The Walking Dead: Season 1, Episode 1
Days Gone Bye
I have watched my fair share of zombie stories over the past month. Writing a column on George Romero threw a lot at me, and made a rewatch of Shaun of the Dead a necessity. Then there was Thursday's episode of Community. There has been a lot of zombie entertainment in my life of late. And while I certainly wouldn't call myself an acolyte of the genre, I have spent many an hour over the course of my life discussing exactly how I would deal with the coming zombie apocalypse. In fact, in a recent discussion about that very possibility, my friends and I realized that we are likely more prepared for the "coming" zombie apocalypse than we would be for a fire, earthquake, hurricane, or terrorist attack. Those real disasters would catch us completely unaware, but if the dead start walking, by God I'll be ready.

All of this is preamble to a discussion of the opening episode of The Walking Dead, AMC's new zombie series. Considering AMC is home to my two favorite shows of the moment, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and considering all of the praise I have heard heaped on Robert Kirkman's comic book series (which I have avoided reading in fear of spoiling the show for myself), I was excited for this show from the moment it was announced. I have read interviews with Kirkman in which he lays out the basic premise of his comic: most tales of the zombie apocalypse are short and sweet; his examination of the world after the dead rise just keeps going on and on and on. I have heard the comic pitched as one of the bleakest examinations of the human will to survive ever put to paper (bold words, I'd say), and so went in curious as to whether the show could capture the dark tone I had heard so much about, especially since it was airing on television (sure, its on cable, but cable isn't HBO).

In its first hour, it seems like The Walking Dead isn't looking to pull any punches, either in its tone, nor in its depiction of the violence that has overtaken the world in which its characters live. From its opening moments, in which our hero Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) is forced to kill a little girl who has become zombified (a word I think I will be forced to use often in these reviews, in spite of the fact that it doesn't technically exist), its clear that this is not going to make for light, airy television. Rick is clearly taken aback by murdering the girl, but its also obvious that he has become more accustomed to committing acts like this in recent days. Cue the flashback that reveals lawman Rick and his partner Shane (Jon Bernthal) shooting the shit like standard cops in simpler times. Shane has women troubles, namely that his girlfriend won't turn off any lights; Rick has problems too, mostly arising from the fact that he doesn't communicate enough. Before he gets the chance to communicate much more, he is shot by a group of runaway fugitives and is plunged into a coma. When he awakens, the world is not as he left it.

The show doesn't spend much time acclimating Rick to this world, nor does it bother with particulars like how long he's been in a coma (at least not yet). Instead, it plunges directly into one creepy setpiece after another, as Rick stumbles upon a room locked from the outside with something trying to get out, stumbles through a darkened staircase in which nothing leaps out (though the tension is still shockingly high), stumbles through a parking lot lines with hundreds of rotting corpses, and finds his first zombie in the form of a half-gone woman crawling through the park. Its clear that Rick is shocked by what he sees, but he learns quick and adapts to what is going on around him with admirable ease--this trait works both because it moves the show along quickly and because it allows him to survive.

Rick quickly makes his way home, only to find his family is missing but not dead. Their clothes are gone, as are photo albums that lead to the revelation that his wife and son were at least still alive when they left the house (and thank God the show let us know they were still alive tonight, because I dreaded the drawn out faux-suspense until we realized they were still kickin'). He soon meets the first living people he's seen in Morgan Jones (an excellent Lennie James) and his son Dwight, who are more accustomed to the new world order, but perhaps no more capable than Rick. Morgan has been frozen in motion since his wife was zombified, and in the episode's most touching, if frustrating moment, we see him take aim and attempt to put her down, only to find himself incapable of doing the deed.

As Rick heads for Atlanta, he sends out a distress call, heard but not successfully answered by a small group of survivors including Shane, Rick's wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies), Rick's son Carl (Chandler Riggs), and a few others. They know what Rick will soon learn--Atlanta does not hold the refugee camp that Rick was promised (of course it doesn't. Refugee camps are hard to come by in zombie apocalypses), but is instead a haven to hordes of zombies. Rick rides into Atlanta triumphantly on a horse, but is quickly humbled by a massive swarm of zombies who force his dismount, devour his horse, and leave him crawling under a nearby tank for last refuge, in another terrifying scene. We know Rick will survive this ordeal (this is not a zombie movie, in which the main character might die, but a television series, in which he has to make it out of the pilot), but that makes his struggle no less visceral and shocking. Watching him fire randomly at the horde crawling at him under the tank is legitimately scary, and its a relief to watch him seal himself inside the tank that might be his tomb. Fortunately, as the episode ends, a voice that will surely be his savior crackles across the tank radio.

"Days Gone By" has arguably more exposition to get through than most television series do in their pilots; after all, the series is trying to set up an entire world in its first outing, yet it handles the task exceptionally well. The episode feels like the first hour of a zombie movie, which may bode well or poorly in weeks to come. The pacing is certainly deliberate, but slow enough to let us feel the story develop around the edges. This is a show that knows its headed somewhere, and is hoping we have the patience to follow it there. If the show is as expansive as the comic has proven to be (it has been running for around 1o years now), its first installment, and even the next few to follow it can play out as slowly and deliberately as they like. So I have no problem with the fact that The Walking Dead does not distinguish itself from any number of other zombie stories in its first outing. I'm willing to wager it will get there in the coming weeks. For now, the show hit all of the stock points of the genre pretty much perfectly, buoyed by solid, if flawed, work by Andrew Lincoln, and an excellent performance by Lennie James. The Walking Dead turned in an incredibly solid pilot, and one that makes me shiver with anticipation at what we will be treated to in the weeks to come.

Grade: A-


-This show is superb at setting tone, from the 16mm camera, to excellent production design and cinematography, to a stellar use of silence broken by the impact of sound.

-"She's good at turning off lights."

-"The last thing she said to me this morning--'Sometimes I wonder if you really care about us at all.'She said that in front of our kid before he went to school. Difference between men and women: I would never say something that cruel to her." So Rick and his wife's marriage wasn't perfect. Shane still looks like an asshole for stepping in on his partner's lady that quickly.

-Lincoln's southern accent was just terrible. Really hurt the otherwise solid performance in my eyes.

-I really like the idea that the zombies are attracted to the loud noise a gunshot makes. That will make for some solid tension in the weeks to come, I think, as our heroes have to weigh whether to fire and kill one zombie, or hold off to avoid attracting the horde.
Tags: The Walking Dead
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