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Fueled by blame and guilt, this week’s episode of The Walking Dead makes it clear what last week’s was missing: an emotional core. As entertaining as it might’ve been to watch Rick, Glenn and the other scavengers escape a building surrounded by zombies, it was difficult to care about racist, meth-addicted Merle Dixon being left handcuffed on the roof, or T-Dog’s dilemma in abandoning him there. “Tell It to the Frogs” returns to those human elements that made the show’s premiere so compelling — it’s probably no coincidence that the episode is nearly zombie-free — and in the process puts to rest most of my concerns about Merle.
The cold open forces us to view the previously one-dimensional character in another light, and provides veteran actor Michael Rooker (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) with a deserving spotlight. Still chained to a pipe atop an Atlanta department store, Merle shifts between deliriously muttering to himself about his glory days in the military and frantically trying to reach the hacksaw T-Dog so clumsily (but conveniently) dropped. As Walkers press against the padlocked door, Merle prays, tearfully acknowledging that he deserves his punishment.
It’s difficult to watch, but so, too, is the tranquil scene of domestic life at the survivors camp. There, Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) cuts the hair of her squirming son Carl (Chandler Riggs) as Shane (Jon Bernthal) settles into his role as surrogate father, promising to teach the boy how to catch frogs while teasing his mother about the delights of frog legs. As much as we want Rick (Andrew Lincoln) to reunite with his wife and son, it’s heart-wrenching to see Shane relish his new “family” when we know what’s coming in a matter of moments. Rick’s arrival is met by a tearful Lori and Carl, who thought he was dead, and a partner who wishes he were. Their reunion is joyous, but Lori is filled with regret for their marital problems before Rick’s shooting, for leaving him in the hospital after the zombie outbreak and, although unspoken, for her affair with Shane.
However, that game of blame and regret takes a back seat to the one involving Merle’s abandonment. While some of the survivors rationalize the incident, and suggest it might be better to lie to the short-tempered Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus) about his brother’s fate, Rick and T-Dog (Robert “IronE” Singleton) are determined to take responsibility for their actions. That goes as well as you might expect when Daryl returns from a hunting expedition to find a Walker has strayed uncomfortably close to the camp to gnaw on the deer he’s been tracking for miles. The bludgeoning and decapitation of the zombie by a half-dozen survivors — Daryl fires the killing shot, chastising the men for not finishing the job — points to a rage simmering just below the surface. That fury emerges two more times in this episode, once when Rick delivers his news to Daryl, and again when Shane directs all of his pent-up anger at the wife-abusing Ed (Adam Minarovich), and delivers a deserved, but savage, beating.
This may be as good a place as any to offer a defense of Shane, who came across as exceedingly dickish and, I don’t know, horny in the first two episodes. (I hesitate to champion him, though, as it becomes known that Shane told Lori that Rick was dead.) “Tell It to the Frogs” provides us with a better understanding of Shane as leader of the survivors camp, which here is far more fractured than in the comic series. It’s not so much a single camp as it is several at one location, held together primarily by need, and protected largely by Shane’s strict enforcement of rules. So when Ed’s wife Carol (Melissa McBride) adds more wood to their fire on a chilly night, it’s up to Shane to sternly remind them about keeping the flames low so as not to draw the attention of the Walkers. When Ed defies him, Shane is quick to become more menacing, tempering his threat with kind words to Carol and their daughter. The scenario also helps to provide context for Merle’s inclusion in the camp, as it’s clear the survivors’ tent (such that it is) is big enough to encompass a range of personalities, no matter how loathsome. If the camp can include a lazy, sexist wife-beater like Ed, then it follows that there’s room for a racist meth-head like Merle — especially if he and his hunting brother can contribute food.
That’s part of the survival mentality, I suppose. But just how despicable does someone have to become before he’s shunned? Presumably that’s something the survivors will grapple with as their society takes shape. Despite the challenges of this horrifying new world, the camp clings to relics of the past: Shown in the previous episode gathering berries, here the women wash laundry while questioning why they’re saddled with the traditional domestic duties (or “the Hattie McDaniel work,” as Jacqui describes it). And when Shane, a former sheriff’s deputy, subdues the understandably upset Daryl, the Dixon brother cries out that “the choke hold is illegal!”
With Daryl as calm as he’ll likely get, Rick pledges to return to Atlanta with a regretful T-Dog and a drafted Glenn (Steve Yeun, again stealing scenes) to rescue Merle. (“Why would you risk your life for a douchebag like Merle Dixon?” Shane asks Rick. “Hey!” Daryl interjects. “Choose your words more carefully!” “Oh, I did. Douchebag is what I meant.”) Shane’s initial resistance is worn away by Rick’s mention of the bag loaded with guns and ammunition he dropped in the street. Lori’s opposition is overcome by Rick’s insistence that he retrieve the walkie-talkies so he can warn Morgan Jones and his son, who had showed him kindness.
With that the group sets off into Atlanta with Daryl’s crossbow, Rick’s gun with four bullets — “Four rounds, four men. What are the odds?” — and borrowed bolt-cutters. Finding surprisingly few Walkers in their path, they make their way to the roof of the department store, where they discover that Merle is gone. All that remain are the bloody handcuffs and hacksaw … and Merle’s severed hand. It’s another terrific cliffhanger for the series, and a visually gruesome and emotionally brutal bookend for an impressive episode.