Does The Walking Dead want to be a drama or a thriller? And—perhaps more importantly—can it be both?
Last week's action-packed, character-light episode of The Walking Dead threatened to tip the show too far onto the action side at the expense of its overarching story. Fortunately, this week's episode slows things down a bit. Though the show sacrifices a little action to develop its characters at a more leisurely pace, it's a wise decision; the complexity and depth of the plot development gives this week's episode of The Walking Dead the dramatic heft that last week's episode was lacking.
The crux of this week's episode is the love triangle between Rick, Lori, and Shane. Up to this point, Rick's motivation has been finding his wife and son. Other than the missing clothing and photo albums, he's had no indication that they're alive, and when he arrives at the camp, he has no idea that he's going to find them there. Seeing Rick's shock and joy when he unexpectedly reunites with Lori and Carl at the camp is extremely moving.
However, it's also almost unbearably tense, because we know something Rick doesn't: Lori has been having an affair with Shane, his former partner and best friend (and the series doesn't hesitate to twist that particular knife, with several scenes of Rick profusely thanking Shane for "selflessly" taking care of Lori and Carl). Up to this point we've spent much more time with Rick than Lori, so her affair with Shane has offered a lot of unanswered questions: were Shane and Lori having an affair even before Rick went into a coma, or did it begin sometime after? Were they forced to leave the comatose Rick after the walking dead first emerged, or did they make a conscious decision to leave him behind, to start a new life together? The ambiguity of the affair has made it almost impossible to get a coherent read on Lori's character—vulnerable or vindictive, pragmatist or opportunist, tragic or heartless.
At the end of this episode, we receive the unexpected, devastating explanation for Lori's decision: Shane told Lori that Rick was dead. It's a revelation that redeems Lori and damns Shane (unless there's an unknown reason he legitimately believed that Rick was dead). Either way, it's clear that things will change; with Rick at the camp, Shane has lost both the woman he loves and his de facto position as leader. Rick is someone Shane can't control, and it's already clear that some people would rather follow him. When Shane angrily beats Ed to a pulp at the episode's end, it's about much more than Ed's spousal abuse; it's a release of all his rage—at Rick, for being alive, at Lori, for leaving him, and most of all, at himself, for everything he's done.
Though the Rick-Shane-Lori triangle formed this episode's main arc, we also meet the rest of the camp. As several readers pointed out last week, it's possible that many of The Walking Dead's characters aren't being fleshed out in more detail because they'll be zombie meat within an episode or two anyway.
Whether or not that's true, however, it doesn't let the writers off the hook. On a show like this, a high body count is inevitable, but that's no reason to sacrifice characterization, because the characters' deaths won't mean anything if we don't know anything about them. Consider this episode's scene in which Andrea, Amy, Carol, and Jacqui wash clothing at the riverfront, discussing the things about pre-zombie life that they miss: clothes dryers, coffee, computers, texting, and vibrators. It's a brief moment, and certainly not essential to the plot, but it does serve a different essential purpose: it makes those characters feel real, and their humanity is what makes what happens to them—good or bad—feel important.
The most prominent of the new characters was Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), brother to last week's abandoned survivor Merle. Fortunately, Daryl—though unpredictable and volatile—is far more believable than Merle. Unlike Merle, Daryl has a good reason to turn on the group when he does: his brother was abandoned by them. He's also smart enough not to alienate the people who can help him, allowing Rick, Glenn, and T-Dog to join him in his mission to rescue Merle. Daryl's bravery and skill with a weapon are unmatched by anyone in the camp except Rick; unlike Merle, the group needs him, and the tension between the danger he offers and his contribution to the group's chances for survival makes him far more interesting—and far more dangerous—than Merle.
And what about Merle? Tonight's episode closes with Rick, Glenn, T-Dog, and Daryl reaching the rooftop to discover nothing but Merle's severed hand. As Daryl howls in a kind of a mournful, animal rage, it's clear that if Merle can't be found—zombies or not—there's no greater danger to the survivors than Daryl.
Note: For the sake of those who haven't read The Walking Dead comics yet and want to be surprised, please avoid revealing spoilers for upcoming episodes in the comments section.
Shock of the Week: The unexpected third life of the deer-eating zombie's head, which rolls to the ground after being separated from its body, then springs to life again like a pair of chattering wind-up teeth.
Zombie Survival Tip: A crossbow is an ideal weapon for taking out zombies—it's almost silent, and it has reusable ammunition. Just make sure to aim for the brain.