Note that there are plenty of SPOILERS in the stuff below.
Alex SaysThe first season of The Walking Dead was not the zombie apocalypse series I had always imagined in my head. Of course it wasn't. This is a show based on a comic book property, which itself has been reworked a great deal by the hands of Frank Darabont and his writing team (which, apparently, now no longer exists). My vision of the zombie apocalypse will never measure up to another's, and I'm A-OK with that. Above all else, I was just excited as hell to see some zombies on TV.
In reality, I got much more than that. While I have read a good chunk of Kirkman's comic book series, I can't say I'm die-hard fan of the books. What I did take away from the issues I've read is that Kirkman has two central narrative tenets he sticks to: The human drama comes before the zombie drama, and if it serves the storyline, anyone can die. The first of those tenets remained front and center in the first season of the show, with an almost laserlike focus on the plight of Rick and the survivors over copious amounts of zombie action.
Still, what zombie action we did get was largely impressive. Darabont's zombies are some of the scarier undead walkers I've seen in TV or movies to date. Their gray pallor, snarling, brainless expressions, and frequently blood-soaked faces (that one zombie that was eating the deer...yikes) are nothing short of fucking terrifying, and the amount of guts and gore Darabont and crew were able to get away with splaying across the screen was deeply, deeply satisfying.
Atlanta to find his wife and son; Lori and Carl's attempts to deal with the grief of having lost Rick, and eventual readjustment to having him back in their life; Shane's tattered relationship with Lori after the return of Rick, and subsequent depression and rage about the situation; Andrea's relationship with her sister, and the grief that comes from losing her; Morgan and his son holed up in that house, with Morgan seemingly trapped inside until he can finally put his wife's zombified corpse down; the endless array of unpleasantries surrounding Merle and Daryl...all this stuff was established and evolved over the course of just six episodes, yet nearly all of it managed to stick in a way that most shows can't quite pull off in 13, or even 24 episode runs.
Anyway, I've made my thoughts well-known across the site about the previous episodes in the series. Suffice it to say, I echo many's sentiments that the pilot is one of the best episodes of TV ever produced, and that the follow-up episodes, though a bit more hit-or-miss in overall quality, have kept the storyline moving ably. I grew to know and care about these characters quite a bit, which made me believe that Kirkman's second law was bound to come into play in the final episode. Evidently not!
The finale offered up one thing that all good dramatic series about despair and survival should: It built up our characters, only to bring them crashing back down. After arriving at the CDC offices and meeting the mysterious Dr. Jenner, the survivors experience the amenities of life they'd almost entire forgotten about. Good food, books, air conditioning, hot showers, all the stuff you take for granted, until the undead come knocking. Then, of course, it all has to go to shit, though not in the way I'd expected. I'd theorized that Jenner, being the last remaining CDC scientist, would infect the survivors in the hopes of getting fresh test subjects to work with. Instead, the reality proved much, much more depressing.
Jenner laid out for the survivors the one thing that I think we as an audience all knew, but the show had yet to confirm: It's not just this region that's been devastated by the infection, nor is it just the United States. The entire world is gone, society at large has fallen complete apart. There is nowhere for them to go, no safe haven to find. That leads Jenner to his breaking moment, where he opts to lock everyone inside the CDC offices while a countdown clock ticks off to eventual "decontamination." The details of how that works are complicated, but Jenner summed it up best: "It sets the air on fire..."
I agree with some sentiments that years of watching LOST has left people spoiled on the notion that seasons should end with cliffhangers. Hell, even Breaking Bad essentially ended on a cliffhanger this season. The Walking Dead ended with a Bob Dylan song, and the survivors riding off into the sunset in more or less the same despairing situation they were in to begin with. Sure there are still questions to be answered--chief among them being the whereabouts of Morgan and son, and what Jenner whispered in Rick's ear right before they left. It wasn't a jolty, action-packed ending, nor did it leave me hanging on the edge of my seat, but then again, this isn't that kind of show. It never has been, and I hope it never becomes that. Cliffhanger or no, I can't wait to see where the survivors end up next year.
Rorie SaysWhile The Walking Dead got a lot of buzz as a comic, it's easy to forget that it's never exactly been a huge best-seller. Sales of any individual issue hover around the 25,000 mark, which is fine for a comic but is still essentially a rounding error when compared to the five million or so people that watch the television show, let alone the extra million or two that catch it on DVR or downloads. As such, Frank Darabont inherited a dream of a property for someone looking to adapt something to television: something that has both name recognition but relatively little real recognition, meaning that you can do pretty much what you want to with it without inspiring the rabid reactions that you might get when you start mucking around with a Buffy reboot (as an example).
Indeed, what surprised me about this first season of The Walking Dead was how big of a change that Darabont actually made to the comic storyline. That was kind of an open question going into the season, whether or not he'd stick to the script laid down by the comic or not, and the first episode made me think that he might be relatively faithful, but then the show veered off into its own timeline with multiple trips to Atlanta and the CDC. It's hard to judge the changes with only a few episode to work with, but the season finale definitely felt a bit...different than what had come in the comics. It's easy to dismiss big explosions as a television conceit, but then, we're talking about a comic series that had human/zombie gladiator arenas set up at one point, so setpieces aren't exactly new to the property.
What am I hoping for next season? While I doubt that Rick Grimes will ever lose his hand, I would love for the show to take a more dangerous turn, impressing upon us that anyone can die at any time, with little warning and little regard for their "importance". I would dig a more Oz-like feeling to the show, with characters getting picked off by walkers with a bit more regularity. As a rule of thumb, I think a member of the tribe should die every episode; call it Survivor: The Walking Dead if you like, but one of the hallmarks of zombie fiction is the sudden infection, the death out of nowhere, the foreboding sense of being unsafe, preferably as a result of a lapsed attention span (night watch falling asleep, etc.) and not the sudden and inexplicably undetected appearance of a horde of zombies as happened this season. I need to see more of that from The Walking Dead. Hopefully the second-season sojourns of the troupe will feel a bit more desperate.
Where genre godfather George Romero has used the zombie apocalypse as a springboard to social commentary, the hallmark of The Walking Dead has been its ongoing theme of maintaining one's humanity in the most inhumane of circumstances. This is something that some zombie films have touched upon, but none ever had the benefit of a multi-hour time span in which to tell that story. Each week the survivors were faced with hard moral choices, and when these moments were done well, you were right there with them thinking "Man, what would I do in that situation?" This was something that, for me, had made Battlestar Galactica one of the best series to date, and not since that show has anything been able to so effectively capture my attention so personally, until now.
Darabont was incredibly wise to keep the zombie shootout action to a minimum in this 6-episode run. If every episode involved the gang fighting off the horde and getting to a safe room, viewers would be turning off the show and booting up Left4Dead. I know that that lack of action, in a genre from which we've been trained to expect nothing else, was a turn-off for some viewers, but it was a crucial design choice for this story. For a show to achieve real success and longevity, it needs to get you into the minds of its characters and interested in their relationships, regardless of what crazy scenario is playing out in the plot.
Despite only having 6 episodes in which to do it, Season One told an incredibly detailed story. Given who is still alive after last night's finale, we know a great deal about most of these characters' motivations and intentions. This should allow Season Two to really hit the ground running. I do hope Morgan Jones will rejoin Grimes and become a regular. I'm interested to see where the survivors go from here, and whether Jenner's whispered secret to Grimes leads them to some place better.
Godoski SaysPutting it simply, I thought season one of The Walking Dead ended just as strongly as it began. I’m going to start off by going through a few moments I really enjoyed in the episode.
- The opening tease… what a fantastic sequence. By showing us that Shane really did go back to the hospital to save Rick and only left because he thought he was dead gives the audience a point of empathy for Shane that really adds a new layer to what’s going on in the present.
- I'm a huge fan of the opening credits. And I love Bear McCreary's score.
- I thought there was a really amazing moment when everyone gets to take a hot shower for the first time, which was also a little call back to the pilot. I always enjoy stuff like this, because so often we take for granted all the luxuries we have in life until they’re taken away from us… like sex in a shower.
- Loved the scene with a drunk Grimes talking to Dr. Jenner. People forget that heroes are still humans with the same fears as you and me. Everyone’s always scared. Some people just hide it a lot better.
- Shane almost raping Lori was another really powerful scene.
- “Man, I’m gonna get shit faced drunk again.”
- Here’s a quick writing tip, if you want to increase tension quickly and propel the story forward introduce a time lock. A good example is the countdown to the generators running out of fuel from this episode.
- Great setup and payoff with the grenade. I was wondering where it went.
I also really enjoyed the moment between Dale and Andrea when she tells him she's staying behind and want to use that to talk about the season in general. A lot of people felt there was a drop off in quality after the pilot. This may have been partially true, but in TV you have to spend a lot of time setting up relationships, especially in the first season. If you don’t, you can’t have powerful moments like the one between Dale and Andrea last night. That’s just how storytelling works in serials like this. I remember I didn’t really get hooked on Mad Men until the season one finale. The emotion in that episode was overpowering, because everything had been leading up to that point and kind served as one big setup for the finale. The middle episodes of The Walking Dead may not have had inherent drive and tension that the pilot and finale possessed, but they were crucial to setting up characters and relationships that will give us rich storylines and moments in season two.
In that same respect, as much as I liked this first season, I felt like there was a missed opportunity by reuniting Rick with his family so quickly. I would have preferred this to play out a little longer so the tension could have built up to an unbearable point. I also believe this is partially to blame for audiences feeling as if there was a downswing in the middle of this season. It’s kind of like the sexual tension between Mulder and Scully in The X-Files. If they get together right away, the tension is gone and the series loses something. Rick’s only goal was to find his family. I felt like he got there too easily.
But, I am really looking forward to season two. People are going to debate what Dr. Jenner whispered to Rick for months. I’m not even going to lay down any of my guesses, but I am very curious to see what was really said. I will admit, however, that all this talk about not having a writing staff for season two scares me. The turnaround on scripts for television is usually one week. You have a staff for that very reason. With such little time, you’d rather have a group of writers working together to solve story problems as opposed to just one head. That’s also why TV writing has become so good of late, because there’s a team of talented storytellers putting the season together in one room. I do believe Frank Darabont is an extremely talented individual, but running a full season of a show like this is already a lot of work. Writing staffs have been around a long time for a reason. Hopefully, it all works out.
Pinchuk SaysI remember Kirkman saying in an interview sometime back that he actually welcomed deviations. He figured they’d make the show more interesting to longtime readers, since they wouldn’t be seeing a rote, beat-for-beat translation of a story they’d already read. Hell, they might be even been surprised. He had the right thinking because, even though I knew certain characters were going to live, I still seriously thought they were going to bite it in this episode and that's a hard-to-achieve tension for any kind of story.
Darabont’s had a close association with Stephen King for the majority of his career and Noah Emmerich’s character felt very much like a King villain. When it comes to genre stories, I think the greater temptation sometimes is to make the villains too charming; too “love to hate ‘em.” But King’s villains? They’re genuinely-repugnant creatures. You don’t ever root for them, you’re disgusted by their worldview, you’re agitated when they succeed and you want them out of the picture as soon as they show up.
That is, they’re like the real “villains” in your life.
Some people might be miffed about the out-of-nowhere “surprise” Emmerich throws at the survivors here and the deliberate, almost monotonic, way he speaks to them. I think I was too, until I stepped outside the situation a little and realized that all made for a better heel. His passive aggression, overall bad people skills and arrogance about knowing what these survivors really wanted (as if it were a logic problem) honestly reminded me of some of the worst traits of science types I know.
The digital squibs still look ridiculous, but I think this was a good finale. I’m sure Rick Grimes is going to be flashing back to it during many dark moments over the series; moments when he’ll wonder if it would’ve been better to die quickly instead of suffering years of hard desperation. The whispered message is probably going to come up, too, though likely sooner than later. Without spoiling much, the blood test Emmerich mandated likely revealed something mighty important about the Rick-Lori-Shane love triangle.
Further ReadingCheck out our writeups for the previous The Walking Dead episodes here:
Season Premiere, Episode 2, Episode 3, Episode 4, Episode 5.