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Before I get into the review, I’ll give a little context. I read The Walking Dead comic that this show is based on, and I like it. I’m not actually caught up with where it is right now, but I’m certainly well ahead of how far they’re going to get in this brief, six-episode-long season. Of course, the question is how relevant that knowledge I have will actually be, since Frank Darabont and his crew have clearly shown that they’re willing and even eager to make changes the book’s story and go in new directions.
The pace is much slower, and the cast is bigger, as they’re really expanding on the ideas they’re interested in wherever they can. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. Just the first two episodes showed us that. The premiere featured more stuff for the father and son survivors Morgan and Duane, as the wife and mother is still wandering around and Morgan struggles with his emotions while attempting to put her out of her misery. It was a powerful, well-done scene. But then in the next episode, Rick’s escape from Atlanta was made with several more characters than just Glenn like in the comic (why exactly did they all come along, when he professes repeatedly how he prefers to go on these scavenging runs alone?), including one which to me seemed impossible to still exist in this post-zombie apocalypse world; a reckless, racist hick who prioritized being a letch and a jerk over survival.
Rick and the others accidentally left him handcuffed to a roof in the city last time, which makes him the focal point of last night’s episode. The cold open was surprisingly effective despite how much I hated the character last week, as the man left behind, named Merle Dixon and played by Michael Rooker, struggles against the handcuffs and talks to himself, clearly unhinged and desperate as several zombies menace him from behind a padlocked door. The last thing we see is him trying to use his belt to pull over some spilled tools the other survivors left behind, before we cut back to the camp.
Rick’s wife Lori is cutting her son Carl’s hair, and they’re having a conversation with Rick’s old partner Shane, who has used his former status as a cop to establish himself as a de facto leader of the camp. They sort of look like a family; as we’ve already seen another change from the book, that the two have an ongoing sexual relationship rather than a single fling in the past. But soon the people who went to town return, Glenn in the stolen Challenger with the alarm still blaring and the rest in a delivery van. Andrea and a few others reunite with their relatives, but there’s a surprise one too, as Rick and his family both see each other for the first time since before he was shot. It’s a fairly effective scene as they come together, mostly due to the performances of Andrew Lincoln and Jon Bernthal, who doesn’t seem too happy about it.
There are a couple more scenes with the survivors before things start up again. We meet Carol, who’s in the comic, and her husband Ed, who isn’t. We quickly establish that he’s a dominating presence in her life, and also kind of a scumbag. Rick and Lori hold each other in their tent. Rick is glad to be with her again, so glad that he completely ignores her strangely apologetic tone, letting her regret over sleeping with Shane while he was gone seep through. The next day a zombie is spotted close to camp eating a dead deer, and after the men beat it and chop its head off, we’re introduced to Merle’s brother Darryl, played by Norman Reedus. He’s a skilled hunter, and clearly one of the best in the group at killing “geeks”, since he shoots an arrow threw the still-moving head and chastises the others for not destroying the brain.
He doesn’t react well to the news of his brother, but Rick, Glenn, and T-Dog, the man responsible for losing the handcuff key, all agree to return to Atlanta to save him. It sounds reckless since Merle doesn’t really contribute to the group and is, as Shane says, a douche bag, but there’s another reason to go. Rick left behind his bag, which not only has several guns and lots of ammunition which could be useful, but also walkie talkies, which he needs to warn Morgan about Atlanta. So despite the reluctance of others, the four set off on their rescue mission.
While that’s happening, we have some pretty clumsy character drama at the camp. Lori’s not happy about Shane talking Carl down to the quarry to catch frogs (hello, episode title), and forbids him from every coming near her family again. Seems like an overreaction, but she’s clearly pissed about something, and then says Shane told her Rick was dead. That’s certainly a reason to be mad, although it’s not totally clear that he told her he was definitely dead, and not something more excusable like saying he was most likely dead, which is certainly the case, as Carl himself points out that it’s basically a miracle that Rick made it to the camp alive.
At the same time the camp’s women are washing clothes in the same quarry pond, and making jokes about how they’re stuck doing the laundry even after zombies take over the world and missing their vibrators. Ed’s nearby though, and reveals himself not only to be dominating, but also a complete asshole misogynist and a wife beater. I find it absolutely stunning that character traits like this are able to exist with characters in this position, and Shane’s on my side, taking out his frustrations on Ed’s face after he slaps Carol. I don’t want to seem like I expect the show to be just like the book, because I don’t. But the book is effective because the zombies are often just a backdrop, and its most disturbing moments often come from how horrible human beings can be to each other when they’re desperate. The show is progressing too slowly for this kind of thing to get too messy too early in the series, so they replace genuinely interesting drama with a couple jerk characters who keep silly prejudices from their past despite the otherworldly situations they’re in. Of everything the show does, this has easily bothered me the most. It’s just not being handled well.
Back in Atlanta, the rescue team manages to sneak back to where Merle was trapped without attracting attention, but he’s gone, leaving behind only his own chopped off hand. It’s a creepy, grisly end to the episode, although it actually doesn’t make much sense. It’s not like he was under pressure for zombies to escape, the door was still padlocked when the other guys showed up. He could have tried sawing through the handcuff chain or the bar the cuff was attached too, but instead he went straight to the hand because it’s creepy and grisly. I mean, Merle’s obviously no rocket scientist, but even he should have been capable of better decisions than this. It was an effective way to mark the halfway point for the season, I just wish they did a better job establishing the necessity of such a dramatic course of action. This episode definitely had some flaws, but it’s still a very well-produced series, and I’m itching to see what happens next.