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Monday, 8 of March of 2021

The Walking Dead – “Vatos”

“I’m not strolling the streets of Atlanta with just my good intentions, okay?”

Do you ever get the feeling that men are just a problem in this show? Nevermind the fact that they’re all racists or adulterers or abusive but they’re also generally useless to the survival of the non-walkers. They serve as lookouts and muscle but only the women help keep the camp functioning with laundry and educating the children and the various other tasks that the men in which the men never seem to participate. I would say this is like some early patriarchal hunter/gatherer society, but, when Daryl’s gone to Atlanta to find Merle and get guns, the women do the hunting, too. Men are just the blight on this struggling society.

On the podcast yesterday, we talked a little bit about how this Lord of the Flies-esque societal regeneration is similar to that of Lost, especially with a hero (Rick) emerging, complete with antagonists both to his power (Merle) and his being (Shane), to help save them from the Others (walkers). Sure, the walkers don’t have a ringleader like Ben or an ancient spiritual leader like Richard but many of them don’t have faces either so we can’t expect too much. The more interesting difference is how the new society is formed with baser instincts: cliques, a bit of mistrust, paranoia, and an surprising lack of unity despite the superficial all-togetherness. There is far more poison in this bunch than on the island, with a few people feeling they have the right to rise to the throne. The inherent fear of their situation, of each other sometimes, and a lack of collaboration to get them out of harm’s way, can only prove to be detrimental to their cause of survival.

It’s like they don’t know that they need learn to live together or die alone.

The essence of this episode is the search for a leader, particularly a male one. It starts with the sisters Amy and Andrea painfully reminiscing about their father and how they want to return to that simpler, easier time. He had a plan for them (one catches, the other releases) and the women are willing (and even thankful) participants to this agenda. The camp itself is in a bit of disarray as Ed and his smashed face proves to be a divisive point, Jim is going bananas, and Shane, inept as he is, has to be the one that keeps them all quelled. He comes off authoritative but Jim, in his “heat stroke,” tells him his authority is invalid, that he doesn’t have the right to be in charge.

Why I give Jim any kind of credence is not in spite of his being bonkers but because of it. His character stands at the corner of wisdom, unfiltered realizations, and clairvoyance. After challenging Shane’s brutish enforcement of Ed’s crimes (something that should be left up to the morality enforcement of the monster in a horror trope) and his general authority in the camp, he spouts vague messages somewhere in the center of a Venn diagram between sage platitudes and knowing what’s in store for them. His remark to Lori about keeping Carl close doesn’t just come off as the advice of a man that lost his family (not just tragically but traumatically — being able to escape because the ghouls were too busy feeding on your loved ones can do a number on a man) but also a faint understanding of what is to come. It isn’t a sixth sense kind of vision he has. Maybe a fifth and a half sense. But he knew all along, at least subconsciously, that the ghouls were going to come up and that Shane’s leadership was lacking.

Before we get into the final scene of the show, let’s discuss what’s happening in Atlanta. For a racist jackass, Merle is an extremely tough guy. Cutting off his own hand (thank you, writers, for telling us why he couldn’t just cut through the cuffs), cauterizing the wound, smashing a couple walkers to death with a wrench, and then jumping out a window into the denizens of man-eaters below makes for a tough enemy to go up against later. Rick, the leader with a hero’s confidence Jack Shepherd would kill for, and his team (Daryl, T-Dog, and Glenn) run into a bunch of gangsters holed up downtown. Latino gangsters. With a leader named Guillermo. At first this was an eye-rolling turn of events for me. In a show with gender role issues and superficial racial tension, comprising a rule-by-the-gun collective in Atlanta’s post-apocalypse of intimidating Spanish-speakers almost seemed natural. Of course the ultra-violent, seemingly irrational yet of full-faculty antagonists in the city would be Hispanic gangmembers. Of course the vatos would exchange weapons for life. I was afraid that, while this particular episode made time for drama and intrigue in other places, this plot point was ready to surrender cultural complexity.

Happily, I was wrong. Guillermo turns out to be a more complex character than previously imagined (even if the abuela bit is a little hokey). He and Rick are cut from the same cloth in a way except Guillermo’s rise to power didn’t have the help of a badge. Guillermo as a janitor of the retirement home who stands up to protect their enclave, to spare the elderly, to salvage what he can in order to survive for fantasy that they can be saved, is a powerful image, if not for the audience then at least for Rick (and through him we can understand the gravity of their association). Rick and Guillermo are just a couple of guys who have the integrity to stand up and lead in a time when it would be perfectly acceptable to huddle in a corner and sip Jack until the hordes came. They’ve done the best they can with what they have and Rick’s gift in good faith, the ammo and guns, can only help them in the future.

So when the walker attack happens at camp and people are being picked off, Shane letting the fire rise higher and brighter like a walker beacon in the sky, letting their guard down at night when they’re most vulnerable, and trying to desperately scramble unprepared campers into a protected grouping, it’s only natural that the true leader comes in with his organized team and saves the day like a calvary. Though it’s too late for some like the horror-moral-casualty Ed and the drama-tapping Amy, the camp is temporarily saved and the tragedy brings an opportunity for Rick to pull everyone together and put a plan in place. My assumption is that they have to move. Time to shake some dust and get out of the shadow of Atlanta’s skyline.

Overall, this is the more balanced episode I expect from this series. There may be deviations from this from time to time where exposition or action is necessary but what they accomplished here is filling out a storyworld that its ninety-minute predecessors have to elide for time. The action and tension in Atlanta is fulfilling and several scenes at camp are heartbreaking, including just about every one with Jim and especially the final scene with Amy and Andrea. I’m looking forward to The Walking Dead expanding the zombie picture beyond mere body genre.

Some other thoughts:

  • Did anyone else thing that Merle took the van, loaded up a bunch of ghouls in the back, and trucked them up to the camp, and set them free in order to take revenge on the campers? It’s a little extravagant for revenge but so dastardly it’s amazing. Although, I figure, if that was the case, they wouldn’t save that reveal for another episode.
  • I like Jim’s fifth and a half sense. I hope that’s something that continues, his intuition of what’s going to happen next even if he’s unable to really harness his gut.
  • Though I liked the episodes, the dramatic scenes here were a little uneven. I mentioned the abuela scene with Guillermo and the vatos but the cold open featuring the sisters was also a little hokey. The whole thing is rescued at the end by Amy’s death scene but there were a couple times in the episode when I remember thinking, “this doesn’t really play as dramatic as they probably think it does.”
  • Also on the podcast yesterday, Matt mentioned that he thought the poor gender image just wasn’t about men in general but specifically Southern men (and women to a certain extent), that the power dynamic, the work load, and the levels of communication stem from a stereotypical view of the dominant neanderthal hick and his obedient woman. Given that Atlanta is far more cosmopolitan than the rest of the country gives it credit for, it’s sad that more progressive or modern images, slumpies for example, aren’t represented. I suppose we are to assume the hipsters couldn’t get out of the Local in time to escape the walker hordes wanting to play a little cornhole.

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