It took three minutes to get completely sucked in by this week’s episode of “The Walking Dead.” I know we’re only three episodes into the season of Frank Darabont’s televised adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel series, but that’s still damn impressive, especially given how engaging the past two episodes have been. And yet, the opening three minutes, featuring a sun-blasted, injured, half-crazed and near-bestial Merle (Michael Rooker), handcuffed to a pipe on a building rooftop as the undead hordes begin beating at the door, were some of the most genuinely affecting and riveting television I’ve ever seen. Just like that, I knew we were in for a ride.
The third episode, “Tell It To The Frogs,” was one of those episodes where, on the surface, very little happened. The major event was, of course, former police office Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) finally reuniting with his family — wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl (Chandler Riggs). The show continues its technique of picking up immediately after the prior episode ends, creating a seamless, breathless continuity between showings. Rick and his new-found allies return to camp, and the reunion was so painfully poignant, the jagged emotionalism so intense, that at times you almost wanted to look away. Rick, exhausted and harried, clutches at his family as if he fears they’d disappear into smoke. Carl sobs with joy. Lori is filled with some complicated, awful amalgam of shock, fear, love, joy, and of course, guilt. And Shane looks on with a terrible mix of confusion, resentment, happiness and a more stomach-gnawing version of Lori’s guilt. His brother has returned, and his lover is thus lost.
“Tell It To The Frogs” is exactly what we’d hoped for since the rumors of the show came about. This episode wasn’t about zombies, but rather about family and brotherhood; the ties that bind and the ugly mistakes that corrode through them. No less powerful than Rick and family’s reunion was the reunion of Rick and Shane, though far more bittersweet given Shane’s transgressions that we later discover. Another couple from this survivor’s enclave, Ed (Adam Minarovich) and Carol (Melissa Suzanne McBride) add the complicated dynamic of a dysfunctional, abusive relationship. Andrea (Laurie Holden) and her sister Amy (Emma Bell) are brought back together. And finally, and most dangerously, we meet Merle’s equally unhinged younger brother Daryl (Norman Reedus), full of bitterness and a distaste for the company he’s forced to keep, turned to near psychotic fury and hate as he learns that his brother was not only abandoned, but potentially left to die.
All of it was beautifully woven together into one strand that showed the numerous and labyrinthine ways that family affects us, especially in times of crisis. The regular players — Rick, Lori, and Shane, were as outstanding as usual, with Callies’ Lori finally demonstrating some range of emotion beyond either shrill or lusty. But the standouts, and what may well prove to be the most compelling characters, were Rooker’s Merle and Reedus’ Daryl. Reedus portrays Daryl with a kind of visceral, raw power that makes the character far more than another stereotypical hillbilly. Feeling no bonds with this accidental extended family, his brother is all he has, and the possibility of losing him is devastating. His character is a grade-A asshole, but when he learns of Merle’s fate, it’s a testament to Darabont and company that you find yourself empathizing with him, feeling his anger and impotent rage.
The zombies are barely there. The one prominent walker is particularly horrific, with its grayed flesh and rotted mouth, but it serves a purpose beyond horror. It’s a transition to introduce new characters and to show both his strength, and the others’ potential weaknesses. It’s another indication of the genius of the show. It also succeeds by showing us the little things — people immediately and efficiently cannibalizing automobiles for parts, bartering with each other for tools and weaponry, using primitive methods to keep themselves clean — all ways that this little society is forced to regress in order to continue surviving. Finally and most interestingly, the burgeoning gender dynamics at play provide yet another layer of dramatic depth.
As impressive as the premiere was, “Tell It To The Frogs” is the most affecting and powerful episode so far, portending great and terrible things. We’ve learned of the carnage that has occurred, the chaos the dead have created. Now, it’s time to show what the lingering aftereffects of their unexplained presence on the living will be. Will people gather together, or tear each other apart? Will they run and hide, stand and fight, lay down and die? Or will they, like Merle trapped on that rooftop, do literally anything to survive?
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.