From the beginning, the discussion around The Walking Dead has been about how it would balance its obvious appeals (zombies, zombie violence and more zombies) with a character focus that will help it become a successful television series. The first three episodes, despite a few solid moments in the character regard, didn’t really convince me this is a series that I would want to watch in the long-term. And halfway through an already short season with little development on the character side is unfortunate, even if I can’t be totally critical since it’s hard for any series to develop characters in three episodes.
Episode four, “Vatos,” is still problematic in a number of ways, but is ultimately still the best episode since that glorious pilot, primarily thanks to the gruesome last 10 minutes.
As I’ve said in my previous three reviews, I don’t really care for the zombie genre, the deadly kills and whatever else that comes with it, so it probably makes me a hypocrite to be praise that zombie’s attack on the supposedly desolate camp, but I think I have good reason for that claim. First of all, the sequence is beautifully shot and edited, and when combined with the always-fantastic zombie makeup and design, the overall impact increases even more.
More importantly, the awesome zombie attack actually has purpose thematically in “Vatos,” which as far as I can tell, is the first time that has happened thus far in the series. The previous 35 minutes spend a lot of time describing how various characters are trying to shape their personalities to fit inside the framework of this apocalypse and this specific group. Some people, like the surprisingly loyal Darryl and the confused and troubled Jim, are doing their best to keep their obvious issues at bay as to not upset the group any more than they already are (as opposed to last week’s D Bag champion, Ed). And in general, the group seems much calmer and unified with Ed alone in his tent, where they can make jokes with Dale about his watch or they can let Shane talk Jim off the ledge even though he was acting like a total maniac just the previous day.
Therefore, when the zombie attack comes and people like Ed and Andrea’s little sister Amy* get killed, along with a number of faceless survivors, it actually means something. The attacks in the previous episodes looked cool, but for the most part, they didn’t exist to tell any sort of larger story aside from “ZOMBIES ARE COMING!” But here, the zombie attack shows us that even in a world where people like Jim can try not to scare little kids because he knows how awful this situation is and a world where the group can come together and have some laughs despite the awful things out there, none of that really matters. You can try for all you want, but if the zombies know where you are, they’re coming to get you and nothing can really save you.
*Amy and Andrea have a nice moment during the teaser that sees them discuss their lives before the apocalypse, which probably should have been an obvious sign that one of them would be killed soon after.
However, I can’t only sing the praises of “Vatos,” since the Atlanta story was generally messy and overly manipulative. Rick and company run into a seemingly deadly gang of folks who take Glenn hostage and then suggest that Rick turns over the guns. It’s a boring story to begin with because the villains just seem angry and antagonistic because the episode needs them to be, and it only gets worse when there is a totally random reveal that this crew is actually protecting a nursing home. It’s hard to swallow on paper, but even worse when watching the episode seem fairly proud of itself as if this is a particularly emotional moment that tells us something great about the human condition. The interactions between Rick, Glenn, Darryl and 1997 Samuel L. Jackson are fun, but the manipulative “Look at poignant we are!” nonsense with the nursing home is just not up to snuff.
“Vatos” is a step in the right direction for The Walking Dead in that it balances some character moments with the zombie action. Those characters moments are not particularly wonderful, but at least they’re there, you know?