Episode 1 - Days Gone Bye
10 February 2013
Synopsis: Rick Grimes wakes up to a world of dead bodies and 'Walkers.' He finds help in the form of Morgan and Duane and they agree to head to Atlanta. But once Rick arrives he finds nothing but 'Walkers.'
The Good: The first twenty seven minutes of this were superb. That's not to say it was bad from there on out. It's just to say that in terms of sucking a viewer in it was half an hour of perfectly pitched and presented drama.
We start with the very real tension of silence. You know this is a show about zombies. You know what's about to happen. So silence is about the creepiest thing to hear and we wait as Rick encounters a child 'Walker' and kills her. It's a scene which succinctly tells a new viewer what the show is about but does it in a suspenseful, patient and disturbing way.
We then jump back in time to Rick and partner Shane having a detailed discussion about the state of their relationships. This helps establish that these people are real with emotions we relate to. Then they rush off into an intense gun fight which leads to the injury which keeps Rick from witnessing the coming apocalypse.
Rick then wakes up to an abandoned hospital, mysterious fingers poking through doors, piles of bodies and his first sight of an actual live zombie. The pacing of all this was excellent. Each step led up to a dramatic or gruesome revelation but in the build up to the next moment there was an authentic, calm, shocked feeling to everything. The direction allowed Rick and the viewer adequate time to take in each scene and put together the pieces of what had happened to the world.
Finally as Rick reaches his own home he sees a zombie staggering towards him down the street. He hopefully raises his arm and waves. Behind him a figure approaches silently. The tension was first class and you know it's a quality show when your emotions override your logic. In that moment the horror of Rick being bitten and turned gripped me. Yet I know he is the star of the show, I know he isn't going to die anytime soon. Now that's good TV!
From there Rick was taken in by Morgan and Duane who conveyed the shock and terror of the new world well. The way they were haunted each night by their wife\mom returning as a zombie to knock at their door was sad to see. It also indicates that zombie's maintain some remnant of human memory and identity which, perhaps, will play a role in the story down the line.
Rick heads to Atlanta to discover a more familiar zombie scene as he is set upon by a large crowd of them and has to hide inside a tank. Hope comes in the form of a voice on the radio, a helicopter and a group of survivors including Rick's family and his partner. Those final few scenes set the show up well going forward. We now know to expect some 28 Days Later and I Am Legend style action sequences along with new characters escaping the horror for Rick to interact with.
There was plenty of other stuff along the way that really pleased me. So much of what worked here was just what this wasn't. There was a lot of brutal gun fire but much of it was given proper impact and context (see Best Moment). There were almost no needless action scenes, there was no bravado dialogue, everything seemed gritty and geared toward sensible survival. There was very little music used, so the manipulation of tension based on music was thankfully absent. Little touches like a car alarm being a terrifying noise (because it brought Walkers to the car), a hot shower being a source of joy and a gunshot in a tank being deafening were all nice ways to get drama out of the practical. Considering the number of brutal looking gunshot wounds it was also good to see the painful and difficult looking reality of killing someone with a baseball bat. I also liked that Rick put on his uniform, got on his radio and assumed that police authority was still intact. Why wouldn't he?
All in all the world of The Walking Dead felt all too real and convincing.
The Bad: The only convenient moment was when Rick was trapped under the tank and prepared to kill himself. At the last second he realised that his head was directly under a hatch and climbed into safety. It was the only rushed moment in the episode and felt like a typical action movie cliche.
Rick's confusion and Morgan's concern with survival rather ignored two things which seemed to be missing. One was the obvious questions. How did this infection begin? How far has it spread? Is the government still operating? Are other countries affected? Is there anything on the TV or the internet? In a way I forgive that because the writing made it clear that Morgan knew fairly little. If Rick asks the next group of people these questions then I will be happy. But let's not go down the Lost road again please. Real people ask questions.
The other issue was the absence of the word zombie. I have no problem with the word 'Walker' but it seemed odd not to acknowledge the obvious. In a world where zombie movies are so common and indeed Rick's wakening seemed entirely derivative (especially from 28 Days Later) it would have been nice for someone to use the word. Again I will be happy if the characters we run into down the road acknowledge this.
The Unknown: Aside from all the obvious questions I will be interested to see where the show goes from here. It's not clear how much time has passed since Rick was shot. But at this point his wife and his partner are hooking up. That could easily lead to a maddeningly silly love story amidst the far more serious business of putting civilisation back together. It will be a challenge in general for the writers to make the characterisation interesting on a show where life as we know it has ended. It will be tough to keep the relentless tension going and it will be a real challenge to make this show an ongoing success.
Best Moment: The first 'Walker' Rick encounters is very far from it. She has no lower half but still exists in a pitiful state dragging her torso toward him threateningly. Days later when Rick prepares to head to Atlanta he returns to find her. She is exhausted and has dragged herself a few hundred metres across some grass. Rick has already mercy-killed an old colleague and now he leans over her pityingly and says "I'm sorry this happened to you." Then he blows her brains out. That sense of mercy and sadness was beautifully conveyed along with the brutality of it all. It was quite the scene. It struck a different note for a zombie story. It was a note of pathos and humanity that most movies understandably lack. This show intends to go on and on in this world and being relentlessly miserable will drive some viewers away.
Conclusion: A really impressive pilot which makes you want to watch more. It is possible that the show won't get better than this. The introduction to destruction is always one of the best parts of zombie stories, now the challenge is to find something even more entertaining to show us.
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