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As riveting as the series premiere was, thanks in no small part to the performances of Andrew Lincoln and Lennie James, I was looking forward this week to the introduction of more of The Walking Dead‘s sizable cast. Oh, who am I kidding? Like many fans of the comic, I wanted Glenn as more than a taunting voice on the radio. And while Steve Yeun certainly didn’t disappoint as the camp’s expert scavenger, the same can’t be said of some of the other survivors.
Last night’s episode, “Guts,” set itself apart from the pilot from the very beginning, opening on daily life in the survivors’ camp outside Atlanta: Amy (Emma Bell) returns from picking mushrooms that may or may not be poisonous, and Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) sets off on her own foraging expedition — all under the watchful eye of Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn), on his familiar perch atop the RV. In an apparent nod to ’80s slasher movies, the camera follows Lori into the woods, where every rustle of a leaf and snapping of a twig is amplified as she listens for any signs of danger. But her only pursuer is Shane (Jon Bernthal), who only seeks a clandestine roll in the grass. (If this were an ’80s slasher movie, this is where the killer would pop up.)
Meanwhile in Atlanta, Lori’s husband Rick (Lincoln) is having a decidedly less-enjoyable time trapped in a zombie-swarmed tank and talking by radio to Glenn who, between jibes, offers to direct his escape. This may be where “Guts” makes its first misstep: As Rick prepares to leave the tank in a mad dash for safety, he lifts a grenade from the undead soldier he dispatched in the closing moments of the premiere. But then … he doesn’t use it! Instead, he runs down the street firing his gun, leading Walkers to the department store where Glenn and the other members of his scavenging party are holed up. This, naturally, doesn’t sit well with Andrea (Laurie Holden), who immediately pulls her own weapon on Rick before being calmed by other members of the group — T-Dog (Robert “IronE” Singleton), Jacqui (Jeryl Prescott) and Morales (Juan Gabriel Pareja).
The only thing that could possibly make matters worse for the group is for more zombies to be drawn to their location. Unfortunately for them, Merle Dixon (veteran character actor Michael Rooker) is on hand to ring the dinner bell by firing shots from the roof. The survivors rush to stop him, and, in the ensuing clash, we learn that Dixon is a meth-addicted racist — y’know, exactly the guy you want to send with a gun and a multi-ethnic scavenging party. This, of course, exposes the other, more significant problem with “Guts.” While Rooker is menacing as Dixon, the character’s inclusion makes no sense: Even if he possessed a valuable skill, what group of people reliant on each other for survival could tolerate someone as unpredictable and dangerous as Dixon? And who would volunteer to go with him into a city crawling with zombies? (Granted, his handcuffing to a pipe by Rick and subsequent abandonment by T-Dog promise more conflict among the survivors. It’s just that, to enjoy it, we’ll have to ignore the unlikelihood of Dixon’s presence.)
But Dixon isn’t the only problem character: With the exception of Glenn, the rest of the scavenging party is largely forgettable (I had to look up the names of the characters played by Pareja and Prescott). Jacqui serves only to supply information for Rick’s initial escape plan — she points out that the building should have access to the city’s sewers — while Morales plays Glenn’s “wing man” as he investigates the tunnels (a dead end).
When Plan A doesn’t pan out, they decide their only means of escape is a truck at a not-too-nearby construction site. But getting to it will require some of the group to get past the undead horde. What follows will undoubtedly be discussed by viewers — not over dinner, though — for some time: Realizing the Walkers are drawn by smell as well as sound, Rick leads the group in hacking up a dead zombie so that he and Glenn can slather themselves in entrails and walk undetected among them. Here “Guts” continues the theme of humanizing the monster as Rick fishes out the zombie’s wallet to make sure the survivors know who it is (was?) they’re hacking up: Wayne Dunlap, a 28-year-old man with a girlfriend, a Georgia driver’s license and $28. “One more thing,” Glenn chimes in. “He was an organ donor.”
Their bloody camouflage works, at least until a surprise rain shower starts to wash away the scent, setting off a race to the construction site (a grenade might’ve come in handy here). As Walkers pour into the department store, and Glenn uses the alarm of a car to lead away part of the horde, Rick races back in a truck to pick up the survivors. T-Dog, who has the key to Rick’s handcuffs, returns to the roof to free Dixon only to (curse the luck!) fall and drop the key down a drain pipe. He leaves the racist drug addict who, not that long before, beat him up, but eases his guilt by padlocking the door so the zombies can’t make it to the roof. How much more interesting would it have been for T-Dog to actually make the choice whether to leave Dixon rather than to have it (clumsily) made for him? We’ll never know how that character-defining moment might’ve played out.
“Guts” is good, and delivers plenty of moments with Steve Yeun, who easily could become The Walking Dead‘s scene-stealer. But it just never reaches the heights of that stellar first episode.