For those who aren't familiar with the Chupacabra, it's one of those mythical creatures -- like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster -- whose existence has been suggested but is unrecognized by scientific consensus and often regarded as highly unlikely. Dropped into a conversation towards the start of this episode, it becomes a theme for this installment of The Walking Dead, which has had its work cut out for it this season in maintaining its nervy tone while fleshing out its characters and introducing the world of Hershel's farm. The reality or unreality of the Chupacabra depends largely on what you choose to believe, your sense of priorities, and your values. In a world where walkers exist, where the vicious goat-sucker of legend is real, how do you proceed?
After a much-needed flashback that resets Shane's attachment to Lori and Carl, as well as reminding us of what an incredible asshole Carol's husband Ed was before his welcome demise, the men of the RV gang set off on their search for little lost Sophie, even as Carol suggests to the RV ladies that they should prepare a nice meal for everyone at Hershel's farm. Andrea, who's had more than enough of doing laundry and the like, takes up a sentry post atop the RV, a scoped rifle at her side. There's a quaint attachment to the old habits of domesticity that completely lacks appeal for Andrea; she's got survival in mind.
In a fine scene between Shane and Rick, what starts out as a light conversation about old girlfriends moves quickly to Shane's questioning of Rick's leadership -- another stretch of dialogue that gets to the point and, frankly, probably doesn't need to proceed much further. Are Rick's priorities in the right place, as he insists on continuing to look for Sophie? As Shane says, Sophie's survival only "matters to the degree to which she don't drag the rest of us down." Rick still holds out hope that Sophie might be alive still, out there in the forest, like the Chupacabra. Later on, Hershel and Rick have some tense words, as Hershel clearly suggests that the RV Gang and the folks on the farm shouldn't be mixing their business. "I'll control mine, you control yours." The most serious example of people mixing it up, of course, are Maggie Greene and Glenn, who, having done the deed in the last episode, are stumbling their way towards another tryst, although Glenn is a little bit clueless as to how to go about it. Everyone's working from a different set of priorities.
Easily, the best scenes in the episode happen, as they often do, with Daryl Dixon, off on his own -- this time on horseback -- searching for Sophie. But his horse, spooked by a snake, throws Daryl into a ravine. In the tumble down the deep slope, one of his crossbow bolts is driven through his side -- a bloody mess, but not fatal. After some moments, Daryl is able to rouse himself, fetch his crossbow, but doesn't have the nerve to pull the bolt out of his side. He finds Sophie's doll -- a sign! He attempts to climb out of the ravine, but on the point of making it, falls back down and badly hits his head. As with some of the most effective moments in film, much of this excruciating business is done with no dialogue, and is all the more watchable.
In a vision, Daryl's big brother Merle (Michael Rooker) appears, a strange sort of guardian angel, taunting his brother for getting himself in a situation while looking a a little girl on behalf of people who don't care about him at all. He's become nothing but an errand boy for "pansy-asses, niggers, and Democrats," says Merle. "Ain't nobody ever going to care about you like me, little brother." And, as Merle's taunting gets more physical, Daryl comes to just in time to kill the walker that's started to gnaw on his boot. In order to kill another walker that's been drawn by the commotion, Daryl has to pull the crossbow bolt from his side and load up. Those are your two zombie kills for the week right there. In the end, Daryl managed to bind up his side, drag himself out of the ravine, and back to the farm.
Daryl's scenes in this episode are so primitive -- even the imagined bits of conversation with Merle are blunt and brutal -- that the contrast with the relative silliness back on the farm is stark. Daryl might not be sure why he's looking for Sophie or why he fights so damn hard to survive, but he will not give up and he will not be killed. He's not a wild-man, exactly, but he's not a pastoral dictator like Hershel or a gritty lawman like Rick. Daryl simply does what he needs to, without flinching. Hell, he'll eat a raw squirrel if necessary. (He does, by the way.) When Daryl finally stumbles out of the treeline, he's spotted at a distance by Andrea, who thinks he's a walker. And, while all the men take up their blunt instruments, puff out their chests, and tell her to stand out, "Better let us handle this!" -- Andrea, who's fed up with being held back, still pops off a round. She's a good shot, but not quite good enough, and grazes Daryl's temple. The prodigal son returns, and this is what he gets. Daryl's fine -- just a flesh wound -- but he'll have to miss dinner.
So let's just say that the big dinner that night, with the RV Gang and Hershel's Flock all sitting down together, is a tense affair, made all the more tense by Glenn and Maggie passing notes back and forth as they attempt to find a time and place to knock boots. Glenn's note, which Maggie doesn't open until after dinner, suggests a roll in the hay -- the hayloft of the barn, he means, and Maggie just catches Glenn in time as he discovers that Hershel has a little secret. Nope, he doesn't kill walkers. He keeps them locked in the barn. Ah, the secrets we keep from each other.
What works in this episode is the convergence of plotlines -- finally -- and the reliance more on visual storytelling. As much as the writers have had to spin off most of the characters into their pairs and trios to develop this or that, that tense "family dinner" tells us everything. There's some major shit going down very soon, and everyone's just being too polite about it. Leave it to Glenn -- reckless, goofy, gossipy Glenn -- to stumble onto that barnful of walkers, which should pull everything together in the next episode. And the visual dimension of the series -- the really pretty greens and earth tones of the forest and the farm -- are of course illusory. There's darkness and dirt and rotting flesh, you just have to know where to look for it. Down a well, in the woods, penned up in the barn. And, of course, if you don't go looking for the undead, they are sure to come looking for you sooner or later.
Zombie Kill of the Week: Daryl, with a stick, Zombie #1 in the Ravine
Zombie Quotient - from 1 (none) to 10 (major horde): 3.5