and the responsibility of thinking quickly enough to protect other people doesn't sit right with him. It doesn't help matters any that part of his group is the hot-headed, aggressive racist Merle Dixon. Merle is a huge sore thumb in the middle of the episode: behaving like no one in his situation ever would, his character seems to exist for no other reason than to cause dramatically convenient trouble. He attracts the attention of zombies by randomly blasting them, he treats the women of the group like his harem, and he insults the non-white characters, especially T-Dog (a wildly overacting Robert 'IronE' Singleton). He doesn't do it for any discernible character-driven motivation; he's simply evil, and fucks things up to make life difficult for everybody. It's inconceivable that anyone would have brought him along on a mission like this. It's a pointless character, and it's made all the worse by the fact that Merle is played by the superb character actor Michael Rooker, who deserves a much better role.
When the streets become impassable, the scavengers attempt several plans to escape from the department store they're trapped in. Sewer passage proves impossible, but a nearby construction yard could provide vehicles strong enough to hold everyone and get past the crowds of ghouls, if only anyone could get to them. (Few of the scavenger group are especially well-drawn as characters. Merle is a vicious cartoon, Juan Pareja's Morales and Jeryl Prescott Sales' Jacqui are cyphers, and T-Dog isn't much more than a clown. Only Glenn and Laurie Holden as Andrea—sister of Amy, the teenager back at the camp—are given much to do.) In aid of this effort, Rick, having guessed that the zombies rely significantly on their sense of smell, hatches the grossest possible plan.
Selecting a previously defunct zombie, he proceeds—after an understandable moment or two of reluctance—to dismember it and smear its rotted innards all over Glenn and himself. Easily the uckiest moment on what is already an extremely ucky show, the scene still somehow manages to provide touches of drama (as Rick makes the weird but curiously touching decision to get to know the guy they're about to chop to pieces and roll around in) and comedy (the sheer over-the-top absurdity of the two men walking around, painted with gore, intestines and severed feet dangling from their necks).
Back at camp, the communal radio gets a few brief snippets of T-Dog's updates, but a brewing storm and low battery power leave the survivors largely in the dark. A plot complication, built around one of the many impossible moral quandaries the show will come to throw in the path of its cast, seems ready to emerge: Amy, Andrea's sister, believes that the scavenging party is hopelessly trapped and needs the group to come to their rescue. Shane, meanwhile, argues that it's because they're hopelessly trapped that no one should dare try to rescue them; he thinks it's enough that the expedition is lost, so there's no need to get even more people killed in a futile attempt to save them. This conundrum is only brought up, though, and never really resolved. It seems strangely abrupt, but hopefully it's just place-setting.
At any rate, Shane has underestimated the resourcefulness of the scavengers; though a sudden shower washes the corpse-stink off of Rick and Glenn, resulting in a wild chase to the construction yard, the plan works, and the group flees the urban hellscape of Atlanta, heading back to the camp for what will likely be a pretty fireworks-laden reunion between Rick and his family next episode. The whole group escapes, except for Merle Dixon; T-Dog has left him behind, cuffed tot a bar on top of the department store building. There's little doubt that Merle will be returning (it was telegraphed loudly enough); let's hope that by then Michael Rooker has a better character to work with.
It's hard to know what to credit with the drop-off between this episode and the first. "Guts" featured a new director, a new cinematographer, and a new writer, all of whom failed to deliver a product that popped so energetically and reached such emotional depths as its predecessor. But Darabont is still running the show, and he has to be aware of what a badly characterized dramatic black hole he has on his hands with Merle. "Guts" also seemed rushed and exposition-heavy, which is especially unfortunate given how lightly The Walking Dead trod with those factors in the premiere. Admittedly, they had less time to work with this time around and a lot of business to take care of, but whatever the cause, the effect was the same.
As disappointing as this episode was in comparison to the premiere, it wasn't terrible, and had many good qualities. The show still looks fantastic, and the choice to use 16mm film pays off time after time, giving everything a stark, bright quality that fits the mood perfectly. Glenn will definitely be a good addition to the cast. Future conflicts were set up or furthered; and the new characters may show more depth in the future as they get more screen time. And, of course, second episodes are always tricky; bringing in new characters and expanding the scope of the story can be awkward at first, even if it yields good results down the line. This episode had some pretty thankless work to do, so it's hard to blame it for not being as enthralling as the pilot. Still, the pacing needs to be fixed, the emotional tenor lost from the first episode needs to be regained, and someone needs to either rewrite Michael Rooker's part completely or write him out of the show. But The Walking Dead has absolutely earned enough goodwill that I'm willing to ride out what I hope is just a turbulent bump on the way to a great series.
- The great sound design I talked about in the pilot is still present; in the opening scene, the natural sounds of the forest are miked way up in the mix, to give even the smallest noises a menacing quality to people who are trained to think of any sound as a warning.
- "If bad ideas were an Olympic event, this one would take the gold." I mentioned before that The Walking Dead isn't really a show about snappy dialogue, but there's a place for it, and it looks like most of it will come from Glenn.
- "You're surrounded by walkers. That's the bad news." "Is there any good news?" "No."
- "Bright side? It'll be the fall that kills us."
- More evidence that these zombies aren't completely traditional: They definitely have a limited use of tools (they use heavy objects to break down glass doors), and they seem to have some capacity for learning. One of them appears to start climbing a fire escape ladder after seeing Glenn and Rick do it.
- "The little red dot means it's ready to fire. You may have occasion to use it." Andrew Lincoln is growing on me.
- He hasn't had much to do yet, but the character of Carl is absolutely vital to the emotional center of the story. It'll be interesting to see whether the young actor playing him has the chops to do what's needed of him.
- Another clunky moment from the episode: in the tank, a big deal is made of the fact that Rick gets hold of a grenade. I thought surely he'd use it as part of his big distract-the-zombies-with-noise scheme, but no. It's never mentioned again in the whole episode. It may figure later, but to paraphrase Chekov, if you show me a grenade in the first act, it better explode by the third.