I had been looking forward to the premiere of “The Walking Dead” for months and the promo material AMC would show during the weekly “Mad Men” episode only served to entice me further like a dog to a turkey leg. I did, however, have this nagging worry, like I do with everything I hotly anticipate, that the show was going to be complete and utter pants. I mean, the zombie film has become a cliche again and loads of impossibly derivative or needlessly revisionist takes on the subject have all but ground the concept into (and under) the ground. Would this be the first step in the zombie television movement, a soap-opera-y horror-light version like so many vampire shows are these days? Sure, the show had a lot going for it, being based on the Robert Kirkman’s infinitely excellent graphic novel series and made under the guiding hand of Frank Darabont, but could it really translate to television? I think most of us who watched it Sunday night responded with a resounding “Hell yeah!”
But what exactly worked about it? What set it apart from being just a season-long (preferably seasons-long) version of a well-tread idea? For my money, it was two factors: the quiet and the melancholy. From the opening moments of “Days Gone Bye,” the series sets itself apart. It depicts our hero, Rick Grimes played by Andrew Lincoln, walking silently through a deserted street with a bag of guns and a gas can. There’s no music, no dialogue, really no sound at all aside from the ambient noises of a man walking. Lesser series might have started with narration, some kind of schlocky Phillip Marlowe pastiche meant to sound cool and explain what’s going on, which Darabont mercifully leaves out. This show isn’t about a cool protagonist on the hunt, it’s about a man looking to survive. He comes upon an empty gas station, a dead end as far as he’s concerned, when he hears and then sees what appears to be a little girl shuffling down the street. He calls to her twice and when she finally turns around, he sees what we already suspected: that she is a “Walker,” an undead abomination that wants to devour him. She walks toward him and he draws his pistol, firing one shot in her head. This scene is not played for scares, nor is it played for action, it’s played for sadness. This man, a loner in a lonely world, is given a glimmer of hope that he’s found another living person, and a child no less, but it is soon melted away at the sight of her mangled face and his realization at what he must do.
Most television shows are wall-to-wall talking and even the quiet moments of shows like “Mad Men” are set between big conversations. “Days Gone Bye,” is the opposite, intensely quiet stretches peppered by tiny bits of talking. Once Grimes wakes up in the hospital, after being shot by a bad guy pre-outbreak, he does the inevitable stagger around the hospital trying to find another living soul, and finding only piles of dead bodies and a locked-up door with something horrible behind it. This is incredibly similar to “28 Days Later,” but the difference is that while Boyle’s film uses a driving score and Cillian Murphy screaming to make the point that he’s alone, Darabont uses the almost total lack of noise to make the more potent impact. This is not a zombie-movie (though it is), it’s life. There’s no running soundtrack to everyday existence, there’s just people trying to get by. And a totally dead world would be almost completely silent, which is incredibly impressive for a nighttime drama series.
The moment, for me, when I knew this show was going to be totally brilliant came toward the end (SPOILERS if you haven’t watched it) when we see a cross cutting of Grimes and now-single father Morgan Jones, played with heartbreaking sincerity by Lennie James, each attempting to perform acts of mercy. It had been established earlier in the episode that Morgan’s wife and the mother of his son Duane has died and become a Walker. Morgan tearily recalls how he couldn’t put her down, though he should have, and that she continues to wander around by their sanctuary, faintly remembering when she was alive and with them. After getting weapons from the police station Grimes goes on to Atlanta to find his family while the Joneses go back to the house to wait and practice shooting. Morgan takes his hunting rifle upstairs and begins picking off zombies rather expertly, which draws the attention of more of the undead, until finally, inevitably, his wife appears. Twice he tries to shoot her, finally moving forward, and twice he can’t bring himself to do it. He cries out of frustration and despair at his inability to complete the task and the fact that he has to do it in the first place.
Grimes, meanwhile, has gone back to an area we’d seen earlier in the episode. A woman zombie, mostly decomposed and missing the lower half of her body, crawls towards him with the intention of biting his flesh. Here, a newly dressed and ready for the fight ahead Grimes tracks down this zombie, even more lifeless than before, and puts her out of her misery with a gun blast. It speaks volumes about his character. He has no attachment to her other than a profound sense of pity for her, and does the noble thing, which in itself is a digression to his overall plan. He feels the need to find this poor shell of what was once a human and make things right again.
With these two scenes, which on the surface are nothing more than men with guns killing monsters, exemplifies, I hope, what the series will ultimately become. Never before has an apocalypse been shown to be this sad. This is not a rip-roaring, gun-toting romp of a horror adventure – this is a day-to-day drama about people trying to get by in a strange and terrible world where having to shoot someone is not out of the ordinary, but where doing good still might be. I am incredibly excited for the next episode and hope they all are as interesting and profound.