The second episode of The Walking Dead--focusing on a crisis situation in a singular setting--is much more limited in its scope than last week's apocalypse-establishing premiere. Offering a modern, urban update of the under-siege plotline made famous by Night of the Living Dead, the episode chronicles the efforts of Rick and his new-found allies to find a way out of a zombie-surrounded Atlanta high-rise. Their various escape attempts make for some excellent drama, and Rick's scheme for sneaking past all the walkers outside is astonishing both in its preparation and execution. Let's just say that the episode's title, "Guts," applies here in a figurative as well as as a gruesomely literal sense (in two short weeks, The Walking Dead might have already earned the distinction of the goriest show in television history).
To be fair, the episode did strike a couple of false notes. The opening scene, where Rick's wife Lori leaves her group's camp to wander unarmed through the woods on a berry-picking mission, felt contrived, a cheap way to manufacture suspense (undercutting her credibility as a savvy survivor). Also, later in the episode, when another female character (Andrea) prattles on about her sister's love for unicorns and dragons while the zombie horde is in the midst of beating down the doors twenty feet away, the dialogue just felt off. It points to a unique difficulty that a show such as this faces: a constant threat (in the form of the ravenous zombies) has been posited, but still the producers must find ways to dial down the tension so that the audience can catch its breath and the characters have a chance to convey necessary pieces of exposition.
Perhaps the highlight of the episode was the appearance of perennially-superb actor Michael Rooker. The man is a master of villainous roles (as anyone who's seen Henry - Portrait of a Serial Killer, Sea of Love, or Slither will attest), and his turn in The Walking Dead proves no exception. Rooker plays a sleazy, ornery redneck who poses nearly as much danger to Rick's group as do the zombies encircling the building. His character is abandoned when the others make their escape (he's left handcuffed to a pipe up on the roof of the high-rise), but the coming attractions for next week's episode suggest that viewers haven't seen the last of despicable Merle Dixon. Just one more reason to keep tuning in to this utterly compelling series.