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Walking Dead Watch: Back from the Undead

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Spoilers for last night’s The Walking Dead coming up:

After a second episode that seemed to be set up partly to showcase what The Walking Dead can deliver in terms of zombie carnage on a basic-cable budget, the third episode of the first season, “Tell It to the Frogs,”  returned its focus to the human survivors. The Walking Dead is about the attempt to stay alive, of course, but like all postapocalyptic stories, it’s also about the effete to maintain some kind of life that’s worth living: law, morality, and the rules of decency and civilized society. By my lights, this attempt–and the glimpses of the bloody anarchy that’s in store if it fails–is the most thrilling and scariest thing about this story.

The big development, obviously, was one we saw coming when Rick escaped Atlanta with the scavenging crew: his reunion with Lori and Carl. It happened far earlier in the series than I would have guessed–again, I haven’t read the books–and having established that his wife and child were with the camp last week deprived us of sharing Rick’s surprise at finding them. On the other hand, it allowed the show to focus instead on the repercussions: not only because Lori has, ahem, moved on in Rick’s absence, but because we know they were not on the best of terms when last they saw each other. (Her apology—”I’m so sorry for everything”—began sounding like it would turn into an apology for being with Shane.)

Shane’s efforts to go out and catch frogs for the encampment’s dinner served a few purposes. It illustrated the new tension between himself and Lori, who is setting new boundaries after husband Rick has returned from the presumed-dead list and sees the outing as an attempt to keep some claim on her through her son. It sets up the ugly scene at the water’s edge, about which more later.

But it also expanded on the ongoing survival premise of this series, which distinguishes an ongoing survival ordeal to the action of a two-hour, closed-ended zombie movie. The survivors here have been through a lot, and yet in a way they’re in the early, and in some ways relatively easy, stages of their new life.

On a practical level, Shane points out, the supplies that they’re able to store up and scavenge won’t last forever: there’s nobody out there harvesting crops and running canning factories anymore, and eventually they’ll be down to whatever they can get from the land. And in the process, the land will get more menacing. Walkers are straying into the countryside as food runs out in the cities, and the appearance of one zombie in the woods was, for my money, creepier than the entire horde in Atlanta last week. (Even before we saw the zombie’s still-moving head: “Come on, people! It’s got to be the brain! You don’t know nothing?”)

Shane’s effort to prove his worthiness by hunting the necessities for the group is probably a means of reaction to the disruption created by Rick’s return. But it is necessary all the same. And while returning, basically, to a kind of hunter-gatherer lifestyle from thousands of years ago will be stressful enough in itself, the greater difficulty may be making sure that the surviving group doesn’t fall back into a bestial lifestyle.

We saw in the second episode that the new rules of survival sometimes mean allying with and tolerating people that you might have despised in your past life. We’ve also seen that it’s not always the good guys who thrive best in this new world. And here, we find that some of the veneer of civilized society has already fallen away: the women in the new camp, in particular, have already been relegated to pre-industrial roles like doing the wash.

This return-to-caveman-days scenario quickly shows an uglier side as Ed roughs up Carol and in turn gets savagely beaten down by Shane (again, acting out his emotional distress here). It’s an ugly scene in itself, of course, but also for what it implies could happen in the camp should the balance of power shift–and for what it implies about what’s going on in the rest of the world. This fight is probably going on in multiple versions, and not every group of survivors is likely to have a lawman getting the upper hand.

Now for the hail of bullets, or crossbow bolts:

* Nice reaction shots on Rick’s return by Carl, Shane and Lori—the last two of whom are lucky that stunned guilt looks a lot like stunned surprise.

* Is anyone else at all distracted by the zombie-gut Foley effects in this show? I get that there’s a certain gross-out requirement in this genre, but every time someone pulls an arrow out of a walker, or a zombie feasts on a body, it sounds like someone’s pulling a rubber boot out of a bucket of Jell-O.

* Loved the switch from Shane clowningly trying to scare up frogs to “I’m beginning to question the division of labor around here.”