One of the great things about ‘The Walking Dead’, which Entertainment Weekly just proclaimed “The Best New Show on Television,” is how unexpected it is, even if you’ve read a number of the comic books. Take the episode ‘Vatos’, which was written by the comic book’s creator Robert Kirkman (a giant, huggable bear of a man in real life). Things seem to play out as predicted at first: Grimes and the crew go back to the city to find the redneck (played by character actor firebrand Michael Rooker), while the other survivors stay in camp, catch various wildlife to cook (including, in an unexpectedly touching opening sequence, fish!) and make suspicious eyes at each other. But man, things do not exactly unfold as expected, either in the city or in the camp. It’s enough to think that Entertainment Weekly got it right.
The campers are still reeling from the assault that Shane leveled at an abusive husband, when – even more eerily – a fellow survivor feels compelled to dig multiple graves just outside of the campsite. Meanwhile, Grimes and his band of merry men search for the missing hillbilly. (The capper to last week’s episode, if you’ll call, was the reveal of his severed hand.) This has a great mystery element, as they follow the trail to figure out where he went. Then, of course, some city-dwelling survivors get the jump on them. This group, which gives the episode its name, is fearsome at first, but more understandable later on. They’ve holed up at a retirement home/hospice and keep the elderly patients alive.
This is an example of the kind of thing ‘Walking Dead’, in its brief first season, has done extremely well. The show introduces a fairly clichéd genre trope – in this case the band of hardened, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later post-apocalyptic bandits – and totally turns that idea on its head. They are deeper, more well-drawn characters that you’d expect, and the show is all the better for it. When the survivors return to their vehicle and see that it’s been stolen (presumably by hand-less hillbilly Merle), it’s the icing on the cake: This is what you get for following that asshole in the first place.
Back at camp, we follow a fairly ordinary series of events, mostly surrounding the fallout from Shane’s attack and the nervousness that the other survivor’s digging brings up. We also see Shane reassuming a level of leadership with the group. Things seem to be calming down more than a little bit. One very cute survivor’s birthday is coming up. People sit around the fire and chat. Then, of course, all hell breaks loose. A horde of zombies shows up and takes a number of victims.
This might be the most shocking sequence in the episode, if only because you realize how unsafe these cast members are. It’s like a sign lit up in neon that says: “Don’t Get Too Attached To These People.” By the time the digger utters the final line of the episode, which makes us tingle with dread (“Now I know why I had to dig those holes.”), the show has convinced us more than the Entertainment Weekly cover story ever could. Yet again, the series grabbed me and tore me apart, heart-first.