One of the most hotly contested issues from last week’s episode of “The Walking Dead” was, “Why did Merle cut his hand off?” People argued over it intensely. I spent an hour in a bar on Friday night having a drunken debate with a friend about it. Five minutes into this week’s this week’s episode, they put the debate to rest:
The saw simply wasn’t sharp enough to cut through the cuffs.
I love this show.
This week’s episode, “Vatos,” was sneaky, and the theme seemed to revolve around misconceptions by both the cast and the viewers. As usual, it picked up immediately after the prior episode, with Rick, Glenn, Daryl and T-Dog (seriously, we need to lose that name in a hurry) on a rooftop in downtown Atlanta, trying to figure out what happened to the now-handless Merle while working out a plan to grab Rick’s bag of guns that he dropped back in Episode 1. Over the course of the episode, they end up encountering a gang of Latinos that kidnaps Glenn, and end up in a confrontation over Glenn, the guns, and Miguel, who Rick and company capture.
I spent 30 minutes being annoyed at the episode and at Robert Kirkman (the comic creator who wrote this episode) for the broad stereotypes they were playing on. While I enjoy the characters of Merle and Daryl, adding a bunch of Hispanic gang members into the mix amped up the generalizations and, for the first time, I found myself disappointed.
Shows what I know. Kirkman and company masterfully switched things up, and turned it yet again into a lesson of survival — not just of the show’s core group, but also of Guillermo and his new family, and how their family ties compare to Rick’s. Everyone needs to survive — some are doing it differently than others. Some have different priorities about who should be saved. It was a remarkably clever and thought-provoking sequence, as Rick’s group gets led through the quiet hallways of this new stronghold, watching as their preconceptions gradually get stripped away, laying bare a new group of survivors with an entirely different, but no less noble (if not more so) mission.
“Vatos” was another of those episodes that focused on the human element, and on the decisions — some good, some bad — that we find ourselves forced to make in moments of despair and in the face of destruction. The show’s determination to use this zombie apocalypse as a vehicle for exposing the strengths and weaknesses of humanity continues to be one of its greatest assets, and with each week they show a facet of the theme.
The other part of the episode was spent back at the camp, where one of their party, Jim (Andrew Rothenberg), appears to be going off the rails, endlessly digging holes in the ground without purpose or explanation… even though in the back of their minds (and ours) there’s a grim suspicion that worms its way in there and slowly eats away. The cast at the camp continues to develop slowly, but unquestionably the two standouts, performance-wise, were Jon Bernthal’s Shane and Laurie Holden’s Andrea. Shane is proving to be a far more complex character than we’d initially suspected, and that’s a good thing. It’s clear that there’s a darkness inside him, as evidenced by his misleading Laurie into an affair, and his brutal beating of Ed (Adam Minarovich) in the last episode. But there’s also a good man mixed in their, and his handling of Jim’s breakdown was a combination of kindness, strength and determination that we may not have expected.
Meanwhile, the opening sequence with Andrea and her sister Amy (Emma Bell) was sweet, and the scenes with the two of them, as well as the other cooperative efforts at the camp, helped maintain a pleasant balance with the hostility and dangers of the scenes in Atlanta. The group is melding together nicely, and new and intriguing dynamics are being formed each week, dedicating a few minutes here and there to show us a little bit more of each character. This gradual buildup of characterization serves the show’s long range goals well — it establishes the characters, but given its intention of moving in a seamless, streaming continuity from episode to episode, gives us time to get to know them and understand them without over-explaining them right off the bat. The buildup of the group’s camaraderie was emphasized in “Vatos” with scenes of the group actually enjoying themselves, finally finding some slight joy and respite in simple things like a fish dinner and a couple of beers.
And then they get torn to pieces.
The final sequence of “Vatos” was a nothing short of a 10 minute horror show. It was a frantic, frenetic frenzy of gore and mayhem. The camera work was amazing — capturing the group as it splintered apart in terror, and then gathered back together to save each other, all peppered with flickering firelight and cacophonous gunfire, showing just how wild and uncontrollable and fright-inducing those encounters can be. This wasn’t an isolated attack by a lone zombie — it was a full-blown pack of walkers, and they ripped through the panicked herd like a chainsaw.
It was another of those moments in this show, when viewers, especially those who didn’t read the books, realize that “The Walking Dead” really may be unlike anything else. It spent a good portion of the episode teaching you about one of the characters, making her engaging and getting you invested in her — and then quite literally tearing her apart. Her final moments, lying gasping and gurgling on the ground, as her life slowly drained away and her only family kneels beside her, were brutal and tragic and it taught us the critical lesson to remember as “The Walking Dead” progresses:
No one is safe.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.