THE WHALING DEAD #1: There Is No Escape
The Whaling Dead is a continual feature at GATW. In these posts, we take a detailed and analytical look at the new AMC series, The Walking Dead. This week's entry focuses on the pilot episode, "Days Gone Bye." Be warned: spoilers ahead!
Always bring an extra horse.
That was one of the many lessons learned by protagonist Rick Grimes in the pilot of AMC's much-hyped zombie show, The Walking Dead. Other lessons included: turn out the lights, never turn your back on a gunman, and aim for the head. Directed by series creator and executive producer Frank Darabont, the premiere delivered a near-perfect blend of action, atmosphere, and emotion. Not to mention: it looks gorgeous. Darabont is well-known to film buffs as the director of movies like THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and THE MIST, and the series looks and feels like something you'd catch at a multiplex rather than from the comfort of your living room. With true cinematic talent comes cinematic sensibilities, and the pilot episode provided us with a heavily nuanced and profound look at life in a post-apocalyptic world.
“NO GAS” reads a sign in the opening scene as a police car driven by our hero pulls into an abandoned station. It seems like a rather redundant statement to make, since in the post-apocalyptic environment of The Walking Dead, there isn’t much of anything. He encounters a young girl wandering among empty cars, only to discover what anyone familiar with the show's premise already expected: she's a zombie, eager to feed on his flesh. And so, the series kicks off with a literal bang, as Rick shoots a formerly-adorable little girl right between the eyes. Cue the opening credits, and we're off.
I told you to clean your room!
Speaking of the credits, it'd be remiss of me not to at least briefly mention the score by Bear McCreary, which manages to set the mood of the show without feeling overbearing and distracting. Forget the epic, sweeping musical motifs of shows like Battlestar Galactica or Caprica. The music in The Walking Dead is much more understated and never draws attention to itself (McCreary has posted a remarkably in-depth look at his process for crafting the score here). In fact, some of the more suspenseful scenes (including the one in the hospital) occur entirely in silence, which adds to the sense of realism and makes them even more terrifying. Music, while it can often intensify the emotions present in a scene, can also act as a comforting presence that subtly distances the audience from what they're watching and takes the edge off moments that would otherwise be too horrific for them to endure. Darabont realizes this, and only incorporates a score when it won't get in the way.
The title theme.
The second scene reveals that the opening was actually a flash-forward. The world is still zombie-free for the time being, and Rick is - surprise, surprise - a real cop. He's on patrol with his partner Shane, and they're doing what many friends do: complaining about their spouses. Some critics have said that this scene drags on for too long, and it does. But it's also a painstakingly crafted conversation, in which Darabont not only establishes the strong bond between Rick and Shane but also foreshadows the horror that is soon to come. Shane can't stop complaining about how his wife always leaves the lights on, even though she's an environmentalist obsessed with saving energy. The irony is that in a few weeks, he’ll probably do anything for a small amount of electricity. When the world goes to hell, the true pettiness of problems that used to cause major disagreements will be easily apparent. He also references global warming, a subtle nod to the fact that zombie films are usually very similar to natural disaster movies. Later shots of deserted cityscapes and dilapidated buildings wouldn't seem out of place in the post-disaster context of a Roland Emmerich film, or on CNN after a Katrina-style catastrophe.
"I'd never say anything so cruel!" Rick declares, referencing an argument he had with his wife, Lori. The “we're-better-than-our-wives” subtext of the conversation will most likely be contradicted by the end of the first season. After all, when your life is potentially at risk, cruelty might be justified as self-defense. What kinds of things will Rick have to do in order to survive? In a society with no government, do moral codes and principles even matter anymore? Though some might feel it drags down the episode, I have a feeling that when viewed in the context of the entire first season this opening conversation will have more artistic purpose than might first appear.
During a showdown with some bad guys, Rick gets shot. Thankfully, the bullet is stopped by his vest. Unfortunately, just as he turns to reassure Shane that he's okay, a third gunman pops out and blasts him in the back. It's a nice little indicator by Darabont that this isn't going to be the kind of show where we can all rest easy with our problems solved. Just when it looks like things are fine, they might actually be about to get worse.
In one of the most brilliantly-edited sequences of the episode, Rick opens his eyes in the hospital to see Shane standing over him with flowers, wishing him well. Darabont cuts to a close-up of Rick as he speaks back, quite clearly for someone who supposedly just got shot. There's no reply. He looks to his right to find the flowers that Shane just gave him wilted and dying. Weeks have passed, and like Rick, we're just as surprised to discover how much time has gone by. As with the transition from the opening scene to the past, Darabont provides us with no visual cue that we're flitting back-and-forth through time. There is no dramatic fade out and fade in, no "Three Weeks Later" title that appears at the bottom of the screen. And why should there be? In a society overrun by zombies, where every moment is a struggle to survive, time in a linear sense doesn't matter anymore. Past, present and future all fuse together and are simply the Now. Knowing what day it is isn't exactly a top priority.
Time has stopped.
The second act of the episode revolves largely around fellow survivor Morgan and his son Duane, who knock Rick unconscious before offering him food and shelter. In a callback to the opening conversation between Rick and Shane, Morgan explains that they have to keep the lights low in order not to attract the zombies. Anyone who gets bitten turns into one of them, and they like to come out at night. In the morning, Rick goes with Morgan to take care of the stragglers. “We’re sure they’re dead?” he asks. “They’re dead,” Morgan confirms.
But are they? These are not the rabid, mindless animals of films like 28 DAYS LATER and Zack Snyder’s DAWN OF THE DEAD. The zombies of The Walking Dead are more in the vein of Romero’s original 1968 NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD – they shamble around looking for food and are easy to avoid in small numbers. Yet Darabont goes even further than the original comics in establishing them not merely as enemies to be feared, but as diseased humans to be pitied. Thanks in part to the detailed makeup work of Greg Nicotero, the zombies express genuine emotion. They aren’t angry or intentionally antagonistic, they’re just lost and hungry creatures with hints of sadness in their eyes. Their bodies may have died, but there still appears to be some remnant of a soul left behind.
The child in the opening scene reaches for a teddy bear. Morgan’s wife approaches the house and tries to open the door, as if she remembers the normalcy of her old life. Are these purely biological impulses caused by behavioral programming in the brain, or do they indicate the presence of real intelligence? In a moment so slight one could easily miss the implications, the zombie in the park reaches out an arm towards Rick as he points his gun at her head. Is this a grab for food, a gesture of self-defense in the face of impending death, or a thankful cry for release? In a strange twist, it seems the most complex characters of the series so far are the zombies themselves, rather than their living counterparts.
Though Morgan claims to know for certain that these people are just the walking dead and nothing more, deep down he realizes it isn’t that simple. As Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out in his review of the episode, zombie films have often been metaphors for euthanasia, and “Days Gone Bye” takes that theme and runs with it. After he sees Rick mercy kill an infected fellow officer – “Didn’t think much of him, but I can’t leave him like this,” he says – Morgan retreats upstairs and takes aim at his undead wife. In the most emotionally-charged scene of the episode, Darabont intercuts his struggle to pull the trigger with Rick’s decision to find the woman in the park and put her out of her misery. Morgan can’t do it, and it’s hard to blame him. Though Rick has no problem shooting strangers or acquaintances, one wonders if he’d be able to “pull the plug” on his wife and son if they were ever bitten.
Taking care of business.
Darabont is used to working in enclosed, tight spaces, whether it's the prisons of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and THE GREEN MILE or the cramped and crowded grocery store of THE MIST. He treats the pilot episode of The Walking Dead no differently. Though it takes place in multiple locations, including open outdoor environments, there's a genuine sense of claustrophobia enveloping all the proceedings. The hallways of the hospital are narrow and blocked by overturned obstacles and dead bodies. A stairwell is shrouded in darkness that visually engulfs Rick multiple times. Even outside, as Rick wanders a post-apocalyptic landscape, Darabont frames things in a way that feels oppressive. The promo shot that finds him on a horse trodding slowly towards a city skyline without a soul in sight places him between symmetrical lines of the road, with abandoned cars blocking escape on the left, railroad tracks on the right, looming skyscrapers ahead and glowering clouds above. The dominant tone of the cinematography is one of entrapment; this is not a nightmare that one can escape, and even in the open air death could be just around the corner.
The episode frequently invokes this theme by having characters look directly into the camera. Not only are they trapped in a world overrun by zombies - or in the case of the zombies, a soulless existence - but they're physically trapped by the limitations of the film frame itself. With nowhere to turn, they reach for the only possible route to freedom available to them: the real world, outside the television. When Morgan's wife stares unblinkingly into his eyes, she isn't just looking at him, she's looking through the screen at us. She gazes out of her tv prison and into our living rooms, an expression of torment on her face as if to say, "Why am I like this? Why can't I come be with you in your world, where things are still normal?"
This visual meta-text is no more clearly communicated than in the film's final act, which finds Rick on horseback riding towards Atlanta. With his cowboy hat on, he’s the spitting image of a Western hero, riding ominously into a town overrun by bandits. Darabont edits the climactic scene in a way that rapidly transforms the supposed freedom of the open air into a prison-like environment. Blocked by buildings on either side, Rick rounds a corner and straight into a herd of dozens of zombies. They advance, leaving him nowhere to turn but backwards, but that path too is quickly blocked by a wall of flesh-eaters. Note the cinematography in this scene, which acts as a visual representation of his predicament. With the exception of an ever-so-slight zoom out when he first encounters the horde of zombies, the camera always either stays the same distance away from him or zooms in closer, refusing to allow him (and by extension, us) any more room.
His horse is overtaken and pulled into the mass of starving zombies, and he crawls under an abandoned tank, trapping himself even further. The camera zooms in, visually leaving him with no open space to move, and it’s at this point that Darabont delivers what could very well be the single most important shot of the entire episode. The camera is close on Rick's face. He looks forward and back, at both the unseen threat of the zombies off-screen and at the literal boundaries of the frame. He is stuck. Neither the zombies nor the camera itself offer any route of escape. With nowhere to go, he raises his gun to his temple, and it's here in his most desperate hour that he finds freedom. He looks above him and, with a look of epiphany on his face, seemingly reaches through the screen into our world. For a split second the fourth wall is broken, and he appears to literally be escaping from tv land into the real flesh-and-blood universe of you and me. But then, the camera pulls back, and we suddenly realize he’s pulled himself through an open hatch into the tank – trading one confined space for another. Darabont's message is clear: though for the moment Rick has found salvation, it isn't real freedom. The only way to truly escape the horrors of The Walking Dead is to break through the glass of a television screen. When a camera traps you in a nightmare, the only way to wake up is to smash the camera.
And so, by the end of “Days Gone ByE,” the dominant theme of the series has been established: there is no escape. All future subplots will likely extend outwards from this central truth. Even if Rick escapes the tank, he can’t escape the reality to which he awoke in the hospital. Death is no longer a sure release; do it wrong, and you’ll just resurrect. Most of our lives are spent comforted by the knowledge that somewhere, somehow, there’s a solution to our problems. There’s a pill we can take, a candidate we can vote for, a country we can run to, or a friend to which we can turn. What happens when we’re confronted with an incurable disease, the government is gone, the whole world is engulfed in chaos, and family and friends are (un)dead? Do old institutions, moral and otherwise, matter? Are they even still practical?
A voice on the other end of a radio receiver is small consolation when compared to the scope and gravity of the situation. Even if Rick finds other survivors, what guarantee is there they'll be able to successfully live in this new and dangerous world? Especially when a single bite is all that's needed to end a relationship? The only small glimmer of lasting hope Darabont provides is the reflection of a passing helicopter. Until we find out more about who’s piloting it and where it’s headed, it seems like this is a trap from which there is no escape.
Andrew Johnson is the host of DeadChatter, a new podcast dedicated exclusively to discussion and analysis of The Walking Dead.