TV Review: The Walking Dead – Guts

Please note: these reviews will contain spoilers for both the show and the comic, so be forewarned.

This show is going to have to walk a fine line between faithful adaptation and covering new ground in order to keep the fans both happy and not bored out of their minds from knowing exactly what’s going to happen next. The pilot aired on the side of faithfulness, with a few exceptions, but the follow-up episode, Guts, covers a lot of new ground with only a few allusions to the story from the comic.

Typically, this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but there’s also a noticeable drop in quality in the show’s sophomore episode, at least as far as the writing and characterization goes. I’m not terribly concerned about this just yet, as the show was still very good.

The episode opens with Rick’s wife going off to “find mushrooms”, only to meet up with Shane for a quickie in the woods. It’s quite a shocking cold open, and a pretty huge departure from the comic. As I mentioned in my first review, Shane and Lori’s relationship in the comic boiled down to a one night stand, which Lori immediately regretted. On AMC’s series, the two are in an actual relationship, and it looks like Lori is just as into it as Shane. She does, however, still carry around her wedding band, and the pair’s coitus is briefly interrupted when they both glance at it. She quickly casts it aside, however, and things continue on their natural path.

One wonders how this change will affect the storyline going forward. When Rick returns to the camp – presumably in next week’s show – how will Lori and Shane react? I think a lot of this is going to depend on how the relationship started. Did Lori knowingly leave Rick at the hospital, or was she under the impression that he had died? The writers could take this in either direction, both of which could yield some very interesting things in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, Rick is still in the tank, but he’s now talking to a friendly outsider (my favorite character from the comic, Glenn). After checking his ammo supply and grabbing a convenient grenade, Rick jumps out of the tank on a desperate run for the alley. He makes it, greasing a handful of zombies with his pistol along the way, and encounters Glenn. The two run for the nearest fire escape and climb to safety. Below, the growing swarm of zombies – many attracted by the gunshots – feebly tries to ascend the ladder.

The pair cross the rooftop and descend into an alley, where two more survivors are there to take out the alley zombies and allow Rick and Glenn to get to safety. The whole scene, from Rick leaving the tank to he and Glenn getting inside, is extremely tense and well shot. The Walking Dead seems to know exactly what to do with action scenes, which bodes well for the series.

Once they’re safely inside, Rick gets a chance to meet some of the other survivors. One of whom, series regular Andrea, shoves a gun in his face and threatens to shoot him for bringing down a storm of zombies thanks to his happy trigger finger. The situation is calmed down soon enough, but our characters barely get a second’s breathing time before they hear more gunshots, this time coming to the roof. Everyone speeds off to investigate.

On top of the building we meet Merle, the group’s hillbilly racist stereotype, played by a slumming Michael Rooker. Merle is taking pot shots at the zombies on the street below with a rifle. When challenged by the rest of the group, he leaps into a racist tirade, and proceeds to savagely beat one of the black characters , T Dog. The rest of the group is cowed by Merle’s over-the-top aggression, but Rick steps in and quickly neutralizes the man, leaving him handcuffed to a nearby pipe.

This is one of the scenes I had the biggest problems with in Guts. Other than Rick, Glenn, and Andrea, all of the characters involved are completely new. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but none of them strike me as terribly interesting in any way, and two of them – T Dog and Merle – are just hacky, stereotypical messes.

T Dog seems to exist just to be tormented by Merle. On the surface, he’s a walking young black man stereotype , complete with over-sized closed and a backward baseball cap. Once we get to know him better all we see is a snivelling, indecisive man who is too clumsy to have survived this long in the zombie apocalypse. He has cannon fodder written all over him.

Merle, on the other hand, captures every over-the-top hillybilly/racist archetype you can think of. In his brief introduction he verbally attacks both a Hispanic and black character, quickly resorts to violence to resolve a minor disagreement, and then tries to seize power in the group after handing out a nasty beatdown. While we find out shortly after that he’s drugged up on something (coke or meth, presumably), the character has no motivation for any of his actions other than being the racist bad guy.

Granted, both of these character can improve in future episodes, but they’ve been given a hell of a rocky start.

Now that the power struggle is at a merciful end, and the bad guy is chained to the roof where he can’t cause anymore trouble, everyone decides that it’s time to find a way out of the city. Their first plan is pretty solid: find a way into the sewer, get a few blocks away, and pop up on the other side of the horde of zombies to make a run for it. Unfortunately for them, the only egress available to them is within the building, and it’s completely blocked by a thick metal barricade. Of course, they also discover a zombie down there munching on sewer rats, so maybe the barricade is a blessing in disguise.

While Glenn is checking out the sewer, Rick and Andrea are on guard duty near the store’s main entry. Andrea tell Rick about her kid sister, Amy, back at camp while looking at a mermaid pendant on a display rack. Andrea and Amy are pretty important characters in the comic series, and this scene helps set up their relationship a bit, as does a mirror scene back at the camp where Amy wants to charge into Atlanta to rescue her sister, but is shot down by Shane.

Plan B should be familiar to anyone who read the comics, and shockingly awful to anyone who hasn’t. To reach a nearby panel van, Rick and Glenn need to walk a couple blocks away from their hideout. Unfortunately, there are a few hundred zombies between them and escape. Rick’s solution is both cleaver and horrifying: chop up the remains of a nearby zombie and cover themselves in the foul miasma.

The scene plays out with just the right amount of gallows humor, ending with Rick and Glenn walking outside covered in gore and draped in entrails and even the hands and feet of their unfortunate organ doner. The humorous elements come to a quick end, however, once our heroes start walking into the mass of zombies. It’s a deeply creepy and effective sequence, and the further they go, the more tension we feel. A sudden rain storm blows in, and their cover starts to wash away. When the zombies begin to notice Rick and Glenn might be a little more fresh than they previously thought, all bets are off and our protagonist are off at a dead run to get to safety.

Rick and Glenn quickly climb over a fence and secure their van, but the zombies are right on their heels, having climbed over/knocked down the fence.  They escape, but the building in which the rest of the group has barricaded themselves is still surrounded by hundreds of zombies. Rick concocts a quick plan in which Glenn creates a diversion using a car alarm on a brand new Dodge Challenger (product placement be damned, that’s just a cool car). Glenn radios the group, telling them to be ready at the loading dock for pickup. This triggers the next big dramatic moments that just doesn’t work: the group needs to decide what to we with Merle.

Since T Dog was given the handcuff key, and since his compatriots beat a quick exit, it’s up to him whether to free the man who just beat the tar out of him. At first T Dog decides to just leave Merle to his fate, but he has a change of heart and turns back, tripping over a conveniently placed bucket of tool and spilling their contents in the process (one assumes this will be important next week). T Dog’s clumsiness doesn’t end there, however, as he proceeds to immediately trip over his own feet, fall, and drop the precious handcuff key down a tiny hole in the roof. With no way to quickly save Merle, T Dog leaves him, but is kind enough to chain the door shut so that Merle can have the pleasure of dying of dehydration instead of being ripped to shreds by zombies. Nice guy, T Dog.

I really liked the setup the writers had here. They put the fate of the bad guy into the hands of his most recent victim. Unfortunately, the executed it in the most painfully heavy handed way imaginable. Do they really expect us to believe that this characters trips not once, but twice in the twenty foot trip to get to Merle? And on top of that he manages to drop the key into the only tiny hole on the whole roof? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have him accidentally drop it over the side of the building instead? And why just leave the guy there at that point? T Dog tripped over a bucket of tools for Christ’s sake. The least he could do is pick up the hacksaw and toss it to Merle as he ran away.

Thankfully, the rest of the survivors didn’t need to depend on T Dog for anything, and they all managed to jump into the back of the panel van and escape, with Glenn still driving the diversion Challenger. I really figured the show would kill off one character this week, but they all made it. Sure, Merle’s in a tight spot, but something tells me he’s going to find a way out of those handcuffs.

While The Walking Dead stumbled a bit in its second week, it was still pretty good good, especially compared to the genre programming we’re used to seeing on television. Early reports also seem to indicate that the next episode more than makes up for the foibles this week, so I’m still very hopeful about this series.