The Walking Dead: “Vatos”


The Walking Dead

AMC, Sundays, 9/10 PM


Written by Robert Kirkland

Directed by Johan Reuck

“Admit it. You came back to Atlanta for the hat.” – Glenn

About fifteen minutes into this episode, my chief question was: you came back for a bag of guns? Oh, I know, the heroic rationale for Rick and his team to return to Zombie Central is that they are trying to rescue Merle. That’s a noble motive, in no way lessened when they discover that Merle has, er, freed himself. But now the only good reason to stay in Atlanta, where a crowd of cannibalistic ghouls can materialize at any moment, is to find Merle. Instead, this episode focuses on finding the missing bag of guns that Rick dropped in the middle of a street in the pilot. Much screen time is devoted to concocting a plan to cover Glenn as he sprints out into the middle of a horde of walkers, hoping to recover the duffle bag and get to safety before this life-and-death version of Prisoner’s Base catches up to him.

What a dumb idea. Has stress really fried Rick’s brain? Because he’s the one I mainly blame for this stupidity. A law enforcement officer should know where the best place to find guns would be: a gun shop, a shooting range, the local hunt club or even (duh) the local cop shop. Any of those places are sure to be more secure, more defensible, and more available than a bag sitting in the middle of enemy territory. Only after confirming that all other sources of guns in Atlanta are dried up should anyone consider such a suicidal act. This kind of scene makes for good drama and some tense moments, but at the long-term expense of character development. I’m not likely to respect a hero with more courage than intelligence.

“The world is the same as it ever was.” — Guillermo

There’s some attempt to play with stereotypes and prejudice, as Rick and company encounter a gang of Hispanic survivors. Both sides take hostages, tense negotiations ensue, and of course Darryl does his best to go off half-cocked at any opportunity. We get not just one, but two Mexican standoffs (no pun intended). Finally we get a testosterone-charged confrontation with everyone pointing guns—until the moment is defused by a sweet little old grandmother who wanders into the playground. With all the innocence and charm of a six-year-old child, she takes Rick to see Glenn, who is not only unharmed but is watching as “gang” members lovingly care for a host of elderly patients. It seems that the gang’s headquarters is actually a nursing home for the disabled and elderly, who were abandoned when the apocalypse hit. Guillermo (Neil Brown, Jr., Fear Clinic) is not really a gang leader but the former janitor, who is now a leader of a group of Hispanic survivors he calls “vatos”, scavengers who use the nursing home as a headquarters and scrounge what they can to keep everyone alive. Rick hands over a couple of guns to help Guillermo’s defense strategy, and there are handshakes all around. The bad guys turn out to be good guys, and the team heads home.

As entertaining as this twist is, it does not make up for the unbalanced feel of this episode. Hard against this slow-burning fuse of racial tension, we get the other story, the one taking place in the refugee camp (as noted, there are only two locales for this show: Atlanta and the Camp). While one member, Jim, digs many holes at random, Andrea tries to bond with her sister Amy (Emma Bell, Supernatural) over fishing. Scenes like this one are exactly what is wrong with so much apocalypse writing: are people really going to be concerning themselves overmuch with their childhood conflicts when they are living in the barrel of a loaded shotgun? Given that it’s only a matter of time until the walkers find the camp, shouldn’t Amy and Andrea have better topics of conversation than “who did Dad love best”? This injection of pure soap opera into such a desperate situation comes across as weak and ludicrous. There are better ways to show/develop characters than have them sit around like guests on Oprah, discussing their feelings.

The last few minutes of this episode certainly made up for the relatively low-violence episodes of the last couple of weeks. The bucolic campfire scene in the camp is thrown into bloody chaos when a bunch of walkers appear out of nowhere. One of the characters we lose is Amy, so perhaps the whole conversation with Andrea is supposed to now take on some kind of ironic cast. It didn’t change anything for me, however: Amy is still a relatively unknown character, one to whom I utterly fail to bond. She was a bit whiny, and won’t be missed by anyone except Andrea, who is devastated. I’ll give Laurie Holden plenty of credit for a scene fraught with grief and shock, but in the long run Amy is not going to be much of a loss.

You know, the only reason I got away was ’cause the dead were too busy eating my family. – Jim

Writer Robert Kirkman was also the creator of the comic book on which this series is based, so I expect a lot of insight from him. I can see that he’s going for a “things are not what they seem” vibe. Is it working? I’m not convinced. Take the vatos. Not to be all un-PC and everything, but there’s just too much to overcome here. We are presented with what appears to be a typical Hispanic street gang (or at least as typical as we see on TV). They are violent, confrontational, Other in ever sociological sense of the word. And in order to make them the good guys in the space of five minutes, Kirkman decides to make them caretakers of the elderly and a rescuer of cute little dogs. It’s a blatant appeal to pure sentimentality, about as cheap an emotion as there is. While it’s well done, it’s still icing on top of garbage, dramatically speaking. On the other hand, Jim’s (Andrew Rothenberg, True Blood) quiet confession that he saw his family eaten right in front of him carries so much anguish and horror that we didn’t actually need any more character definition from him. He’s seen horror we can’t imagine, the kind of horror that makes one welcome death, and he doesn’t need to chew the scenery about it.

This fourth episode of our six-episode “season” continued to draw top numbers, despite a slight drop-off. It garnered 4.75 million viewers overall, with a 2.4/6 share in the 18-to-49 demographic. This makes it one of the top rated cable shows (at least in the scripted category) for the week. Since it has already been renewed, it’s a good thing it has a loyal audience to follow it.