* Much, much better this time around! I mean, seriously, that opening scene with Michael Rooker was almost like it was crafted as a way to say to that terrible character’s many many detractors “On the other hand…” (Yikes, no pun intended!) It put you right there with someone buckling and breaking under the weight of what zombies hath wrought, which is where you want your zombie fiction to put you.
* Similarly, while I understand Sean B.’s reservations about Ed the Wife Beater, I feel like he too was a case study in how to do things done wrong in Episode 2 better here. Sure, his stampede toward misogynistic epithets at the drop of a hat was a bit much, but at least he didn’t do it three or four sentences into his introduction, which is about how long Merle lasted last week before dropping the n-bomb. Instead, we meet him in the throes of a sullen little you’re-not-the-boss-of-me bout of passive aggression around the campfire the night before. Al Swearengen he ain’t, but nor is he Episode 2′s Merle Dixon.
* And I’m with Curt on how much more effective the zombies themselves were in this episode.
* There was also some welcome zagging where I expected things to zig. Lori’s brutally abrupt cut-off of Shane from her and Carl, and the apparent revelation that Shane told her Rick was dead in no uncertain terms–I didn’t see either coming, whereas turning what was (if I recall correctly) an ill-advised one-time thing in the comic into a full blown love affair in the show was more or less where you’d expect the adaptation to deviate if deviate it must. It helped that actor Jon Bernthal gave his all this week, believably portraying an equilibrium-upending emotional swirl of relief that his best friend and partner survived, joy that the woman and child he’s come to care about are reunited with the husband and father they love, guilt over what he’d said and done in Rick’s absence, jealousy of his relationship with Lori, fear that he’ll get found out, regret that he’s lost his ersatz “son,” and on and on.
* The “Hattie McDaniel work” bit was nice, and again, welcome. A smart show could return to the reestablishment of traditional gender roles often and weightily. We’ll see if that’s what we’ve got.
* Merle’s brother name is Daryl? Does he have another brother named Daryl too? Good gravy. Norman Reedus did a pretty good job, though–not unnecessarily belligerent, which is what I was worried about.
* I love Bear McCreary, but the music cues hit things a little hard, I thought. And knocked off 28…Later a bit too heavily too toward the end.
* If, goddess forbid, Christopher Lee dies before he can finish his role as Saruman in The Hobbit, have Jeffrey DeMunn grow his beard out and drop his voice a few octaves and blammo, instant White Wizard.
* I’d been dismissive of the idea that Merle would end up being the TV show’s version of the Governor at some point, but him losing his hand makes me worry, given all that easy eye-for-an-eye (so to speak) potential.
* In a way, I think that this series is a mug’s game. No no, bear with me, I’m not writing it off. It’s just that–well, okay, before it aired the show had three things going for it. 1) It’s based on the most successful, widely acclaimed, and influential horror comic of the past decade, and probably of a few decades before that; 2) It’s on the network that airs Mad Men and Breaking Bad, the two of most widely acclaimed television dramas currently on the air; 3) Less directly but still importantly, it bore the promise of being to its genre what The Sopranos was to post-Coppola/Scorsese mafia dramas, what The Wire was to police procedurals, and what Deadwood was to the Western–an incisive take on a shopworn drama that succeeds partially through genre revisionism, partially through intelligent application of genre, partially through a singular creative vision on the part of its creators, and partially through its ability to use the serial mechanisms of television drama to tell its story and explore its characters in themes at ruminative length.
But here’s the thing about point #3: Length and serialization aside, isn’t that stuff basically true of all the great zombie movies? I mean, the very first canonical zombie movie was itself an act of genre revisionism. George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead stripped zombies of their voodoo/hypnosis origin, added the cannibalism, made them an apocalyptic event, used them to light a fire under pressure-cooker human drama, and injected a healthy dose of social commentary into the proceedings. Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, the Dawn of the Dead remake, 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, even Shaun of the Dead–these all already basically do what you’d want “The Sopranos of zombies” to do. I can think of very very few potentially canonical zombie movies that are simply “zombies run amok amongst basically flat characters, and you like it anyway because the zombie shit is so rad”–Zombi 2, perhaps? Return of the Living Dead, which I haven’t seen and which is probably not a good example because it’s a comedy? So anyway, barring some truly spectacular filmmaking, The Walking Dead suffers from a duplication of services problem with all the zombie material its audience is likely to have seen. After tonight’s episode I’m reasonably sure I’ll see it through to the end of its very short first season, because after all I feel warmly disposed toward zombie stuff, and this seems to be reasonably to quite well done zombie stuff. But it’s probably never going to be an hour of peak-level Romero- or Boyle-type material every week.