Spoilers for tonight’s Walking Dead coming up:
The disadvantage of getting The Walking Dead on screeners is that I don’t get the full experience of watching the show late Sunday as it airs. That’s also the advantage. How the hell do the rest of you manage to watch this show right before you go to bed?
If you slept well after episode 4, “Vatos” (written by comic creator Robert Kirkman), my hat is off to you. Because if the first few episodes left any doubt, the brutal attack on the camp at the end of the episode demonstrated that that this is not the kind of show that’s going to allow you to let your guard down for a second. It’s not simply that danger can come from anywhere, at any second. (And nice job, by the way, on the switch-up in which we were expecting to see a one-handed vengeance attack on the camp and instead got a full-fledged zombie swarm.) It’s also that this is a show that’s going to make you look a little longer than you might want to, drawing out not just the scenes of violence but also those of grief, as with Andrea’s anguished lament for her sister Amy at the episode’s end.
Having to watch these brutal scenes is a way of putting us through the experiences that many of the characters have had. We learned from Jim, for instance, that he saw his family murdered—and eaten—in front of his eyes, which has scarred him in ways that weren’t apparent when we first met him. The ugly scene at the end of this episode may have been tough to take, but it’s also a way of showing us this new world the way the characters see it, and to remind us that this is not just a group of survivors, but a group of people who have been traumatized.
So what was, in retrospect, an I-am-going-to-die-in-this-episode conversation between the two sisters in the first scene had several functions. It drew distinctions between Andrea and Amy as characters, in a show that—perhaps out of necessity in the compression of a six-episode season—introduced its characters in very broad strokes. By raising the painful subject of the sisters’ parents—left to an unknown fate in Florida—it reminds us that most or all of these characters are dealing with the knowledge, or suspicion, that most everyone they love is dead or zombiefied. This, again, is the difference between a plain old monster movie—which may be scary but is not truly unsettling because you’re psychologically distanced—and the much more disturbing scenario of actualy people reacting realistically to the end of the world.
Finally, the reminiscence—in which they realize that their father taught Andrea to catch fish and Amy to throw them back—points up that the sisters are two very different people. And it suggests a hard truth about the kind of reality The Walking Dead is set in. It was largely a matter of bad luck that Amy was the one to be killed in this episode, but the implication still seems pretty clear: this is not a catch-and-release kind of world, and the odds are not good for the gentle.
The Atlanta storyline, meanwhile, held out at least some kind of guarded hope for the survival of kindness, and of co-operation as a survival skill, in the postapocalypse. While I didn’t find the story as compelling as the goings on at camp, it was a pretty well-executed reversal to find that the apparent gang Rick’s party encountered in the city was actually a band of men caring for senior citizens in a medical complex.
That they nearly went to war was a result of what this environment requires—that you put up a tough front and trust no one. But assuming—and this is not based on any advance viewing—that not every band of survivors our group encounters will be so altruistic, it’s heartening to see a demonstration that banding together to help the weak is possible in this new world, if not easy. (That said, I thought the conversation about how this new world is not so different from the old one for some people a little too on the nose; I don’t mind it as a theme, but it works better when it’s implied.)
With just two more episodes, The Walking Dead does not have a lot of time to set up for the now-guaranteed second season. (I’m wishing it had more time to flesh out its supporting characters, who are still the weakest part of the show for me.) But it has certainly accomplished one thing: convincing us that this is the kind of show where you should never feel too safe as a viewer. Sweet dreams.