Having, for the most part, gotten a handle on the pacing problem, The Walking Dead now has to deal with a significantly more difficult tonal one. The show has two stories to tell and two audiences to satisfy: The first audience wants slam-bang shoot-'em-up zombie-killin' action, and they likely outnumber the second audience, which is more invested in the emotionally involving story of survivor psychology. Of course, there are those who want both, but these two story threads often seem to get in the way of each other at awkward moments.
"Vatos" begins with a very likable scene between Andrea and Amy; what starts as a completely banal argument between sisters about what kind of knots their fathers taught them to tie turns into a peril-fraught discussion of what it means to outlive the people you love. Meanwhile, the enigmatic Jim is seen on a hilltop overlooking the city, going about the serious, and seriously disturbing, business of digging graves. His expression of grief, obsession, or premonition, whatever it is, freaks everybody out, but what right does the group have to control it, especially after they learn that his whole family was torn apart right in front of him? Between the irony of Shane telling Jim no one's going to hurt him as he twists his arm, cuffs him, and ties him to a tree, and Rick stopping to pick up his sheriff's hat before fleeing an attack, the show is opening up what will hopefully be a productive line of inquiry about the nature of authority in a world where it's lost all its theoretical legitimacy.
Meanwhile, back in Atlanta, Daryl continues to show that, hotheaded or not, he's got real value to the group. After an initial furious reaction, he turns back into a crossbow-toting killing machine—and the absent Merle is no slouch, either. Evidence suggests that he went the pure rugged route and cauterized his own wound without anesthesia. The gang quickly discovers that they're not the only group of survivors; their plan to snatch the tools and guns is interrupted by the arrival of a Mexican gang that has its eyes on the same prize. They kidnap Glenn and throw a big monkey wrench into the works. This leads to a big showdown between Guillermo, the gang leader, and his men, who seem to be making a pretty good show of things in Atlanta, and the survivors. Guillermo isn't interested in a straight hostage swap; he wants the guns, too, having figured out pretty quickly where the real power is.
Still, it seems like there's got to be an element of bluff involved in his play; his group wouldn't be doing so well if they were constantly shooting off gats and attracting zombies. This turns out to be the case in spades: The gang isn't just all front; they're protecting a group of sick elderly invalids. Felipe and Guillermo are hospital staff who stayed behind to help those least capable of helping themselves.
Dramatically, this whole sequence plays out pretty hokily. Guillermo's dialogue is ridiculous, and the entire storyline plays like something out of an episodic social-lesson-of-the-week show. Since nothing ends up coming of it from a plot standpoint (other than frustrating the search for Merle yet another week), it's hard not to think of it as one of those comics where two superheros have a big fight scene that turns out to be mistaken identity. Considering that the producers are on record as saying they were reluctant to introduce the camp survivors so quickly, and only did so given the short 6-episode show order and their initial uncertainty over getting renewed, there may be a reason for introducing so many new characters so quickly. But it does only exacerbate the problem of shallowness; the more characters there are, the less time we have to get to know them—unless, of course, they're just being thrown in as zombie fodder.
Which brings us to the endgame of this installment of The Walking Dead. Since Merle has already found a way out of town and is headed back to camp with murder presumably on his mind (a plot that has no immediate payoff and makes Daryl's commitment level seem pretty thin), the group heads back to camp. In a scene that shows that the show really can skillfully blend the action-horror and emotional survivor tales if it really wants to, we see little stories of how people are pitching in to survive, engaging in little rituals like winding a watch, just to maintain some vestige of the way things used to be. But nothing can last—just before the survivors arrive back at camp after what must have been a hell of a walk, a zombie swarm hits the area. After a thrilling, night-fight sequence, the swarm is put down, but there are casualties on the side of the living, including Amy.
This episode opened and closed on very strong notes, but the mushy middle, which didn't solve anything involving the ongoing plot and introduced a bunch of arbitrary, needless complications that had no payoff, bogged it down quite a bit. I can't justify giving the show a better rating based on what it might do in the future, but I am hoping that in season two, with more episodes and the accompanying room to let storytelling breathe, we'll see less of this sort of thing. The Walking Dead needs to stop introducing characters that don't make any difference (especially ones as clunky as the Vatos) and focus on getting us more involved with the ones that do. But there was still a lot of emotionally powerful stuff this time, with sufficient thrills, and the ever-growing lesson that survival means a lot of sitting around, waiting for your loved ones to die.
Despite our pleas not to do so, various commenters managed (by the third episode, no less) to spoil every single plot point, character death, and story arc from the Walking Dead comics. We're as pissed about this as you are, believe me, but the fact is, we just don't have the time and resources to police all the comments for every spoiler. So, the Internet being what it is, be warned that by reading the posts here, you're risking major spoilers. I'd hate to think that anyone's going to be discouraged from posting by the presence of these folks who just can't resist pulling this stuff, but, well, here we are. If you MUST spoil, please mark the spoilers clearly, for the benefit of those who've never read the comics.
- The implication—and it seemed pretty clear—that Ed is a pedophile makes him even more cartoonishly villainous than he was last episode. But yay, now he's dead! That's something, anyway.
- Did anyone else expect Merle's hand to start moving?
- "You couldn't kill him. I ain't too worried about some dumb dead bastard."
- "That's a lie. That's the biggest lie there is."
- I can't really say why, but I find the idea that zombies sit around in cars alternately creepy and funny. Clearly, they don't get tired; maybe they're just seeing if anyone left some gum in the glove compartment or something.