Series Premiere — The Walking Dead, “Days Gone Bye”

Even as someone who has never read The Walking Dead in its comic book form (well, aside from the first issue in preparation for this series) or really been that much of a fan of the zombie genre in general, I still found myself excited for AMC’s newest series.

These feelings of excitement stemmed not only from the fact that The Walking Dead looked legitimately good, but also because I’m compelled by the idea of a long-running zombie television series. It’s not something that’s ever been attempted that I know of, and with good reason. When zombie stories run long, the focus has to turn to the surviving humans and way from the disaster around them in a such a way that makes the story more character-centric than plot-heavy. But is that interesting? Will people outside the Robert Kirkman fanbase actually show up for this series?

After The Walking Dead pilot aired tonight on AMC, I’m still not sure we’re even close to any answers to those questions. “Days Gone Bye” doesn’t particularly concern itself with character development, though nor does it completely shy away from it. Instead, this pilot episode serves one purpose and one purpose only: To set a tone, to create an atmosphere, whatever you want to call it. And if we’re evaluating it on that scale, “Days Gone Bye” is an overwhelming success.

Because the episode is mostly worried about setting a tone, it’s almost playing with a stacked deck of vagueness it works to its advantage. By that I mean the episode is able to start out with an in media res opening, jump backward in time and presumably start telling a linear narrative that at some point by-passes the gory and awesome moment we get before the credits, but there’s no indication of how much time has passed. We don’t know when exactly the in media res opening is taking place — though we can make a pretty good guess in saying it’s right before Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) goes to the farmhouse and gets the horse — we don’t know exactly how much time has passed since Rick fell into a coma and subsequently woke up to find the zombie apocalypse had occurred and finally, we don’t know how long Rick’s wife Lori has been shacked up with his presumably best friend Shane.

But actually, that lack of knowledge works to the episode’s advantage and ultimately, makes “Days Gone Bye” more effective. We as the audience are experiencing this story right along with Rick (we only leave him a few times), and thus, we will be given information as he is. Plus, his ignorance or naivety towards the zombie-infested land allows for some glorious moments that serve as something of an introduction to how truly awful this thing has gotten.

With that in mind, Frank Darabont is smart to let the world slowly flush over Rick (and us), as the first 15-20 minutes of Rick’s post-awakening time are spent in silence, rummaging through the hospital, slowing discovering the horrible circumstances he has found himself in. And instead of using the silence to eventually bring in a crazy attempt to make us jump out of our seats in fear, Darabont slow plays the entire thing, never substituting the uncomfortable and sickening feelings for cheap scare tactics. The best moments in the episode feature no dialogue, and instead see a game Andrew Lincoln looking around terrified, crying, etc. For a series about zombies, there’s very little traditional zombie attacks, though I’m sure they are coming.

Moreover, the episode (and the comic, because again, I’ve read the first issue) is smart to have Rick run into Morgan Jones (a stellar Lennie James) and his son Duane, not because they can serve as exposition machines — which they do at times — but because it allows Rick and us at home to see the aftershocks of this horrible event and what it can really do down to the individual. Morgan’s wife has recently turned and neither he nor Duane can really deal with that yet, so a few small mistakes are made, a few tears are had. I hope to see James’ Morgan back very, very soon because we’re again left with lots of vague ambiguity as to what happens to him or if he can even take steps to kill his now-zombie’d wife.

Thus, although the episode isn’t particularly interested in fully developing the characters it introduces, both Rick and Morgan get their moments to express how awful this situation truly is in a well-edited sequence that sees Morgan attempt to kill his wife (though again, we don’t know if he did) while Rick goes back to the horribly emaciated zombie he first encountered a day before, says he is sorry that this has happened and then blows her away. It’s a shockingly moving sequence that suggests that even if the material isn’t there, the actors are ready to make sure we understand the emotional collateral damage that comes along with a zombie apocalypse.

However, just because this episode flashed me with its phenomenal pacing and wonderful gore doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about future episodes. Both Lori and Shane are given very little to do to flesh out their characters and even Rick is a simple man with a directed goal. He wants to find his wife and son — even though the pre-shooting scene suggests some issues at home — he gets some guns, and he’s off to do that. It’s a fairly simple and obvious concern, but I’ll be interested to see how the series plays with time — will there be flashbacks? — as a way to beef up its characters because like I said, that is what is going to make this a great series instead of just a great pilot.

But for now, I’ll take a great pilot, especially in this dreadful fall season.

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