The Walking Dead
AMC, Sundays, 9/10 PM
Written by Frank Darabont
Directed by Michelle McLaren
“Nice moves there, Clint Eastwood. You the new sheriff come riding in to clean up the town?” — Glenn
This episode of The Walking Dead may be the best example of humanity under pressure I’ve seen since The Mist. Which was written and directed by Frank Darabont so, no surprise. There’s nothing like locking a bunch of strangers up in a castle/dungeon/redoubt and surrounding them with fiercely attacking enemies to shine the bright light of revelation on a character. Evangelist Dwight Moody, who had more than a little to say about what makes up a soul, said that character is what you are in the dark. Well, Rick and his friends are in a very dark place, never mind the bright Georgia sunshine outside the building. After an hour of watching the soul-searching going on among these hapless folk, we feel that we know them better than we ought to.
Glenn: I can see you. You’re surrounded by walkers. That’s the bad news.
Rick: There’s good news?
When we last saw him, Rick was trapped in a tank, surrounded by zombies. We open with a radio friend who advises him on how to get out: run for it. The voice guides him through the thinnest grouping of zombies, but even after Rick hears refugee Glenn (Steven Yeun, The Big Bang Theory) on the tank’s radio, it’s touch and go. Maybe someday someone can explain to me how a bunch of slow-shuffling zombies can outrun a healthy man in good physical condition. I mean, these are creatures that walk into walls; they’re like battery powered toys with dying batteries. Glenn and Rick hole up in a department store with T-Dog (IronE Singleton, The Blind Side), Jacqui (Jeryl Prescott, Hawthorne), Morales (Juan Gabriel Pareja, Machete) and a very paranoid Andrea (Laurie Holden, The X-Files). These folks are not pleased that Rick has led the zombie horde to them. In a scene likely to be familiar to anyone who ever worked retail on Black Friday, the zombies line up against the glass doors and windows, and start pounding. You know it’s only a matter of time until that glass gives way, so we have a clock to go with our siege situation.
“Things are different now. There are no ‘niggers’ anymore. Only dark meat and white meat. There’s us, and the dead.” — Rick
Worse, one of the refugees is Merle (Michael Rooker, Tombstone), a redneck who enjoys shooting zombies from the roof with a high-powered rifle. While most of the group is pounding on Rick for leading the zombies to them, or trying to figure out how to get out of this trap, Merle is busy solidifying his power base the old fashioned way: at gunpoint. He objects to taking orders from a black man, a fight ensues, and Rick finally has to act like a cop. He handcuffs Merle to a rooftop structure, and turns to the business of planning an escape. This allows the other refugees to fill him – and us – in on the rules of this particular zombie apocalypse. Because this is a game, and there are always rules to a game. The most salient rule right now is that zombies hunt by movement and by smell—pretty much like any mammalian predator. So when all else fails, and the only way to get to some nearby vehicles is to walk to them, Rick comes up with a really disgusting idea.
Smell like the dead.
” We’re going to need more guts.” – Rick
Eww. I’m still trying to get past the gore, so when this idea came up I nearly faded. Rick quite sensibly realizes that you can’t fake the smell of death, so he and the others haul a recent corpse (pop quiz: how do you tell the undead lying doggo from the real dead?) into the basement. Suited up in raincoats, they prepare to chop him up and smear him on their clothes. But just as he starts to swing the ax, Rick remembers his humanity. In a really, truly heroic moment, he takes the time and effort to learn the man’s name, learn about his family from his wallet, and makes sure the others know this information. He makes everyone promise that if they ever find the man’s family, they will tell them of his last days. It’s a wonderfully human and humane moment, the kind of moment that makes Rick a real hero, someone who has not forgotten that it’s not just important to survive, it’s important not to become the soulless undead one is surviving.
As usual, Darabont sprinkles a bit of humor into the mix. As if a bunch of folks in Halloween makeup hobbling around the streets in broad daylight isn’t funny enough, now Glenn and Rick are out and about, doing the zombie shuffle and hoping not to get caught. Hiding in plain sight, they make their way slowly and fearfully up the street, only to be caught in a sudden downpour that washes off their smell. They are forced to make a run for it, which gives those shambling dead another chance to make like a troupe of sprinters. Amazing, the energy these folks suddenly have. Glenn hotwires a hotrod not only for its speed, but to trigger the alarm. He drives like a maniac to draw the zombies away, while Rick backs a big truck up to the loading dock of the warehouse. Everyone gets in and drives away.
Oops. Where’s Merle? You know, the guy on the rooftop, chained to a pipe? Defenseless? He may be a bigot, but he’s a human being. You can see the guilt on everyone’s faces as they realize what has happened, and then weigh the odds of going back. No one suggests going back. There’s no dialogue; we don’t need it. The guilt is there, the decision is made, no one disputes it, and no one is comfortable with it. Have these half-dozen heroes just sacrificed any claim to humanity by chaining and leaving an unarmed victim? Personally, I hope they go back for him. It’s all too easy to populate a band of heroes with characters whose motives or political standing are lily-pure; it’s more interesting to throw in someone no one likes. Merle may not be the kind of guy you want as a neighbor, but in a fight you want him on your side. This kind of transgressive character is what raises a show from mediocre to interesting. I think the real challenge for Frank Darabont will be to give Shane and Merle some depth. Even a racist or sexist might have some good qualities about him (other than first class hand/eye coordination). Maybe Shane is a great mechanic who can fix any engine. Maybe Merle is a qualified EMT. Whatever. The point is that I’d like to see the “bad guys” be more than just shallow clichés.
The other shallow cliché of apocalypse movies, of course, is the Stupid Hero. In this case, our hero is not stupid, but everyone around him seems to be. Why are these refugees holed up in a department store? I know personally that there are gun shops in Atlanta; have they all burned down? Why are they not holed up in a defensible location like a police or fire station? And then there are the refugees outside of town, living in the middle of a forest in tents. Why don’t they just hang out “Zombie Bait” signs? Why are they not living in a house, or buses, or something they can fortify? A tent? Seriously? Even our primitive ancestors knew enough to climb a tree to escape predators. And to cap it all, they let the women go out one at a time to gather mushrooms. Yeah, these suburban moms are surely going to be able to tell the difference between toxic and non-toxic varieties. In tribal hunter-gatherer cultures, women usually go out gathering food in groups, for safety’s sake. Why can’t these people figure this out?
Maybe I’m just not used to the conventions of zombie movies. Maybe these are the rules of the game. If so, it’s a pretty lame one. I can almost put up with the gore for the sake of the human drama, but it’s an uneasy balance. I really hope Rick will start asking the obvious questions soon, like what the hell happened? I hope Darabont has more sense than to think he can pull off a Lost type mystery. We don’t need mystery, we have zombies. A series about animated corpses who rip people limb from limp does not require subtlety. However, it does need riveting characters, and those are available in abundance. Besides the hero, we have nasty Merle, shady Shane, crafty Glenn and a very human Andrea. Then there’s the lingering question of Lori’s loyalties: is she with Shane now because she thinks Rick is dead, or were they together before the apocalypse? For some reason, this soap opera storyline seems to fit in perfectly with a story about reanimated corpses. Something about what makes us human, and what makes us noble.
The Walking Dead has already been renewed for a second season of 13 episodes. This surprises no one, as the first two episodes have broken all AMC ratings records. Hollywood Reporter says that the show “reached more viewers in the 18-49 demo than any other cable TV show after two episodes”. This episode garnered 4.7 million viewers, an “incredibly” high retention rating—most shows lose up to 50% of the premiere audience after the first showing. I guess, considering the subject matter, the decision to renew could be considered a no-brainer.