The Walking Dead - "Tell It to the Frogs" & "Vatos"

I spent the bulk of last week talking about the origins of zombie film, television, etc., and why we, we the audience, never grow completely tired of the zombies as horror antagonists. This week, I'm going to speak specifically about the episodes at hand. After the stellar opening hour and a half of The Walking Dead, the show has worked to find that perfect pacing, allowing both new characters to appear and develop (if only slightly sometimes) and maintaining the sense of dread that is essential for a story taking place at what could be considered the "end of the world." Sometimes, episode two was a little too rushed, but now, with "Tell It to the Frogs" and "Vatos," the pacing has hit its mark, and the horror has become even more effective.

In "Tell It to the Frogs" we see the dramatic reunion of Rick and his family. There's a lot of heartwarming stuff here. All the survivors from the camp are happy to have their loved ones back, except for Daryl, whose brother Merle (the racist redneck) is still trapped, handcuffed, to the roof on a building in Atlanta. Because Rick has superhuman morality, he decides that they have to go back for Merle, and while they're there, his bag of guns too. And so a new group runs leaves, going back into the fray. And in camp, we find out that Shane told Lori that Rick had died in the hospital, and then Shane beats up Ed, someone who will matter so little in one episode that beating him up for being a violently abusive husband still seems fine.

Dialogue has yet to become a strong point with this show, and I've heard it's equally weak in the comic. But this episode was especially effective because it opened on Merle, with a problem, and closed on part of Merle and that problem solved, at least for him. The book-ending worked well, even if I called his saw-job upon set up in the first scene. What matters is the expansion of new characters and old. Glenn continues to be valuable for quips and good plans. And surprisingly, Daryl, who is as effective a zombie-killer as there is, seems reasonable from time to time. The key, when this episode ended, was what impact Shane beating on Ed would have on the group, and how Shane would make careful amends with the woman with whom he'd been sleeping by telling her her husband was dead. (It's that in the plot of the Count of Monte Cristo?) Turns out, at least for one more episode, we don't see a huge issue, or any resolution from a scene that should have more fully developed the survivor camp because...

"Vatos" comes along and jumps from a hand, wrapped in a handkerchief and placed in a backpack, to an unnerving image of a survivor we really haven't met yet digging a ton of graves on a hilltop. Also, Andrea and Amy have a long conversation about their childhood, and their father, and death/mortality, love, etc. while fishing for the camp's dinner. The setup for "Vatos" is compelling, and if it could have stayed where it was, for the most part, it would've been a nearly perfect episode, but for some reason there seems to be a fear to fill the space with the tension and long shots of desolation that made "Days Gone Bye" so effective. Instead, Rick and his crew of rescuers find out that Merle has gotten all the way to street level, hand-less and fancy free. The gents attempt to get the bag of guns back, the bag that Rick dropped before becoming trapped in the tank, by another genius Glenn-plan, and nearly succeed. They are interrupted by a gang, stereotypically Hispanic, who want the guns too, and kidnap Glenn. From there, it rattles from tense, to silly, to sweet, to pointless. No violence. No amazing gun-fight-that-turns-into-a-zombie-mob. Two groups kiss and make up, Rick gives them half the guns and ammo, and because their truck is stolen (by Merle?) they run (RUN!) all the way back to camp.

Camp has been interesting too. After Andrea and Amy catch dinner, Shane confronts the survivor digging his "holes," after Dale (the old guy) confronts him about the same thing. No one seems to think of graves, or say that, or even imply that, whoa, our buddy here may be going nuts and planning to murder us, but Shane cuffs him to a tree for his, and their safety. And then there's a nice bit of dialogue from Dale, talking about his watch, about time, about what keeping time means. Essentially, keeping time lets you forget about it. Amy gets up to go to the bathroom, and oh yeah, Ed was hanging out nursing his wounds, so he's in a tent. That's when... ZOMBIES! Err... WALKERS!!! And some people get bit, torn up, eaten, etc. Mostly people we don't know, or don't like. And just before any of the principle characters can "eat it," Rick and the boys run (RUN!) in from Atlanta to blow away the rest of the zombies.

The ending scene is effective, and genuinely sad. But I can't help but wonder how much more effective it could have been had the episode not invested half its focus on dealing with the "angels in disguise" gang members. We still don't know that much about the survivors. We know that Merle and Daryl are redneck racists, but that Daryl is the "reasonable" one. We know Rick and Shane were cops, and Rick is hyper-moral, while Shane is questionably motivated (but still clearly driven to protect people... his heart is good). We know that Lori and Carl are Rick's family and Lori is happy to have him back, but sad that she ostensibly cheated on him. And we knew that Ed was an abusive asshole. And Dale is an old guy who is a little crotchety, but generally reasonable. And Andrea and Amy can fish. And Glenn is the funny one. We could have known more about these people, information that would have made the deaths more impacting, but we didn't and don't. That's my only major gripe. We're supposed to feel sad because we see the characters on screen sad, but that requires heavy lifting for the actors. With more set-up on these people, we could just feel that sadness too. Also, the guy digging the holes, he lets us know, "I was digging out graves," at the end of the episode. But, viewers who weren't zombies got that imagery already.

Still, "Tell It to the Frogs" and "Vatos" were improvements over "Guts" and keep the story moving well. The show will be good. It's not perfect, but that's because it has to fight past the early shit, at least that's my hope. The real conflicts haven't appeared yet. And the only "good" conflict, will Rick find his family, was resolved early. If the show can focus on the survivor camp, and stop trying to follow a "new survivor of the week" formula, it will pace better and we will care about these people. The best thing, really, is that the show is gorgeous. Every time it's beautiful. And the gore is effective and well done. Now, if the writing staff could fix the little holes in the plots, and make us love the people will surviving through, the show will be hugely effective.

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