A review of tonight's "The Walking Dead" coming up just as soon as I stroll the streets of Atlanta with just my good intentions...

"Guess the world changed." -T-Dog
"No, it's the same as it ever was. The weak get taken." -G


"Vatos" was written by Robert Kirkman, who created this world and most of these characters in "The Walking Dead" comic book, and it wasn't quite what I expected - in a very good way.

I stopped reading the comic sometime around issue 30 for a couple of reasons, one small, one big. The small: Kirkman's dialogue bothered me with its wordiness, as the story was always grinding to a halt so Rick or someone else could give a big speech about who they are, where they came from, what the new world meant, etc. I'm not opposed to character development, big themes and all that; I just found Kirkman's execution of it to be clunky.

But I'd have kept reading if not for the big one: I found the series too monotonously bleak, not just in how frequently zombies would pop up to eat people, but in how so many of the strangers our heroes met turned out to be dangerous, self-interested sociopaths enjoying the new world (dis)order. That seemed both plausible and thematically appropriate for a zombie story - the genre tends to be about the danger we pose to each other, with the zombie apocalypse itself just there to put the survivors on edge and wipe out the social contract - but issue after issue of it began to feel like a wallow to me.

The comic's many fans obviously disagree, and good for them. But when I saw that this was the episode Kirkman had written, I was curious to see whether the things that ultimately drove me from the comic would be more obvious here than in previous episodes.

Instead, Kirkman turned in the strongest episode since the pilot.

I wasn't too worried about the dialogue. You simply can't have flesh-and-blood actors talk as much as his characters did on the page, not unless the entire series would be constructed as a series of post-apocalyptic walk-and-talks like "The West Wing," and even that would need some trims. And, indeed, Kirkman was following the less-is-more aesthetic that Frank Darabont established in the pilot. There's definitely exposition and backstory, but much of it was handled very well; I thought Amy and Andrea reminiscing about fishing trips with their dad, and then trying not to grieve too much for the parents they assume were killed by the walkers, was quite lovely.

And after bracing myself to see G and his vatos (who weren't in the comic, at least not when I was reading it) turn out to be sleazeballs taking advantage of the end of law-and-order, I was pleasantly surprised when it was revealed they were good guys who were just fierce in protecting their own.

Really, this was a whole episode of people being on their best behavior. G and Rick settle their differences peacefully, and looking back on Darryl's confrontation with the kid in the alley, you can see why the vatos might have mistrusted the new group. Darryl is a far more reasonable, even loyal, guy than either he or his brother seemed in the previous two episodes - a backwoods character rather than a backwoods caricature. Back at the camp, the sisters bring in a big haul of fish with Dale's gear, and Shane does an effective job of defusing the Jim situation without hurting anybody.

And that's what makes the episode's climactic zombie attack so effective(*): even when people are sticking together and holding to their better natures rather than their best interests, it doesn't matter, because the walkers are still out there, still coming, and no place is ever truly safe to hide.

(*) That, and the fact that director Johan Renck (another "Breaking Bad" alum) did such a good job of staging the chaos.

So we lose characters we like (Amy), ones we hate (Ed the wife-beater) and some random cannon fodder, and Rick's group comes to the rescue a little too late, and now what the hell happens? Is this beautiful haven by the quarry (which again looked gorgeous, particularly during the fishing trip) no longer safe to occupy? Did Merle, in fact, steal their truck? And assuming Rick seems done leaving his family for a while, how long before the Shane thing blows up on everyone?

I haven't loved every deviation Darabont and company have made from Kirkman's original stories (though, again, Darryl was much better-written this week than previously), but the obvious advantage is that I honestly don't know where things go from here. Some events from this episode track exactly from the comic (as I recall, Amy got attacked at the entrance to Dale's camper), while others are very different. And though I don't know if my stomach for this stuff will last indefinitely, after "Vatos," I find myself a lot more excited to see what's coming next than I was after the last few episodes. Nicely-done, people.

Some other thoughts:

• I like the recurring theme of the apocalypse elevating people far above their station, sometimes for good (Glenn the pizza delivery guy is a clever strategist, G the custodian now runs the nursing home and a large gang), sometimes for bad (Shane as judge and jury, though the sentence was far kinder this week). And then there's Rick, still wearing his uniform - even getting his hat back - and still trying very much to be a cop and nothing more.

• Frank Darabont has used Laurie Holden a number of times over the years - she was the female lead in "The Majestic," had a prominent role in "The Mist" and here plays Andrea - and here watching a horrified Andrea lean over her sister's dying, then dead, body demonstrated exactly why he likes her. She's quite a bit older than I recall Andrea being in the comic (and the opening scene was written to reflect that), but she's really good.

• And Jeffrey DeMunn's worked with Darabont even more often - add in "The Green Mile" and the Darabont-scripted "The Blob" remake to the stuff he did with Holden - and he got a nice little moment with Dale's wristwatch speech, a paraphrasing of a passage from "The Sound and the Fury."

• I have to say that the title sequence is really growing on me, thanks in large part to Bear McCreary's theme, and how the episodes often start playing it even before the opening credits begin.

We now have an explanation for why Merle didn't cut through the handcuffs (saw blade too dull) but not, as many of you noted, why he didn't just cut off his thumb. Still, I enjoyed Darryl and the others vicariously experiencing Merle's high degree of badassery, from the zombies he slew one-handed to evidence of how he cauterized the stump.

Finally, y'all were much better about the No Spoilers rule last week, but given the comic book issue, I'm going to keep closing each review for this series with the following reminders of how it works here on this blog: 

1)No Spoilers.

2)This includes any discussion of the previews for the next episode.

3)This includes any discussion of storylines from the comic that haven't happened yet in the timeline of the TV show. (And, yes, the show has and will continue to deviate from the comic in some ways, but for the sake of those instances where they're going to be the same, I don't want people talking about something from issue 50 when we're watching episode 4.) 

4)This includes anything you've seen or read elsewhere about anything that has not happened within the context of the episodes that have already aired.

Anything in violation of any of these points gets deleted. Nice and simple. Talk about what has already happened on the show, no more, no less.

What did everybody else think?

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