Poetry in Motion – The Walking Dead: Season 1
I am not a zombie fan. Okay, well I should say I am not normally a zombie fan. Well, maybe, okay so I was not a zombie fan, but in the past few years there have been a handful of changes in the genre that have changed my thinking on those flesh eating creatures. As a vampire genre enthusiast, I should say that those brain munching fiends should go back to the graves from whence they came and allow my vampires to rule the world! But, with movies like Shaun of the Dead, the Dawn of the Dead remake and the upcoming Warm Bodies, I will admit that I have become intrigued. I did leave out one very important member of the pro-zombie movement, one that has had perhaps the biggest impact on my thinking: The Walking Dead, a show that I think has brought the zombie genre to a new height not only in popularity but in quality.
I just finished the first season of The Walking Dead, after hearing so many friends talking about it I finally gave in to the peer pressure we were told to avoid as kids. I would like to share with you my basic feeling on the season overall and then explain to you why I believe the pilot should go down in history as one of the best written, directed and acted pieces of television of all time.
– The Flow: The first episode sets up the show beautifully, the following three do a nice job of keeping up the pace and introducing us to the cast without overwhelming us with too much dialogue or exposition. The last three episodes veer off course and head down the generic path of the zombie genre, losing a bit of the elegance and special twist first introduced in “Days Gone By.” The final episode was a complete miss for me, we were taken into the purely scientific and lost a great deal of the realistic feeling I loved so much in the beginning, too much exposition, not enough realism. I can understand why the episode was necessary, to give us the true scope of the problem, the understanding of the disease but it just left me feeling like I was watching a completely different show.
– The Characters: The characters have a slight feel of stereotyping but not so much that I lost interest, the audience needs something to grasp onto until the characters can be fully fleshed out. There were a few standouts for me however, who really pulled me in and made me feel the realism in each episode: Shane, Morgan and Glenn. Although Shane is a deeply flawed person, who does some things that make him very unlikable I find him to be by far the most compelling one of the group. I sympathize with him, how he has been forced into situations but is still just a man who is being pushed past any normal breaking point. Morgan may be my favorite character and we only get to see him for a short amount of time, Lennie James does such a superb job in bringing this painful man to life that I really hope we see him again. We can see every emotion, every thought in Morgan’s head without him saying a word, James brings it all into his eyes and you can feel his pain. And then there is Glenn who could easily be written off as comic relief but I think he is so much deeper than that, he is having an absolutely normal reaction for a young man, using humor to handle the absurdity of it all. How would a teenager or young adult deal with a zombie apocalypse, honestly? There are moments when he says something funny, but it is in the appropriate moments, and then when horror truly strikes we see the true face of pain underneath, so he is so much more than just a forgettable joker.
– Realism: The one thing I really appreciate about this show is the way it gets me to believe that this is all real, all set in a real world. Sure it is about a zombie outbreak but there is never a moment when I forget that this is set in a real world, with real consequences, real reactions, real problems (except perhaps the final episode, but as I said I will let that slide for now). The characters are forced to deal with a world that is losing power, food shortages, sleep deprivation, and most of all death, and each of these are handled in such a way that I never once think that this isn’t real.
Okay, with all of that out of the way I would like to take you through the first episode, “Days Gone Bye,” as I see it, pointing out why it is a piece of cinematic poetry and not just a generic television premiere.
BEWARE from here on out there will be spoilers.
The opening scene is quiet, with no music, which allows for natural tension to build as there is nothing there to telegraph was will come next. When the sheriff comes across a little girl you are set up to feel calm, nothing could possibly happen to a little girl especially with an authority figure right there, this isn’t HBO. With a simple shot to the head the show starts you off on edge, wiping away all preconceived notions about what a show like this can do, will do. This short scene sets up the entire show perfectly, letting the audience know that not one is safe, not even a child.
The minimalistic style continues its poetry later on when Rick, our protagonist, wakes in the hospital, alone and abandoned. The passage of time is show to us, not told, the real key to this show, as we focus on the vase of flowers now dead and decrepit. There is no soliloquy about his feelings or his surroundings, Rick just reacts as perhaps anyone would to the growing scene of horror developing in front of him. We can read the signs of devastation from the perfect way the set is designed and highlighted, the camera continues to pull further back bringing more and more horrors into view, but we never have to hear unnecessary monologuing about how this is effecting Rick because it is all on his face. In the stairwell as he frantically searches for a way out, again we are hit with pure silence except for his breathing and his movements, only a lit match quickly dying illuminates the screen, again allowing for our minds to fill with natural tension. Will something happen? Something is going to jump out isn’t it? And then nothing, nothing happens, which in itself is a shock. But again it is all a setup as Rick stumbles outside and the camera becomes the narrator once again as it pans steadily outward revealing the piles of bodies, pure tragic poetry unfolding quietly before us. When Rick finally does speak in full it is painful to listen to, honest emotion, and a real reaction to all that he has witnessed, he asks the question any rational person would: Am I insane? Is this real? He crumples to the floor, pure devastation and agony forcing him to curl into the fetal position.
When he finally comes across another human it is the wonderfully portrayed Morgan and his son Duane, we don’t need to know their story to understand their pain, it is all there on their faces. Lennie James does a splendid job giving us all the information we need with just the small changes in his facial expressions and through his eyes. We only see this sad pair for a short amount of time but we feel for them instantly, which is not an easy task. Throughout this entire encounter we are again left to create the tension ourselves, minimal music just allowing for fear to rise steadily, as Rick has his first night with this new reality. A key moment here is when Morgan’s wife slowly ambles her way to the door and we focus on Rick’s eyes as he stares at the now moving door handle, with she break in, are we in for true terror? But once again no, our hearts forced to slow and for us to once again get into that false sense of security. Another moment here is when Morgan must finally give in and kill his wife, again no unnecessary inner debate voiced for the audience, just pain rising to the surface of his face, we understand without ever being told.
We leave Morgan and Duane, hoping to come across them again safe and sound someday. Rick goes off on his own and we get perhaps the most iconic image from the series, as he rides a horse along the empty lanes of Atlanta, the other side piled with cars, so that we know what is coming but Rick is none the wiser. We are left to on our own to create the tension again, as we try to predict all that is waiting for him in the city to come, but when he arrives it is nearly empty, another set up. As Rick sees the glimmer of hope in the flying helicopter we are also starting to believe that maybe he will get by unscathed, but then pure shock hits us as he rounds the corner and a massive horde is waiting. All we can exclaim is “OH F*CK!” and scream at our televisions for Rick’s sake. Now, two things can tell you if a film or television show is going to be unforgiving and horrific, and they are killing a child and killing an animal, so when the nice horse gets ripped apart we can fully understand how far this show will take us.
In the final scene, after seeing absolutely grotesque imagery, we are again alone with Rick as he has come full circle, abandoned and alone now inside of the tank. Without a single word we understand what he plans to do next, how the reality shock has perhaps driven him to complete desperation, as he is alone and has to face either torture outside or a simple death by his own hand, and no one could possibly argue with him at this point. And then just as we think he is going to end his pain once and for all, a voice echoes around him, not an encouraging loving one either, but an irate caller pointing out how stupid our protagonist is.
The real reason I would say that this first episode should be considered one of the greatest pieces of television history is because of how quiet it is, how it treats its audience with respect and allows for natural feelings to ebb and flow. For a zombie show, really any show, to hit every layer of human emotion, to smack us one minute with horror and in the next calm us, and yet make us want more is truly rare. The way the music and the camera are used reminds us that poetry can come in the visual form, not just through unnecessary dialogue.
I cannot wait to start season 2!