November 07, 2010 at 12:00 PM EST

The proof of whether The Walking Dead is going to be an engrossingly gross weekly TV series wasn’t in the elaborate, extra-long, Frank Darabont-directed pilot episode, but rather this week’s hour-long second edition. We knew from last week what the show is going to look like — how, working in a venerable horror tradition, the zombies have been freshly imagined, how they move, and who their potential victims are. The question was: Where does the show go from there?

Where it went was for the throat, so to speak. That is, Sunday night’s “Guts,” did not dial back on the pilot’s intensity, while fleshing out (really, almost any phrase is ripe for punning, I’m starting to realize) the human supporting cast.

Foremost among these this week was Michael Rooker, as rootin’-tootin’ racist, Merle Dixon. We knew he was a bad guy early on, when he used the n-word. But like every character Rooker has played in a career of either big roles in B-movies (most notably the title role in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) or small roles in big movies (Mississippi Burning, Eight Men Out), Dixon was a smart man trapped in a creep’s body and mind. He radiated both craziness and intelligence around the edges.

Between Rooker/Dixon’s gun-slinging hot-head and Sheriff Rick’s line, “[I’m] a man looking for his wife and son” (very John Ford, very Searchers-like), you begin to see one other genre to which The Walking Dead has connections: the Western. The Sheriff is, like any number of lawmen in movies by Ford, Howard Hawks, and especially the sparsely populated movies by Budd Boetticher featuring Randolph Scott, a loner forced to become a uniter: “There’s us and the dead. We survive this by pulling together, not apart,” Sheriff Rick said this night.

Rooker wasn’t even the main supporting player in Dead this week. Certainly among the key sub-plots is the relationship between Rick’s wife, Lori, and his deputy, Shane. Their romance, founded in mutual loneliness and grief over what they assume is Rick’s death, was handled just right in this hour. Which is to say, the show didn’t spend a lot of time on it — we get it, we pretty much know it’s going to cause problems in the future, and Dead gets on with its gruesome set-pieces.

And the set-piece supreme this week, giving the episode its title, involved survivors smearing themselves with human offal to trick the olfactory system of the “walkers.” In brief: “They smell dead, we don’t.” (Write this down in your Walking Dead’s Book of Zombie Rules.) For sheer repulsiveness, watching a live human slather himself with the guts of a dead human to repel undead monsters — all photographed with beautifully framed clarity — well, this is the kind of thing that’s making AMC the place to go for unpredictability and artistic license on basic-cable.

I thought “Guts” was a highly worthy second episode of The Walking Dead. Did you?

Twitter: @kentucker

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