Series Premiere: The Walking Dead – “Days Gone Bye”

“Days Gone Bye”

October 31st, 2010

I addressed The Walking Dead generally in my piece last night, but I do want to address the premiere in particular.

As far as premieres go, this is a really strong effort aesthetically: character is largely on the backburner in an effort to define the scale of this world, which operates directly in opposition to characterization. The whole point of the series, after all, is that humanity has dwindled down to a small collection of survivors, and yet this creates an even grander sense of scale as a result of the sheer emptiness.

I want to talk about that emptiness a bit, and the role it plays in telling the story in “Days Gone Bye.”

The most iconic shot in the premiere, without question, is Rick Grimes riding his horse down an empty freeway into Atlanta. The whole point of the premiere is that he was woken up in a completely different world, and no shot expresses this more than the one in question. The sense of scale is both visual and historical, providing insight into how this outbreak took place. It goes back to the first scene, of the abandoned cars as Rick searches for gas, and the idea that the plot is being constructed more through what we see than what we experience.

It’s fitting that a television series based on a comic book series would be visually-oriented, so it’s not as if it is surprising that it works this way. What I do find interesting is the way in which “Days Gone Bye” avoids breaking down what exactly it is constructing. We know that this is a show about zombies, but the opening is not delineated: it’s an in medias res opening without any of the normal demarcations we associate with them. There’s no sound effect to indicate a return to the “present,” there’s no chyron to indicate how much time passed between the opening scene (which seems to have taken place before Rick arrived at the farmhouse) and the day Rick was shot. That lack of temporal indication is key to the pilot’s success, placing us in Rick’s shoes: just as he has no idea how much time passed while he was in the hospital, we have no idea just how much time has passed during the numerous scenes.

It’s the one question that successfully transitions into the other group of survivors. How long, precisely, has Rick’s wife been sleeping with his partner? Before the coma? After the coma? After the outbreak? It’s clear that he’s stepped into a father role with his son, but knowing how long the relationship has been going on raises further questions. Unfortunately, once those questions are answered there isn’t a lot to be found there: Callies and Bernthal aren’t given enough to do, and the disconnect between the two stories (which is at this point a key part of the plot) keeps the dynamics from really coming to life. It’s also strange that all we get of Grimes’ relationship with his wife is his desperation to return to them and the opening sign of marital strife – I think the disconnect could be interesting eventually (that he’s trying so desperately to save something he’s lost) but it keeps his story from having emotional resonance here.

I understand why that’s passed onto Lennie James’ character – he has the truly horrifying survivor story, and has been living in this world for longer. He’s had to see what happened to his wife, and he’s had to live with his son’s terror, and so he’s the perfect character to introduce Rick to the world around him. The problem is that I sort of wish we had stayed with James – I wanted to know if he and his son survived, and whether he shot his wife, and what the future might hold for them. I don’t know if they return in the future, but their absence here made for a strong stand-alone story with little connection to future episodes. The end of the episode abandons this learning period, and instead throws Rick into a different situation entirely – as noted in my review, I thought that situation was less interesting, but the bigger issue is that Rick doesn’t really adapt or change in any way. There’s no emotional arc there: he wakes up, he wants to know where his family is, and then he gains the skills necessary to complete that goal.

“Days Gone Bye” is effective in doing what it needs to do: it sets a tone, it establishes the gore level (fairly high, really), and it shows us the characters who will populate this world. I do think it was ultimately focused more on the first two, sometimes to the point of indulgence, but I think that’s acceptable. A great sense of atmosphere can sell a show like this more than characters, and so long as that happens by the time the sixth episode comes around I think there’s a lot of potential here. That said, I do still have reservations of what’s left for me if that doesn’t happen, and at what point atmosphere will no longer be enough, but the premiere is unquestionably quality.

Cultural Observations

  • I know why Rick needs to ride into the city for the sake of the story, but when he saw the people trying to get the hell out of dodge why would he keep riding in without a gun at the ready? It seemed like something he should reconsider, but I guess that’s no fun.
  • There’s a few more “close calls” in episode two similar to the radio signals not quite matching up – without the whole wife/son/cuckold element, that might be fine, but it seems like nothing but a cheap tease at this point, and the less we have of that the better.
  • Curious to know what fans of the comic thought – I’ve never read it, personally.
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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Series Premiere: The Walking Dead – “Days Gone Bye”

  1. Barbara

    “How long, precisely, has Rick’s wife been sleeping with his partner? Before the coma? ”

    The above was not included in the episode unless I missed it. I saw no indication that the partner was sleeping with his wife. Is this a spoiler from the graphic novel?

    • It’s pretty much a given. You can read it all over both actors in the tent scene, which is what Myles is reacting to. I would answer your question more satisfactorily, but I can’t figure out a way to do it without being spoilery.

    • I was not a fan of this storyline. I am assuming it is from the comic, but on a television show it is quite off-putting. Are we supposed to hate both of those people immediately? Because I do. The only reason I even want Rick to find them is so he can see his son again. Perhaps I’m just the romantic sucker who wants one bit of happiness in such a dreary premise. Now the reunion will just be…fraught.

  2. I’m right there with you, I enjoyed the setup and the atmosphere but I’m hoping for much more from the rest of the season/series.

    I’m a fan of the comic and strangely enough I felt like the tone of the show was much darker than the comic but I felt like this pilot definitely captured the spirit of that first story arc. I’m glad it wasn’t a shot for shot remake and actually had surprises for fans of the comic as well.

    Always enjoy hearing your thoughts Miles, keep up the great work!

  3. Sbellfilm

    As a BIG fan of the comics, I was very pleased with the premiere. It was a bit indulgent at times in terms of establishing gore, but I think it might be necessary evil for the premiere as the series is famous for the lack of mercy it grants its characters. The threats are real and horrifying and could be around any corner, and characters can be killed off at any random moment (and they often are.) as far as character goes, being that I know the comics I have no worry about the potential for fresh and engaging drama. I think this episode did the job it needed to do and I look forward to realy getting involved in the lives of the characters that I have loved for years.

  4. A few ridiculous questions:

    1) On a zombie show/movie, do the characters ever say the word “zombie”? It seems like that should be the first thing to come to mind, before “walkers.”

    2) In anyone’s zombie apocalypse survival guide, heading to the most populous city in the region is NOT in the plan, right? Hello: more people, more zombies!

    Those two things bugged me. Everything else was very well done, but I can’t decide how much I actually care about an ongoing zombie story. I am interested in the aspect of watching people reorganize some sort of society in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event, so I’ll probably stick around for that. (Same reason I stuck it out with Jericho for so long.)

    • AO

      As for the comics, Kirkman has said that this was a world in which there never were Zombies. So they wouldn’t have had that term, and they especially wouldn’t have a Zombie Apocalypse Survival Guide. The show might think differently, but based on the pilot, I’m inclined to believe that it’s following the comic. These are a people who have never even considered the dead coming back, and I think that it makes the show a touch more interesting.

  5. Jeff Carroll

    I’ve also been reading the comics since the beginning. I thought the premiere was one of the best hours (and a half) of genre television that I’ve seen.

    I felt it was critical for the premiere to establish a world that had changed completely for these characters, and, more importantly, begin to show that this was not a world that was going to return to normal.

    I say this, because, the Walking Dead comic often reminds me more of a movie like Platoon, if Platoon were told from the POV of Berenger or Defoe’s character–because characters such as those could never return to the real world, as Sheen does.

    In W.D., it’s not an 18 month stint. It’s forever. If a character is forced to do something horrific (or cooperate with someone horrific) in W.D., they do so in front of everyone they love, and they must then convince not only those around them that this is rational and moral in this new world, they must also convince themselves. If they don’t, then people and groups fracture.

    In survival/apocalyptic films, this is often handled briefly, if at all, but it is the core of W.D.’s storytelling, because we are with these characters for so long.

    I can’t argue that the stories in W.D. will be as complex as those found in Mad Men or Breaking Bad, but the stories are character-driven, so kudos to AMC for showing that storytelling matters in genre, too.

  6. AO

    “Curious to know what fans of the comic thought – I’ve never read it, personally.”

    Several thoughts here, chief among them, that this all seems a bit strange. Strange that something that I’ve followed for 7+ years has suddenly gained so much attention. Strange that it’s being called a “comic” rather than a “graphic novel” (Almost every graphic novel was first a comic, but for quite some time that’s almost always downplayed as much as possible). Strange that the story is back at the beginning and that it will likely never reach where it is in the comics today. And strange to see all the little changes. A bit of a fleshing out of a character here, some added dialogue there, with no substantiative change in the plot (so far), but still, combining to make the TV adaptation just a little bit different.

    Overall, I enjoyed it. But I do wonder what changes there will be in the future and which ones I will think for the better and which ones I won’t.

    “The problem is that I sort of wish we had stayed with James – I wanted to know if he and his son survived, and whether he shot his wife, and what the future might hold for them.”

    You are far from alone in that. Each comic issue ended with various letter and e-mails to the author, and an often repeated question was if/when we would see those two characters again.

    “I know why Rick needs to ride into the city for the sake of the story, but when he saw the people trying to get the hell out of dodge why would he keep riding in without a gun at the ready? It seemed like something he should reconsider, but I guess that’s no fun.”

    I 100% agree. When he saw no military blockades to protect the city, and that he could enter freely, he should have sensed that something was not right. But he’s still likely overwhelmed (at least to some extent) by the situation and focused on finding his family. I can buy that he’s not thinking entirely rationally at this point.

    “It’s also strange that all we get of Grimes’ relationship with his wife is his desperation to return to them and the opening sign of marital strife”

    I agree here too. The scene of marital strife seen at the beginning of the show was not suggested in the comic and definitely adds a different dimension to the program. It fleshed out the characters and gave us better insight into them, it also likely made them more realistic. But as you say, there seems at least something of a disconnect between how happy Rick was and his desire to return to his family. Though no unkind words were said about his son, so I can see that he would want to find him again no matter what. It could also be that no matter how frustrated Rick may have ever been with Lori, that he still truly loved her, and that his nearly dying combined with the dramatic changes to his world have refocused his priorities and caused him to place a greater estimation on his relationship with her than he had before.

    I believe that I can understand some of your concerns for where the show might go from here, but it really is at the *very* beginning of a long journey. If this were “Lost”, then people would have just woken up at the beach and be running around disorganized, with some putting out fires, others looking to the wounded and others scavaging for supplies. None of it would tell us much at all of what might be to come. “The Walking Dead” comic places a high priority on focusing on and examining it’s characters, in the same way that the pilot did on James’ character Morgan. Hopefully the show will continue in that focus.

  7. Pingback: Top 10 Episodes of 2010: “A Study in Pink” (Sherlock) | Cultural Learnings

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