The greatest difficulty I face when watching “The Walking Dead” is separating the television show from the graphic novels. This was far more difficult during the second episode, “Guts,” than it was in the premiere. The second episode, while still quite strong, showed some of the shows first missteps and stutters, and while it expanded the universe of the walkers to include new characters, not all of them were as well-developed as I would have hoped.
“Guts” opened right where the premiere, “Days Gone Bye,” left off — former lawman Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) found himself trapped in a tank surrounded by the dead on a wasted street in abandoned Atlanta. With a little help from a new friend, he in turn finds himself locked in a building with a new group of survivors, including Andrea (Laurie Holden), Glenn (Steven Yuen), Merle (Michael Rooker), Jacqui (Jeryl Prescott), Morales (Juan Gabriel Pareja), and T-Dog (IronE Singleton). This harried, desperate group was foraging for supplies (they’re actually an extension of the group that also consists of, unbeknown to him, Rick’s former partner Shane as well as his wife Lori and son Carl), and ran afoul of zombie trouble, trouble which was complicated further by Rich’s unwitting actions.
The balance of the episode serves as an introduction to these new players, both in the building and back at the group’s base camp, as Rick and company try to find a way out of the city as the swarm grows and bangs at the doors of the department store they’re locked inside of. It’s an interesting, slow-burning episode that portends good things about the future of the series. Darabont, comic writer Robert Kirkman and company are content to not rush things, but rather to slowly grind out a painful, breathless storyline. In many past television series, this sort of gradual development has failed — look no further than the beautifully acted but unfortunate “Treme,” which took its time in developing its stories, only to ultimately bore many viewers and have their attentions drift. “The Walking Dead” takes a different approach — while its character development may be steady and evenly paced, it keeps the action sequences ramped up and it’s buoyed by the scenes of brutal devastation that surround its cast members.
At the same time, the scenes of Lori, Shane and the other contingent of survivors serve as a quiet, though still taut, respite from the gut-clenching tension of the urban chaos of downtown Atlanta. The burgeoning, confusing relationship between Lori and Shane is bound to be a source of contention for viewers, mainly because one of the aforementioned missteps is that it simply seems rushed — in the books, there were two things that stood out which made the relationship more understandable — it took time, and it was a one-shot deal that took place in a moment of vulnerability and weakness on Lori’s part. The show is taking a different approach, making it seem more tawdry, a problem compounded by the fact that it seems like it’s only been a few weeks since the outbreak took place. If that’s their intent, then we’re in for a far more complicated dynamic once Rick rejoins his family. Whether or not that’s a good thing — story-wise — remains to be seen.
As for the zombies themselves, they seemed to play a larger role this week, and as a result, we’re seeing more of Darabont and company’s take on the genre. In some ways, it seemed a step back from the brutal humanization demonstrated in “Days Gone Bye,” and a bit of a blow to the Romero-esque canon that they seemed so devoted to. The undead are seen climbing ladders and fences, using bricks to bash windows, and the concept of zombie sensory perception is a curious one. In a way, the latter issue makes sense — the undead can clearly see and hear, so a sense of smell seems logical. That said, a sense of smell so acute that it enables them to differentiate between the living and dead implies neurons firing on a level I wouldn’t have expected. Yet all the while, in a way it falls in with the not-quite-dead representation that was alluded to in the premiere. That said, I don’t know that I want to see them moving much further past that, lest they begin picking up guns a la Land Of The Dead.
That concept of sensory perception created the opportunity for the episode to live up to its namesake, in a particularly gory and unpleasant scene specifically. It seemed at times gratuitous and excessive, almost as if the idea of a zombie sense of smell was created simply as a ploy for a scene where the survivors cover themselves in rotten human meat. I wasn’t initially thrilled with it, but it also led to one of the most visceral, nerve-wracking sequences I’ve seen (and again, reminiscent of Shaun of the Dead), where Rick and Glenn find themselves anxiously walking among the undead, trying for a sort of ghoulish anonymity. That scene, and the resulting battle, showed one thing that makes the show that much more promising — AMC is clearly not pulling any punches when it comes to violence or gore. Rick frantically darting through the street, desperately whipping his axe around, was a powerful and gruesome scene that managed to convey a sense of despair, but also didn’t glorify the violence — it was clearly an unfortunate act born out of fear and last resorts.
The acting continues to impress, even when the characters aren’t particularly well-written. Michael Rooker killed in the role of the redneck psycho Merle, despite the character being written in the broadest of stereotypes (and next week features the excellent Norman Reedus as his younger brother, something we should all be excited about). After a clumsy, overwrought introduction, Laurie Holden (Silent Hill, The Mist) showed that Darabont knows what he’s doing in his decisions to continue casting her in his productions. We’re still getting to know the remaining characters, which is a rather ingenious technique — introduce them bit by bit, making the introductions seem more intimate (and the likely inevitable rug-pulling in later episodes all the more vicious and unsettling).
“Guts” didn’t seem as strong as its predecessor, but it’s still probably one of the best hours of television to be broadcast this week. Darabont’s vision for Kirkmans harsh, unyielding world of the living and the dead — walking or otherwise — continues be an uncompromising and unapologetic one. That palpable sense of dread and skittish terror lurks at every intersection; every nerve seems frayed and every character seems one step away from completely breaking down. Most importantly, they continue to evenly balance the ghastly reality of this dying and undead world with the very real, bitter drama of the living. The producers made some interesting decisions this week that have the potential for serious long-term ramifications, but thus far, “The Walking Dead” continues to live up to expectations.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.