The Walking Dead's protagonist, Rick Grimes, is something of an anomaly among the leading men of AMC's TV dramas. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and the late lamented Rubicon all feature lead characters that must twist, subvert, and ultimately compromise their moral codes in order to survive.
Rick Grimes, on the other hand, hasn't had to make any dire moral compromises so far. When Glenn first encounters Rick, he compares him to Clint Eastwood. In actuality, however, Rick has far more in common with older, white-hatted Western paragons like John Wayne: he's heroic, capable, loyal, and unwaveringly just.
"Vatos," this week's episode, puts Rick's moral code even further to the test, as he, Glenn, Daryl, and T-Dog attempt to follow a trail of blood and corpses left behind by Merle Dixon (presumably he didn't have any breadcrumbs handy). Rick gave Lori two equally noble justifications for returning to Atlanta: the Merle Dixon rescue mission, and the recovery of a bag containing a militia's worth of guns and ammo. Last week, Daryl made it absolutely clear that Merle was the first priority, but this week, finding the elder Dixon quickly takes a backseat to pressing complications.
Chief among them is the emergence of a gang run by a man called "G" (Neil Brown Jr.). In a post-apocalyptic world, the ones with the guns are the ones with the power, and Rick's abandoned bag is an opportunity that's too good to pass up. In the scramble for the bag, Rick's gang comes out on top, but each side takes a hostage, leaving Rick, Daryl, and T-Dog to decide whether or not they should abandon Glenn.
Predictably, Rick is in favor of rescuing Glenn, and Daryl isn't (though Daryl's angry, desperate attempt to stop Glenn's kidnapping betrays a more compassionate side). Rick, Daryl, and T-Dog propose a hostage swap, but G (who turns out to be "Guillermo") demands the guns in the bargain. When Rick won't budge, all sides draw their weapons, and the detente looks like it's going to turn into the OK Corral.
That is until an elderly, senile woman wanders onto the scene. In a genuinely surprising (though sometimes corny) twist, Rick discovers that Guillermo and friends want the guns because they're trying to protect the elderly people in a local rest home, who were abandoned by staff after the zombies emerged. Impressed by the nobility of Guillermo's mission, Rick leaves half of the guns behind voluntarily. It's a generous gift, and it's not surprising that Rick, recognizing a kindred spirit, wants to help Guillermo. But it's also an incredible material sacrifice—one that could mean the deaths of everyone in Rick's camp.
What is Rick's greater moral responsibility—to his code, or to the survival of his family and friends? So far, every decision Rick has made has been both within his code and consequence-free; Lori was intensely opposed to return trip to Atlanta, but she hasn't been injured (or jumped back into Shane's arms) in his absence, and Rick, Daryl, Glenn, and T-Dog make it through Atlanta unscathed. But in a dangerous, amoral world, every virtuous decision must also have a cost, and at the end of "Vatos," Rick faces that cost for the first time in the form of Merle Dixon.
Last week , when Shane tried to convince Rick not to go back to save Merle Dixon, he argued that "the guy wouldn't give you a glass of water if you were dying of thirst." Rick replied, "What he would or do doesn't interest me. I can't let a man die of thirst. Me."
When Rick, Glenn, Daryl, and T-Dog try to return to their van in Atlanta, they discover it's missing, and Daryl knows, in the way that brothers sometimes know, that Merle took it. As they rush back as quickly as possible without the van, they arrive too late to prevent a full-scale zombie attack that decimates the camp.
Somehow it's difficult to imagine Merle feeling too guilty about it. Shane was wrong; Merle's not just a man who wouldn't give Rick a drink of water if he was dying of thirst—he's a man who'd use what water the glass held to try to drown Rick. Merle is more cruel, selfish, and amoral than any zombie, and he represents just as much of an existential threat to the rest of the survivors. It remains to be seen whether Rick will be as willing, should the need arise, to gun him down.
Shock of the Week: The zombie attack on the camp, which resulted in the gruesome deaths of the despicable Ed and the way less despicable Amy.
Zombie Survival Tip: As per Glenn (who's quickly becoming the group's best strategist), it's a bad idea to travel through zombie territory in groups—it draws unnecessary attention and multiplies the chance that someone will make a mistake.