“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.
- 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.