Tonight's episode of The Walking Dead had some heavy lifting to do. Regardless of whether or not you thought "Guts" was a step down from the series premiere, "Tell It To The Frogs" had its work cut out for it and was a key episode in setting the tone for the first season. It's the episode that finally brings the show's protagonist, Rick Grimes, into the larger world of zombie holocaust survivors and introduces his relationships to the characters who will probably be the main cast for some time, and it's the episode where the one hope that's kept him going so far—that his wife and child are still living—is confirmed. Of course, the confirmation of that hope may prove not to be the salvation he'd prayed for, and therein lies the critical seed of the drama yet to come.
But first things first. We begin with Merle, still chained to a pipe on the top of an Atlanta high-rise. It's both frustrating and rewarding that he's more human and likable sitting there, deliriously chattering to himself about his days in the service, than he was in the entire second episode—rewarding because it indicates that the writers, knowing he's going to be around for a while, are making gestures towards deepening his character, but frustrating because it makes you wonder why this wasn't done in the first place. Then, he turns on a dime, and his savage act of will in trying stave off death gives "Tell It To The Frogs" a dynamite cold open.
The rest of the city explorers head back to camp (with Glenn and his stolen muscle car, alarm still blaring, scouting ahead), and the conversation sets up the episode's central moral conflict. Even though Merle is a racist asshole who might have gotten everyone killed, in a world where the only real distinction is between the living and the dead, leaving him to be torn apart leaves a bit of a bad taste in everyone's mouth. But before that gets sorted out, there's the big reunion scene with Rick, Lori and Carl, and except for the obvious and unwelcome intrusion of the score, the scene is played out near perfectly. When it comes, it has the weight of genuine emotion: a combination of shock, joy, and a weird horror that shows in people who have learned the hard way that the next time they see someone could be the last time they see them. And, of course, the combined guilt of Lori and Shane weighs heavily on both of them. The first night they spend together is reflective of their internal turmoil; Rick expresses nothing but joy, while his wife's language is filled with hints of regret and apology. Even though Shane is a prick, it's hard not to feel for him and how completely he's stepped into the role of Carl's dad. (The scene of him on the roof keeping watch as Rick and Lori spend their first night together puts a bit too big of an exclamation point on it, though.)
At the camp, the level of tension is obvious; only Dale is anything like a voice of wisdom, while little things like the brightness of a fire can set off a confrontation that never rises to the level of shouting, but has murder underneath it. It's a tension that will bloom and bloody at the end of the episode, when a scene that starts out as a clumsy way to explore the sexual roles that have been touched on in the comments here (we're beginning to see that they stem more from pre-apocalyptic attitudes than post-apocalyptic ones) turns into something more about the guilt and fear people feel towards one another, and how they take it out on anyone in close range. The brutal beating Shane hands to the abusive Ed also serves to remind us that force is the only way to establish right and wrong anymore, a lesson that's sure to get uglier as time passes.
When we finally meet Merle Dixon's brother Daryl, we learn that he's just as big a prick, but in a more focused way. After the killing of a hapless zombie that's been feasting on a deer—a scene that has a brutal beat-down quality to it, another expression of misplaced rage, a quick and angry blast of violence that shows how much brutality has become a regular part of these peoples' lives—it's Daryl who excoriates the others for not taking care of the creature the right way. His fury, too, at the barely-explained fate of his brother is entirely understandable. It quickly becomes clear that there will be an expedition mounted to go after Merle; the only question is how Rick will justify it to his family. The way he ties it back to the debt he feels he owes to Morgan Jones is a nice bit of storytelling, and it satisfyingly sets up the trip back to Atlanta that ends the episode with a perfect cliffhanger of a shot, bringing it full circle to the excellent beginning.
The Walking Dead has been a pretty spectacular ratings-buster so far, and has already been renewed for a second season. (Sorry, Rubicon.) But I think it needed a really strong episode tonight to establish what kind of show it was going to be: the deliberate, emotional survival story of the pilot, or the rushed action-horror of "Guts". Happily, it went in exactly the right direction. There were a few clunky scenes, but "Tell It To The Frogs" did just about everything it needed to do. It deepened characters, strengthened relationships, laid out future conflicts, and gave its cast more to do. Best of all, it returned to the slower, more thoughtful pace of the pilot. I kept looking at the clock, expecting the rescue of Merle to take place this episode and worrying as the hour ran out that it would be crammed into too short a time; but instead, it's being deferred to the next episode, a sign that the show is willing to take its time and give stories the space they need to develop for maximum thrills as well as emotional impact. That's a very good signal that the show's headed in the right direction, and it couldn't have come at a better time.
- "You heard me, you fuzzy-ass non-com bitch! You ain't deaf!"
- Chandler Riggs as Carl was one of the actors given more to do this time around, and I mentioned before his character is key to the whole tone of the series. It looked like he'll be able to handle it, from what we saw tonight; he maintains childlike qualities while beginning to show the maturity of a kid who's been forced to grow up way too fast.
- "Words can be meager things. Sometimes they fall short."
- "Why would you risk your life for a douchebag like Merle Dixon?" "Hey! Choose your words more carefully!" "No, douchebag is what I meant."
- "I'm beginning to question the division of labor here."
- I don't know what to think of the revelation that Shane told Lori Rick was dead. It makes him too clearly a black hat in the overall scheme of things, in my opinion, but what did you think?
- Once again, the sound editing, particularly with ambient sound, is terrific. Rarely has distant thunder added so much to the mood of a scene, so natural and unforced. That's another reason I was irritated at the plodding and obvious use of the score in the reunion scene.
- Glenn is saddened by the loss of his stolen car. God bless that young man.