Quick spoilers for last night’s The Walking Dead coming up:
A series like The Walking Dead has different constituencies to try to please. There are the fans who have read the original comics, and the viewers who haven’t. There are the people who are watching the show because they’re drawn to sophisticated, dark storytelling like AMC has delivered in Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Rubicon, and there are people drawn to it because they like zombie movies. (That’s not to say those two groups don’t overlap, they just don’t automatically overlap.)
Judging from the early episodes, The Walking Dead seems to have two corresponding modes of storytelling. The first, as evidenced by the pilot, is placing characters in an unreal setting, but having them respond to it with complete psychological realism. (I hate to set too high a standard by constantly comparing this to The Road, but that was what Cormac McCarthy did in that postapocalyptic novel.) The second, mostly demonstrated in the second episode, “Guts,” relies much more on scenarios, conflicts and character dynamics that we’re accustomed to from monster movies.
As I said in my review and blog post about the pilot, I preferred the pilot, largely for that reason. I’ll admit that this may be because I’m not especially a fan of horror movies. But I also found that the pilot was much more terrifying for feeling naturalistic. We saw Rick Grimes awaken and gradually learn about the nightmare world he now lives in; we spent much of the episode in the company of a father and son, holed up in their house, fending off visits by a zombie horde that included their wife and mother, and Lennie James made the anguish of his character’s situation feel chillingly real.
The second episode, “Guts,” on the other hand, introduced us to a setup of a ragtag group of survivors—with different backgrounds and the conflicts that come from them—trying to unite to get out of a hairy situation. The episode introduced us to the kinds of difficulties the remaining living will have in fighting off undeath, and delivered on the kind of action sequences you’d expect from a zombie movie. But the dialogue felt a little more formulaic, with the newer characters portrayed much more as types, and the zombie-movieness of the escape from Atlanta scenario felt oddly distancing. The glimpses of zombiedom we got in the pilot, and the characters’ reactions to them, were far more chilling.
That said, I enjoyed “Guts” on a pure thrill level, and I can see it as a necessary episode in terms of proving the scale of action that Frank Darabont intends to deliver on a weekly cable-TV budget. (As well as dealing with how the survivors establish norms of behavior and deal with bad apples, at a time when they can’t be too choosy about who they band with to defend themselves.) And I’m feeling pretty hopeful about the series on the basis of next week’s episode, which I won’t spoil except to say that it synthesized the naturalistic, quiet horror of the pilot with the how-do-we-survive-together themes of “Guts.”
But I’m interested what Tuned Inlanders of all stripes thought: horror movie buffs and non-buffs, readers of the comics and newbies. (Incidentally, it should go without saying, but please avoid any potentially spoilery descriptions of what happens later in the comics—even though, as we’ve already seen, we can’t be sure how closely the TV series will actually follow the source material.)