Episode three: “Tell it to the Frogs.”
“You take that stupid hat and go back to On Golden Pond.”
The episode begins on the department store roof from the second episode. From above the camera focuses in on Merle (Michael Rooker), handcuffed to a pipe. Merle has a problem: the keys fell down a drainpipe on the previous episode and the only thing separating him from a horde of zombies is a door barricaded with a lock and chain. Merle relates a story to himself, about punching somebody’s teeth out, the time he served for it; a look of genuine satisfaction on his face. This quickly turns sour, as Merle pleads to Jesus; acknowledging his past behavior but still begging for forgiveness. Merle’s going through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief originally discussed in the book On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Following Merle’s bargaining, depression sets in and finally leads to acceptance. This is where Merle’s survival instinct kicks in and he uses his belt, attempting to reach a saw left behind by T-Dog (IronE Singleton).
Unlike the prelude from the first two episodes, this episode doesn’t feature gratuitous sex or violence. That doesn’t negate how frightening the scene is, since Merle’s actions (wonderfully executed by Rooker) are quite honest; I’m sure the best of us would react similarly in the same spot. Seeing another person at their most vulnerable is awful, displaying how Frank Darabont’s rendition of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead is a multi-faceted television series. It’s cinematic, explores many features of fear and terror, and investigates social issues. Instead of relying on non-stop action The Walking Dead is primarily a character piece, exploring character traits, morality, and the human experience. Of course an army of the living dead is an excellent catalyst for watching the show in the first place, but I’ve always found the people in zombie stories more fascinating than the gore itself. This week’s episode gives you just that. It’s a character piece, furthering the protagonist and surrounding players. The episode still features a good deal of violence, but it takes a back seat.
This episode also features the reunion of Rick with Lori and Carl. The scene, not as melodramatic as those in the pilot episode, but is a little cliché. The music sounds like a Hallmark card commercial and Rick nearly falling down when hugging Carl is a bit unrealistic. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t touching, but it lowers the show’s caliber, allowing an overtly touching moment into an otherwise excellent series. This scene sets its sights on the lowest common denominator instead of adhering to an already successful formula. I understand its necessity (especially when trying to follow the comic’s storyline), yet the execution is a bit flawed.
Rick’s arrival ends Shane and Lori’s relationship, which places a wedge between the two. Although Rick’s arrival elates his family and closest friends it’s quite the surprise. Rick doesn’t see it but Lori’s wearing her emotions on her sleeve, displaying remorse and fear. Her warmth towards her husband seems genuine, yet her loyalties come into question for the episode’s first two acts. However, a confrontation between Lori and Shane towards the episode’s conclusion indicates what Lori wants. Lori reveals Shane’s assertion that Rick died in the hospital and her voice exudes nothing but scorn for Shane’s misinformation.
Since Rick’s arrival at the camp Shane’s demeanor has changed. His interactions with Carl, where they’re trying to catch frogs, demonstrate happiness, interrupted by the confrontation with Lori, but all throughout the episode Shane begins revealing a different nature; a nature filled with anger and potentially jealousy. Knowing where the storyline from the comic’s leads isn’t necessary to see the beginning of Shane’s transformation. A scene featuring Shane on top of an RV on lookout duty symbolizes the negative feelings he now has: it features Shane out in the cold (just like he is with Lori), against a background of an oncoming storm, representing the anger building inside him. Only a few dozen yards away is Rick and Lori’s tent, where the couple lie together and eventually couple. With his position usurped by Rick, Shane’s face exhibits the emotions and a hurt man – a man unstable and prone to outbursts of violent anger.
Shane’s anger appears near the end of the episode where he intervenes in a conflict between an overly sexist individual (Ed – portrayed by Adam Minarovich) and some of the women at camp. Amy, Andrea, Carol and Jacqui discuss their duties at camp – consisting of washing and other previously domestic chores – leading to heated and sexist comments from Ed. Ed’s mindset is outdated; even though the strides towards equality made in the civilized world don’t mean anything to zombies, the camp’s inhabitants aren’t Neanderthals. They’re still adhering to values left over from a previous way of life. When the ladies confront Ed, he spouts off a litany of bigoted comments like, “I’m not above knocking you.” The result is a brutal attack by Shane, who knocks Ed down and punches Ed at least a dozen times. Shane’s sentiments are in the right place, but their embodiment show a change in the man. He’s changing from a caring individual into a deeply resentful and covetous individual. Although the world they inhabit is now a harsh world, ruled by brute force and no institutional laws, Shane’s outburst deviates from the prescribed lines the other characters embody. A confrontation between Rick and Shane seems inevitable.
The main action in the episode comes from Rick and T-Dog’s decision to save Merle. Merle’s brother Daryl, quite angry after the revelation of the events in episode two, doesn’t take the desertion well but eventually comes around and joins Rick, Glen and T-Dog’s party. Another mission objective is the retrieval of Rick’s bag, containing multiple guns and ammunition. The rescue team makes it to the department store without much resistance only to find an empty pair of handcuffs and Merle’s hand. As the screen fades to black many questions arise. Is Merle alive? Is he out for revenge or just happy to be alive? A character not even in the comic series is going to make quite the impact somewhere in the next three episodes.
The episode doesn’t feature a great deal of bloodshed – aside from the men beating a zombie to death and eventually beheading it and Shane’s physical outburst – but I believe it’s violent in other ways. Merle’s opening scene is quite violent, bringing to mind the fiery execution scene from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. As the woman, burned at the stake, faces her death, a squire named Jons describes her last emotions. He explains her realization that there’s nothing after life, that her last few moments are filled with excruciating pain and deep horror. The look on the woman’s face is frightening and outright violent. Sometimes violence doesn’t need physical brutality; sometimes violence is a word, a sentiment, or in the case of Merle, a deeply held emotion. Merle’s captivity makes the audience face their fears – the inevitability that we all die and our demise is uncertain. This thought, at least to me, is more chilling and violent than a dozen head shots.
I’m not certain whether people will believe this episode’s on par with the last two. It features less actual gore and more slow moments, exhibiting one of my favorite parts of Kirkman’s comic series: character development. The preview for the next episode looks like the payoff for this week’s, where a large amount of turmoil and violence will ensue. This episode, directed by Gwyneth Horder-Payton, is by far my favorite because it not only furthers the characters but also explores gender issues – primarily stereotypes and traditional gender roles. This social commentary enriches the show, especially since many characters contain latent and overt sexist beliefs. The sentiments of Rick, Shane, and many others aren’t malevolent, but part of traditions and accepted social norms and by bringing this topic to the forefront, especially in a horror series watched by millions, hopefully contemplation will result.
Here’s the trailer for this week’s episode