Best Episode Ever # 44: ‘The Walking Dead’
I think it’s safe to say the best episode of “The Walking Dead” has already aired. Even if you don’t agree with my pick, chances are your alternate would still fall within the existing series. A rotating leadership between several showrunners has made the show convoluted, uneven and often has stripped the show of the inherent drama of its premise.
Even a bold episode like “The Grove” feels like too little too late. The characters have become so inconsistent that I don’t even recognize our main characters reacting to tragically misguided children. Still, on its own, “The Grove” was a contender, but I actually think the Best Episode Ever is the very second episode of “The Walking Dead.” This is where we saw the real potential the series would have on a week to week basis, potential it has rarely achieved since.
“Guts” is when we really meet the rest of our cast. Rick (Andrew Lincoln) had sent out a radio signal in the pilot and we saw the camp where his partner Shane (Jon Bernthal), wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl (Chandler Riggs) were now living, but Rick still doesn’t know the message was received. The end of the pilot found Rick stuck in an abandoned tank with zombies surrounding him.
In “Guts,” Rick reaches Glenn (Steven Yeun) by radio, who guides him out of the tank. Glenn and some others from the camp have been holed up in the city looking for supplies. Glenn, Andrea (Laurie Holden) and T-Dog (IronE Singleton) will become regular characters for a while, and Glenn is still with us. Merle (Michael Rooker) was a memorable guest star who would loom in the background for a while before returning.
It sure is nice to recall who these characters were when we met them, because I sure don’t recognize them anymore. Of course, characters evolve and change, and would have to become hardened by several years (or weeks/months in TV time) in a world of undead. But they should still have some components of their original character. Andrea is actually physically unsure and family-oriented. Granted, the crisis is just beginning here, and she would eventually lose her sister, but by season three Andrea just became a generic vessel to receive exposition from the Governor. Glenn was still a kid taking a little pleasure in scavenging in the empty stores and driving fast cars. True, he will lose a lot more, but I wonder if giving him a girlfriend required him to become a watered down mopey romantic lead. How can he take joy in the little things when he’s got a partner to worry about?
Anyway, there are two situations in “Guts” that show the kind of character and plot driven tensions you can have on “The Walking Dead.” The most interesting one to me is the conflict with Merle. Most zombie movies, or siege movies, have that one A-hole character who makes it really hard for the survivors to just quietly survive, the one who requires them to look over their shoulders even when they’re safely barricaded. Merle is that guy.
Merle is overtly racist and antagonistic, and he creates a tragic situation for himself. If he hadn’t been sexually harassing the women or calling T-Dog the N-word, Rick wouldn’t have had to handcuff him to a pipe on the roof. He wouldn’t even have to be a good person for real. If he’d just kept quiet he could have ridden off with these nice people and then gotten racist later. But, he made a bad situation worse and had to be dealt with immediately. When the gang was dealing with the real crisis of the zombie hoard, Merle was vulnerable and it was too late.
I even think if Merle hadn’t gone out of his way to antagonize T-Dog, he might not have been so rattled he dropped the handcuff key down a pipe. True, the incoming zombies might have been enough to unsteady T-Dog’s hands, but I believe in the law of attraction and Merle’s behavior attracted equal tensions right back at him.
The main plot of the episode is Rick figuring out a way to escape the city and get to the camp. Andrea points out that the zombies can tell who’s alive because they don’t smell dead, so Rick comes up with the plan to cover themselves in zombie guts to blend in. I’m surprised this idea of the smell of the dead has never come up again in the entire run of “The Walking Dead.” I know dramatically you don’t want to repeat yourself, but you’d think stumbling across a useful trick like that could have other benefits later on.
Rick and Glenn’s walk through the zombie infested streets is tense, and the script builds in escalating tensions as it starts to rain and wash the smell off of the living boys. Future episodes would have similarly escalating threats, but this is so simple it’s beautiful. You have to get from point A to point B, and your protection only lasts so long.
I also realize how much I miss seeing the big city. I get that they can’t shoot in metropolitan areas too much. It’s too expensive to empty them out and make them zombified. Still, you’d think occasionally there’d be some cause to check out a city again, for supplies at least. Maybe they’re still too heavily populated with zombies and it’s just too dangerous, or maybe the zombies have migrated out into nature where all the living refugees have. It would be interesting to explore, wouldn’t it? Woodbury doesn’t count. That’s a small town.
Maybe my favorite part of any apocalypse story is the beginning. I LOVE when survivors look for supplies and see what’s left, and maybe when they settle into an actual new society I get bored. I think there’s room for both though. I’ll happily revise this entry if “The Walking Dead” can top “Guts.” For now, “Guts” is the Best Episode Ever.