The Walking Dead's series premiere last week was a massive critical and commercial success, netting glowing reviews and garnering AMC its largest audience ever. Last week, the question was whether or not zombies can work on television; this week, the question is whether or not zombies can work on television week-to-week. Unfortunately, that question still has yet to be answered. The Walking Dead still has lots of potential, but the second episode, "Guts," doesn't live up to the promise of the stellar series premiere.
To be fair, "Guts" has a lot of heavy lifting to do. The Walking Dead premiere was so strong, in part, because it eschewed a lot of the conventions of traditional series premieres—like character introductions and explanatory dialogue—in favor of striking imagery and tense, no-time-to-think action. That leaves "Guts" with the necessary chore of introducing the show's large ensemble cast, which seems, at this point, to have been cobbled together from an assortment of zombie movie clichés.
Though none of characters is as interesting as last week's Morgan, this episode's standout is Glenn (Steven Yeun), a resourceful, quick-witted young man who saves Rick from a horde of zombies and introduces him to the group. Glenn's wry comments provide much-needed comic relief, but he's also essential to the team's survival, making him at least two-note while the rest of the characters remain one-note.
The new characters who get the most screen time in "Guts" are Andrea (Laurie Holden) and Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker). When Glenn leads Rick into the room, Andrea flies into a rage, shoves a gun in Rick's face, and screams that he's doomed them all, which is not a great way to make an audience sympathize with a character (and her "my sister loves mermaids" speech later in the episode is too cursory to redeem her completely). Though she calms down, and clearly takes a liking to Rick before long (perhaps a Rick-Lori-Shane-Andrea love quadrilateral?), there's not much in this episode that defines Andrea beyond having a temper.
The racist, meth-addicted Merle Dixon is even less well-defined—the decisions he makes are barely coherent. He's introduced wasting valuable ammunition by sniping at random zombies, and then picks a fight with T-Dog (Robert "IronE" Singleton) almost immediately. None of this makes any sense. Merle has been traveling with the group, apparently without significant conflict, since they first came to Atlanta, and he decides that a zombie attack that literally requires cooperation for survival is the right time to alienate everyone. No plausible explanation is ever given for this decision, and that's because there isn't one. Merle's not insane, either; in fact, his conversation with T-Dog shows him to be fairly crafty. His attack on the group is just a plot-convenient way to let Rick step in and stop Merle to prove to the group that he's a hero.
Further dramatic potential is wasted when T-Dog has to decide whether or not to set Merle free. It's a problem that's satisfyingly ambiguous; would the group be giving up their own humanity by leaving Merle behind? Or is the obvious danger Merle presents to all the other survivors a good enough reason to leave him to fend for himself? Instead of putting those moral questions at the forefront of the episode, and forcing the characters to make those hard decisions, The Walking Dead tries to have it both ways. At the last minute, T-Dog runs back to let Merle loose, but accidentally drops the key to Merle's handcuffs. He's forced to leave Merle behind, as Merle swears revenge.
The problems aren't just with the new characters; even Rick and Lori (though consistently well-acted) remain elusive. Rick is desperately searching for a wife and a son who has been on screen just enough to remind the audience that he exists. Last week's episode made it clear that Rick's marriage was in serious trouble even before the zombie outbreak, and Lori's tryst with Shane in this episode (and her subsequent removal of the wedding ring around her neck) doesn't inspire much confidence for the future of their relationship. We've been given no sign whatsoever that Rick and Lori's marriage is even worth saving, and that makes it difficult to care about whether or not they ultimately find each other.
These character problems would be less worrisome if The Walking Dead had a conventional schedule, but the first season is only six episodes long, so there's very little time for the development the show needs to make us genuinely afraid for its characters. The Walking Dead still has plenty to recommended it—a terrific premise, fantastic production values, and a distinctive look and style. But that's all window dressing if it can't make us care what happens to its characters. Let's hope next week's episode focuses less on zombies, and more on people.
Shock of the Week: The dismemberment of zombie Wayne Dunlop to provide a kind of odor-based camouflage—which went from poignant to disgusting to blackly funny in a matter of minutes—was the episode's most shocking and effective moment by far.
Zombie Survival Tip: The undead track their living victims by smell. If you slather yourself in guts and gore, you'll blend in among even the hungriest of zombies—unless a brief, out-of-nowhere rainstorm washes you off and blows your cover.