Recap | <i>The Walking Dead</i>: 'Vatos'

"I remember my dream now, why I dug the holes." -- Jim

Readers of The Walking Dead comic series knew the moment was coming, likely sooner rather than later, but that didn't make Amy's death any less shocking, or the immediate aftermath any less heartbreaking. That's a testament to the talents of director Johan Renck (Breaking Bad) and writer/creator Robert Kirkman, who manage to lull the audience with bucolic scenes all while telegraphing that Something Terrible is about to happen.

The signals couldn't be any more clear, really, from the gorgeous opening with sisters Andrea (Laurie Holden) and Amy (Emma Bell) fishing on the blue-green water of the quarry while swapping memories of their father to shots of an unhinged Jim (Andrew Rothenberg) obsessively digging holes -- okay, not holes but graves -- just outside of camp. But Renck and Kirkman draw our attention from the obvious signs by cutting back and forth between the survivors camp and what's nominally the A storyline: the mission into Atlanta to rescue the (previously) handcuffed Merle Dixon (Michael Rooker) and to retrieve the bag of guns and ammo -- oh, and Rick's hat.

That's right, "nominally." With the discovery that Merle had sawed off his hand to escape the Walkers (or exposure, or dehydration, or ...) on the rooftop, the sortie by Rick & Co. into the zombie-infested city begins to falter. Daryl (Norman Reedus) scoops up his brother's severed hand, placing it in the backpack of a grimacing Glenn (Steve Yeun), before narrating Merle's flight and explaining his survival -- as much for the audience's benefit as for the searchers'. It seems that Merle hacked off his hand when the saw blade proved too dull for the handcuffs, then cauterized the stump in a kitchen before heading out into the Walker-filled streets. "Told you he was tough," Daryl gloats to the others. "Nobody can kill Merle but Merle."

The foursome agrees to broaden the search outside the building, but only after they've retrieved the bag of weapons Rick (Andrew Lincoln) dropped near the tank. Glenn, a former pizza-delivery boy, devises a plan that uses the street layout to their advantage while putting only himself and the crossbow-wielding Daryl at risk. ("You've got some balls for a Chinaman," Daryl says. "I'm Korean." "Whatever.") What could possibly go wrong? Very little, at least until they're interrupted by the tattooed teen Miguel (Anthony Guajardo), who's on his own quest for the guns. Chaos ensues as a gang -- the "Vatos" of the episode's title -- kidnaps Glenn, leaving Miguel in the hands of Daryl, Rick and T-Dog (Robert "IronE" Singleton). This leads to a tense standoff with the gang, whose leader Guillermo (Neil Brown Jr.) alternately threatens to drop Glenn from a building and feed him to his ferocious dogs if Rick doesn't turn over the guns and ammo.

Thankfully, the Vatos aren't as one-dimensional, or as stereotypical, as they seem -- something we learn only after the showdown is defused by the timely appearance of the grandmother of one of the gang. It turns out, in ABC Afterschool Special fashion, that the Vatos are actually caring for elderly hospital patients who were abandoned them when Atlanta fell to the Walkers. And Guillermo's man-eating dogs? Adorable little chihuahuas! Seriously. The storyline takes some saccharine turns on its way to, what, delaying the hunt for Merle? Showing us that there are other groups surviving in different ways? It's a frustrating, and ultimately unfulfilling, detour for the fourth episode of a six-episode season.

Rick divvies up the weapons cache with Guillermo and, with the plan to expand the search for Merle seemingly forgotten, heads back with Glenn, Daryl and T-Dog to the truck. Or at least where the truck used to be, before a certain one-handed meth addict stole it. Sure that Merle is on his way back to the camp to exact revenge, Rick & Co. set out of the city on foot.

Events are much more interesting back at camp, where Jim's obsessive hole-digging unnerves the other survivors so much that Shane (Jon Bernthal) handcuffs him to a tree (shades of Rick and Merle, there) for his own good and for the peace of mind of the others. Jim's bizarre behavior is triggered by survivor's guilt -- he only escaped the Walkers because they were busy eating his wife and sons -- but also by a dream that he can't quite remember.

Once Jim comes to his senses, and apologizes to Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and Carol (Melissa McBride) for frightening their children, the group settles around the fire for a fish fry and to tease Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) about his daily watch-winding ritual. It's a nice moment interrupted when Amy goes off to pee and it becomes instantly apparent we're watching that pivotal scene from The Walking Dead #5 in which we realize none of the central cast is safe. Walkers invade the camp, falling upon the wife-beater (and possible pedophile?) Ed, who's sulking after his brutal beating, and then Amy. What moments before was the very picture of tranquility erupts into a wonderfully choreographed fight scene that draws in the late-arriving searchers from the city, and leaves the camp littered with dead bodies and shell-shocked survivors.

It's a powerful ending, perhaps the best of the series to date. Unfortunately, however, the bulk of the episode -- the Vatos and the supposed search for Merle -- doesn't live up to the final moments.

Grade: B

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