If there is one persistent complaint regarding season one of The Walking Dead, it is truncation. At only six episodes, the first season felt incomplete. It does end on an interesting cliffhanger, but it ends just as we are getting to know the characters.
The first two episodes of season one are the best: “Days Gone By” and “Guts.” Perhaps it was because they were supposed to be part of one episode — the pilot — but later converted into two episodes to develop the characters.
“Days Gone By” is the title of the pilot, and it starts off familiar to those who have seen the excellent zombie movie 28 Days Later. Rick Grimes, the main character, awakens in a hospital room to a vastly different world than he knew prior. That is precisely how the story is introduced in 28 Days Later. However, this is not a distraction as the series quickly develops its own world and plot.
What is effective about the pilot is that we are introduced to this world as Rick is. He walks out of his room to a ransacked hospital with a room chained shut at the end of the hallway. A pallid hand pokes through the cracks between the chained doors with the words “Don’t Open. Dead Inside” scrawled across it. Very ominous.
The sense of foreboding continues as Rick leaves the hospital to find stacks of piled bodies. He sees the half body of a zombie reaching toward him while lying on the grass. The decay is advance so that it is difficult to determine its gender. Fans of the Webisodes, which are set during the same time, focus on just what happened to her. Titled “Torn Apart,” they show just how bleak and depressing this world is. If you have not checked them out, you should. The Webisodes are quite good.
Eventually, Rick finds a father, Morgan, and his son, Duane, who essentially save his life by bringing him up to speed as to what has occurred during Rick’s month-long hospital stay as he fought through a coma. They hold up in their house.
The episode is often quiet as it allows the tension to build. The series generally does not rely on cheap gimmicks to generate suspense. Typically in horror fiction, there are several ‘startling’ scenes. The scene begins quietly, and then a sudden shrieking noise coupled with something jumping out from off-camera, something we have not been privileged to see, into full screen. This is lazy horror fiction, and The Walking Dead does not succumb to it.
So when Rick, still clinging to a world he used to know, decides to travel to Atlanta to find his wife and son, Morgan’s words portend terrible things: “They may not seem like much at one time, but in a group, all riled up and hungry? Man, you watch your ass.” Rick lacks the complete understanding of the threat. As he and we find out, going anywhere where large populations of people lived is a bad idea.
The emptiness of a large metropolis, in this case Atlanta, is unsettling as he rides a horse into it. The emptiness is eerie and leads to the pilot’s conclusion. Suddenly surrounded by a mob of “walkers,” Rick barely escapes. Luckily, he scrambles under a tank and inside before the mob consumes him.
The pilot ends with someone calling Rick inside the tank. Someone calls him and asks if he’s okay. We learn that a show regular, Glen, contacts him. He essentially reaches out to assist. Whether one should do the “right” thing and help others is a recurring theme in the series. The idea is repeatedly challenged as helping others threatens the group.
But Rick is saved, and in episode two, “Guts,” Rick becomes part of the group that he eventually leads. The group had gone into Atlanta to scavenge for supplies and see Rick. They are held up in a department store.
One of the first things Rick needed to do within the group is assert his dominance. A fight between two group members T-Dog and Merle, leads to Rick handcuffing Merle to a pipe. The scene illustrates that not only can Rick take control over situations but also that the people who have survived languish in their own stupidity—in this case exemplified by Merle’s racism.
It is hard to understand maintaining racist beliefs in a world such as the group inhabits. Here, the notion that the threat is not just from the zombies but from surviving humans filters into the series. Indeed, as hints of season three suggest and comments from the producer indicate; it is the threat from humans that will take center stage.
The escape from the department store, how they decided to execute the plan, is one of the best scenes in the show. Taking a “terminated walker,” the group hacks him up to pieces. They smear the walker’s guts and body parts all over Glen and Rick. This gruesome scene suggests just where the show’s producers are willing to go. It has to be one of the most disgusting scenes on television. It is putrid but awesome too.
Once the men are covered in guts, they slip out of the store and into the streets where thousands of ‘walkers” mill about, looking to eat anything. The conceit here is that live humans smell differently than dead ones, and the “walkers” can smell the difference.
There are several problems with this, like if walkers can smell, can they taste? So they must breath to get oxygen into the bloodstream? Can they be smothered to death or drown? How do their olfactory senses work, exactly, if they are dead? But no matter because thinking about the “mechanics” of a “walker” leads to dissonance.
Of course, the group makes it out but forget the chained up racist Merle. Future episodes lead the group to attempt to retrieve him, but he had already severed off his hand to escape the hoard of zombies that had broken through the department store’s doors.
The episodes that lead to the finale serve to introduce characters and solidify the world that the group find themselves in. Rick, in an unbelievable bout of luck, becomes reunited with his wife, son and best friend, Shane, who had been sleeping with his wife Lori. One can hardly blame them as they thought Rick was dead.
Episode four, Vatos, introduces another group of survivors but does not, in season two, return to them. These survivors are protecting a nursing home. The scene simply feels random, but perhaps that is the point. Perhaps there will be random groups of survivors that the group interacts with and no more. Rick, still clinging to the notion of helping others, leaves the group some guns.
The rest of the group, hidden in the woods, comes under attack by the ‘walkers.’ Rick and his posse return just in time, but not before several members are killed. Here we are introduced into how a person turns into a zombie.
One of the show’s recurring characters, Andrea, faces the reality of watching a family member “turn.” The show never loses focus of the humanity and strain the characters are under, and the scene with Andrea and his sister, Amy, illustrate this.
Amy has been killed in the attack, and everyone knows that she will “turn.” The only question is when. While other members want to shoot her again in the head and burn her, Andrea wants to do ‘right’ by her sister. The show often juxtaposes these ideas.
For example, another group member, Jim, is bitten. His fate is sealed; he will turn into a zombie and threaten the group. What should they do? Kill him? Leave him? Tough decisions.
The finale is effective as Rick leads the group back, incredulously, to Atlanta to the CDC. Rick’s head is still clearly in the “old world” and believes there must be something still functioning normally.
While Rick’s leadership here proves correct, one lone scientist allows them into the seemingly secure CDC facility. The group showers, gets drunk and eats: a brief moment of pleasure in a series that has been relentlessly bleak. However, this respite is short-lived.
The scientist eventually tells the group everything he knows, and the information is not in any way comforting. Indeed, he has decided to commit suicide by allowing the CDC facility to blow up. He offers the group the same opportunity. The blast will be painless and quick. Who wants to live in this world? This is an interesting question and one not so easily dismissed. Some stay, and others don’t. We are invited to consider the same. Is living the only thing or does how one lives and in what capacity factor into the choice?
The Walking Dead’s first season was a smashing success—the pilot drew 5.3 million viewers and averaged 5.24 million per episode. The finale received 6 million.
AMC’s showing all the episodes from the first two seasons starting July 7 at 11:30am. There will be a variety of making-of and behind-the-scenes featurettes throughout.