Stephen’s Take: The Walking Dead – “Guts”

Well. Doesn’t this put us in an awkward position? I mean, we all know that shows tend to be drastically different from their pilot episode to their first real episode. That difference can often manifest as a drop in quality. But I don’t know that I expected the second episode of The Walking Dead to feel so… conventional, after what we saw last week in the pilot.

(Spoilers Ahead!)

But let me elaborate a little bit on what I mean by that. Last week, I admired the show’s careful control over tone and pacing, its swings back and forth between claustrophobic dark and glaringly bright destruction. This week, the show pretty much hovers in the middle-shadows, keeping all of the action pretty much in exactly the territory you’d expect to see in, say, Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake.

Don’t get me wrong: the show is still pretty elegantly shot. It still has some pretty scary stuff. But even, say, the underground sewer-zombie encounter felt like it would be at home in pretty much any zombie movie in the past ten years. The visual tone was much more action-y and soap-y than it was depressing and bleak.

The episode was at its strongest when it DID swing into depressing and bleak. The highlight of the whole of “Guts” has to be the eponymous guts themselves: Grimes’s really grisly, but surprisingly effective, zombie-dismembering-and-smearing plan gave this episode its strongest vehicle for what the show does best.

And not just in the gore and action sort of way. The brief mourning period for the zombie who gave his life for their plan was pretty much the only genuine-feeling, even if slightly heavy-handed, moment of pathos in the episode. When Grimes says he’s going to tell his family about the man they had to dismember, it’s kind of touching, even while its kind of bleakly humorous and a little TOO serious at the same time.

So the episode swaps out two things that made the first episode so great; it replaces the carefully-controlled tone with wild action shots and replaces the emphasis on genuine humanity with caricatures and overblown soap moments. Of course it also maintained some of the things I loved about the first episode: unflinching violence, well-built zombie attack scenes, and a general solid outing for our lead actor

One thing the episode added that was a really big turning point for the worse was Merle Haggard, the racist on the roof. I really just don’t care about this guy. Zombie fiction antagonists usually have that sort of unhinged-ness that makes them dangerous to the survivor protagonists, but not in such an unbelievably caricatured way. The guy was literally unbelievably racist and misogynistic. Such a person would not exist in reality, let alone be sent along on an important scavenging mission. [1. This is a test footnote.]

The episode had a few moments of really lazy characterization (T-Dog is almost as ridiculously stereotypical as an urban black man, for instance), Haggard was easily the laziest. Everything about this guy, and what he did for the show, was kind of a negative. I could probably tolerate, and even learn to appreciate, a more subdued version of this guy, so we’ll see where this goes. (The Haggard / T-Dog storyline is also notable for a comical pratfall and slow-motion key drop that felt totally farcical and ENTIRELY out of place in this episode.)

Anyway, I guess we’re not in THAT awkward of a position. Because overall, this was a perfectly serviceable second episode, with a few of the important strengths of the first one and a few missteps that could easily be cleared up in future episodes. Even if it wasn’t compelling or surprising, it was at least mostly pretty fun to watch (escape from a zombie-surrounded department store? What’s not to like?), and I’m glad for most of what I saw here, even if it did feel a bit hollow at times. Still excited about this show!

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