REVIEW: “The Walking Dead” Episode 4 – “Vatos”

I couldn’t bear to wait until Friday to watch “Vatos” on its UK debut. After last week’s ending, I had to see this sooner. I was intrigued to see how Robert Kirkman handled the writing duties in a different medium, hoping he would rise to the challenge. And I’m pleased to report that what he got was the best episode of The Walking Dead since at least the pilot.

I know many on the internet are already rolling their eyes at the Lost comparisons (I know, because often I’m the one doing the eye-rolling) but the set-up here reminded me a lot of the way the standout 4th episode of that series was handled, with the ensemble starting to get more rounded out and developed as we learn more about other characters aside from the leads. This started right from the opening, with Andrea and Amy’s relationship being fleshed out. As we went on, we got to see more development for Dale and especially Jim. What makes the comic so great is how it works as an ensemble character drama, so I’m glad that’s really coming into play in the series.

The action in Atlanta left me somewhat torn. On one hand, again I loved the character work. Rick is really rising in the badass stakes, Glenn continued to entertain, and Daryl and T-Dog became more nuanced and felt more integrated. But the development with the “vatos” turning out to be good samaritans helping the elderly? In theory, I liked it. I like how it upturned our expectations and challenged stereotypes – particularly after complaints of Merle being a stereotypical redneck. But in practise, I was too distracted thinking what exactly Rick’s plan was supposed to be if it hadn’t been for the old lady conveniently turning up to defuse the situation. And I was left thinking that it didn’t advance things much for the “A-plot” of the show.

That is until we discovered that it wasn’t the “A-plot” at all. The true “A-plot” was the apparent “B-plot” of what was going on back at camp. Of course, the foreshadowing of doom was heavy – even if you didn’t already know where things were going from the comic. That opening with Amy and Andrea being so happy in serene surroundings pretty much told you darkness loomed, especially when the shot was intercut with Jim frantically digging graves. And I tell you, when Amy stood up and said she was going to the bathroom, I actually felt a tightness in my gut, this feeling of dread out of knowing what was coming.

But for those who don’t know the comic, it was a clever bit of misdirection. Setting things up as if the iminent danger to the camp was Merle, only for it to be ZOMBIES. Much like in the comics, the zombies emerge and wreck havok just at the moment you’ve forgotten they are a threat. The whole ending sequence with the attack on the camp was brilliantly directed by Breaking Bad vet Johan Renck, perfectly capturing the sense of chaos and frenzy. This must have been a total head-trip for viewers unfamiliar with the comics, seeing a show break the rules so brazenly by not just killing an apparently major character, but offing half the ensemble in quick succession. I can only imagine how it’s going to feel when later deaths are adapted…

And in the end, we’re back to where we were at the beginning: Amy and Andrea. Those doubting Laurie Holden’s casting as Andrea must surely have been silenced by her heartbreaking performance here, such a raw, utterly believable outpouring of grief in all its ugliness and hopelessness. And that last line by Jim – “I remember my dream now — why I dug the holes.” – gave me goosebumps. What an ending. What an episode. What a show.

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