The Walking Dead episode 4 review: Vatos

Ron wishes the episodes were longer, but still loves just how much gets packed into an hour of The Walking Dead...

The review contains spoilers.1.4 Vatos

For the first three weeks of The Walking Dead, there wasn’t much of a threat from the walkers (or geeks) on the people of the camp. They were in the mountains, the dead were in the city, and all was right in the world, as it were. Not so much this week. After a lengthy period of comfortable camping out, with the only disruptions being internal, there’s finally a little external action at the campsite, and the formerly overstuffed cast is now slightly less stuffed.

One of the intersecting aspects of the zombie survival scenario is the idea that peoples’ true nature emerges in a crisis. That’s territory that’s been done to death, but it’s territory that The Walking Dead is able to make good mileage of, since the show can alternate between the slow mental breakdown of the beleaguered, bereaved campers and whoever Rick and company might happen to run into on the road.

For example, Glenn the pizza boy is actually a fairly astute tactician, probably due to a) hours of playing Starcraft and b) having intimate knowledge of the neighborhood due to his pizza delivery experience. After all, you never quite learn your way around a place until you have to drive those streets day after day.

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Another example of what crises can do to a person’s character is Guillermo (Neil Brown Jr.), the leader of this week’s band of survivors du-jour. His outer appearance, stereotypical gang banger, was actually (and pleasantly) not the case, though he was an effective and ruthless foil to Rick. I like that the two alpha dogs of their respective organizations brought out the best, and worst, in one another, and it was a great example of just what kind of leader Rick is going to have to become for the survivors to make it through the land of the dead unscathed. Much like Guillermo will do anything for his people, Rick is going to have to do anything for his, and it’s a good early test of Rick’s mettle without immediately rushing The Walking Dead into “our biggest enemies are other humans” territory.

Between the show’s strong beginning, where a fishing trip between Amy (Emma Bell) and Andrea turns into a great example of survivor’s guilt, and the very strong ending, in which the castaways learn that there’s really nowhere completely safe from the zombie hordes, was a bit of a soft middle.

For example, Jim (Andrew Rothenberg) has apparently gone all the way around the bend and started digging graves for no apparently reason aside from foreshadowing. Dale goes to talk to him, Shane goes to talk to him, then the whole camp goes to talk to him. Yes, it does set up a pretty funny moment when Shane wrestles Jim to the ground and nearly breaks his arm while telling him, “Nobody’s going to hurt you,” but it was a lot of tease for very little pay off, except that Jim returns to his senses after a palaver with Lori.

I wasn’t crazy about the Vatos being so stereotypical when I had assumed they were just a standard gang. After all, the show has a lot of stereotypical characters (Ed and his battered wife, meth-snorting white supremacist Merle), so I had assumed that this week’s episode would have another one. It was a nice swerve on the part of writer Robert Kirkman to have two essentially good forces butt heads quite strongly over a very important, very limited resource in the form of Rick’s Big Bag O’ Guns. Yes, the Latino thug dialog was horribly strained, but Lori and Jim had a good exchange, and Andrea and Amy had a wonderful moment at the very beginning of the episode. I also have to admit that I liked Guillermo’s explanation as to how/why a bunch of young gangsters and ne’er-do-wells defend an old folks home.

Until this week, each episode of The Walking Dead was dominated by a single character, either thanks to screen time or thanks to performance. This week, weirdly enough, the most impressive display was the greatly improved performance of IronE Singleton as T-Dog. One of the show’s weaker characters in the opening episode, he’s kind of gotten a handle on his character’s manner of speech and expression.

While T-Dog isn’t as fun a character as Glenn or Dale, or played by as impressive an actor as Norman Reedus or Michael Rooker, he’s shaping up to be a good addition to the show. It seems like, as the ancillary characters get shuffled off to the wayside, the writing for the core characters is improving (the big reveal of just who Guillermo and company were protecting made the faux-thug dialog from Guillermo less annoying and more amusing, given that your average janitor or nurse has very little in common with your average gang-banger, even if both are Latino).

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The pacing also seems to be leveling off. The split between the A and B stories this week was pretty much even. While the middle was a bit slow, it’s not something that can be blamed on too much time in the city or too much time at camp. It seemed to be a deliberate move on the part of the show’s writer and director (Johan Renck) to make this episode’s big ending scene that much more impactful (and it really was brilliant. The last five/ten minutes has to be one of the better segments the show’s ever broadcast). I think they’re finding the right balance to sate both the zombie mayhem and violence crowd and the compelling survivor drama crowd in the same episode.

While I’d still love the show to be 90 minutes long every week, they managed to get a lot done in their hour of allotted time this week. The decision to renew the show for a second season was the smartest move AMC’s done since they entered the original series game.

Read our review of the last episode, Tell It To The Frogs, here.

US correspondent Ron Hogan was saddened by the death of Glenn’s Dodge Challenger. Find more by Ron at his blog, Subtle Bluntness, and daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.

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