A single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
How many TV dramas have had better first episodes than The Walking Dead’s? Most television series should come with a pre-affixed warning label: “The pilot’s a little rough, but stick with it, the show gets better.” (Or even: “You’ll have to grind through the first season, but it’s worth it.”) But The Walking Dead arrived fully formed on AMC, on Halloween night of 2010. The premiere episode “Days Gone Bye” delivered 67 minutes of intimate human drama, pulse-pounding adventure, and literally jaw-dropping zombie horror. It was an immediate hit by the metrics that govern cable outlets, and in the years that followed, its audience would grow to rival and even outpace the major networks. It’s really only over the past year—since the controversial season six finale and season seven premiere—that the ratings have begun a pronounced decline. Even given that, the 11 million viewers per episode The Walking Dead averages lately remains pretty phenomenal.
Throughout its seven years of existence, though, The Walking Dead has been unusually embattled for a show that’s so successful. Based on writer Robert Kirkman’s Image Comics series, The Walking Dead was originally developed by The Shawshank Redemption writer-director Frank Darabont, who was responsible for that knockout pilot, and then continued on as showrunner through the six-episode first season and through the planning stages for the second season. Darabont was eventually fired, reportedly due to tussles with AMC over his bosses’ tight budgets and his own inexperience with managing a TV production. It probably didn’t help that critics compared much of the remainder of season one unfavorably to the debut. The Shield veteran Glen Mazzara took the reins until the end of season three, when he handed them over to Scott M. Gimple, who’s been in charge ever since. Gimple oversaw what’s widely regarded as the drama’s creative peak—the bulk of seasons four and five—but he’s also presided over the slide into nihilistic brutality that’s prompted some longtime fans to bail.
How different is The Walking Dead now from the one viewers first fell in love with? The cast is bigger, and the stakes are higher—from raw survival to the rebuilding of human society. But the basic storytelling approach of quiet creepiness and cruel shocks hasn’t changed much. It was evident even in the prologue to “Days Gone Bye,” where the protagonist Rick Grimes (played by Andrew Lincoln) is seen walking through the wreckage of a zombie apocalypse, where he finds a sad-looking little girl who turns out to be one of the undead. In the opening minutes of the series, Rick has to shoot a kid through the head. That was The Walking Dead’s overture.
After that opening jolt, “Days Gone Bye” flashes back to Rick’s past as a deputy sheriff in a small Georgia town, alongside his somewhat piggish best friend Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal). When Rick gets shot in the line of duty, he lapses into a coma, and wakes up to the devastation of the zombie plague. Darabont—who wrote and directed the episode, following the basic plot of Kirkman’s comic—generates a lot of tension from the hero’s confusion at a world that looks a lot like the one he knew, only with several surreal twists. Stacks of corpses and abandoned military equipment litter the campus of the hospital where Rick had been unconscious. Then there are the dead bodies that aren’t lying on the ground, but shambling through the streets, looking for living humans to munch on.
The heart of “Days Gone Bye” is in a long sequence where the still-wounded Rick is taken in and nursed back to health by Morgan Jones (Lennie James) and his son Duane, who fill Rick in on what happened while he was in the hospital, and explain how to handle these “walkers.” A good chunk of this episode is dialogue free, relying mainly on shots of the hero slowly making his way through a living nightmare. But the scenes with Morgan and Duane are calmer and more civil, and express some hope that humanity can endure. This has become the central tension of the series—that humans need to become stronger and more calloused to survive, but if they do so at the expense of any kind of moral social order, there’s not much that separates them from the flesh-eaters.
“Days Gone Bye” has a vivid look, thanks in large part to grainy 16mm film that resembles the dappled visual texture a 1970s drive-in movie. And Darabont builds the story masterfully, from the little digressions and conversations—which includes a brief trip to an encampment outside Atlanta where we learn that Shane is still alive, and that he’s taking care of Rick’s wife and son—to the way the scope of the disaster becomes more and more apparent. At first this episode is all about Rick, some zombies, and roadways blocked by abandoned cars. But right before the closing cliffhanger, the hero hops on a horse and rides into the city, where the handful of ghouls he’s faced before—and has tried to kill with some measure of compassion—turn into a relentless horde, devouring his animal and grabbing for him.
The way “Days Gone Bye” ends, with an overconfident Rick overwhelmed by monsters and facing certain death, represented the first of many cases where The Walking Dead has presented a glimmer of hope and then quickly snuffed it out. As great as this episode is, it’s also a superior example of what has at times made the series’ long-term prospects seem untenable. After a certain point, the characters have to stop running into dead ends, or else the story just keeps doubling back on itself, with diminishing returns.
Then again, in following this path, The Walking Dead’s writers are really just doing what every other “serious” TV show does these days. The Walking Dead frequently indulges in two of modern prestige drama’s worst traits: slow-drip storytelling, and mistaking nihilism for sophistication. The latter is the more pernicious. Very early on, this show developed a reputation as one where any character could die at any time, which has the desired effect of building tension within any given episode, but which over time has become something of a drag to watch. The relentless despair of The Walking Dead goes beyond the conventions of dramatic catharsis, and becomes almost like punishment. Ultimately, we have to start asking what we’re hoping to derive from watching, and what the writers are trying to tell us.
The Walking Dead’s frequent contemplations of what it means to be “strong” or to be a “leader” keeps coming down to whomever can be the most callous, and who can kill without compunction. I’ve lost track of how many times The Walking Dead (and Fear The Walking Dead) characters have walked up to a skilled zombie-slayer and asked, “How’d you learn to do that?” and “Can you teach me?” These shows treat pulling the trigger of a gun as though it were some arcane skill that only the best of the best of us can even utilize, let alone master. That faith in violence above all other action can be discomfiting.
To some extent, The Walking Dead is just trying to be matter-of-fact about the world it’s depicting, by exploring the ironies and tragedies of an extreme survival situation. Retweets don’t necessarily equal endorsements, in other words. But over the years The Walking Dead has also fallen into a dreary rut with its story arcs, where again and again the kindly and the compassionate get murdered and/or eaten, while the assholes thrive. The bad guys eventually get some kind of comeuppance, but rarely in a way that suggests that their fundamental philosophy is wrong. No one gets to be the boss on this show by being a capable farmer—even though that’s probably a better contribution to rebuilding the Earth than hardening into a remorseless killer.
I’ve been writing about The Walking Dead’s past few seasons for Rolling Stone, and while I still like the show, I do wonder quite often what point it’s trying to make, and whether it’s one I would support if I were talking it out with a buddy at a bar. It wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for me if The Walking Dead’s writers and I didn’t see eye to eye on the way the world works. I have no problem with art that makes abhorrent arguments, so long as the art and the arguments are engaging. But I know that others feel otherwise. So I asked several critic friends of mind for their thoughts on what they think is at the core of the Dead message, and whether it’s changed since “Days Gone Bye.”
Zack Handlen, who’s been writing about the show for The A.V. Club since season two:
To me, the fundamental drive of TWD has always been the cost of surviving in a new world where aspects of the human character that used to be viewed as assets—kindness, mercy, empathy—are now liabilities. I’ve struggled with the show the most when it leans into this message the hardest, treating any effort at building relationships between people as an invitation to suffering and painful death. Because ultimately, you can’t have a story (especially not an on-going television show) without relationships, and the sadism of watching characters learn a painful lesson that you know they’ll have to forget in a week or two is a dead end dramatically and morally. I’ve appreciated how the show has tried to provide more nuance to this in recent seasons, and I do think the changes in creative teams have been a factor. There’s a lot about TWD as it is now that doesn’t really line up with the first couple of seasons, in a positive way, and the on-going development of more complex characters like Carol and Morgan has offered some alternative perspectives from Rick’s endless, doomed bravado. But I’m not sure the writers will ever entirely escape the nihilism that lurks at the narrative’s core. Like the singularity of a black hole, it’s a point from which no light can ultimately escape.
Alan Sepinwall, who covered The Walking Dead for HitFix (before the site was bought by Uproxx), but quit watching and reviewing after the season six finale:
The show’s philosophy has always been muddled. There have been times when the show takes the side of relative pacifists like Hershel or Morgan and suggests that, as Rick famously declared in the comics, it’s the people who have become the monsters now. But there have been more times where the show views anything less than extreme vigilance and protectiveness of your people as the height of idiocy in the zombie post-apocalypse. And, really, you can boil down what the show believes to these four words: “Rick is always right.” Anything or anyone who comes to disagree with him, or that theory, is ultimately treated as a fool, a villain, or both. In a way, it’s the show becoming as overly protective of its main character as he is of the people in his group. I would also add that I think the series’ unwavering belief in the rightness of Rick has gotten amplified the more control Kirkman has had over the series.
The Walking Dead’s central philosophy is a kind of Darwinist nihilism, and the only thing that’s really changed over the years is the associated degree of regret. It’s probably accurate, if not especially sophisticated, to suggest that in the wake of a major catastrophe coupled with an ongoing threat, humanity would revert to its basic survival instincts, and most of what we know as society would go by the boards. But in the early seasons, that observation was cast as a tragedy, and over the years, it’s become more matter-of-fact. A character espousing lofty ideals is almost instantly marked for death. They’re not visionaries, they’re suckers. I’d already fully gone south on the show, but learning last year that Donald Trump’s campaign specifically targeted The Walking Dead’s audience really drove home the extent to which the show plays on ugly fears of “alien” invasion, and its tactic approval of the idea that it’s acceptable to jettison every principle in the name of survival feels actively dangerous and irresponsible now.
Todd VanDerWerff, former A.V. Club TV editor, now at Vox:
There have been times when I’ve found The Walking Dead one of the most vital shows on TV (namely the calendar year 2014—half of season four and half of season five—when the show essentially turned into an anthology drama set during the zombie apocalypse). There have been times when it frustrated me, but I still enjoyed it. And right now, I think, it’s largely a mess that misunderstands what made it promising in the first place.
The problem that’s easiest to point out is that the show is too beholden to the comics. It’s not a mistake that its two best single stretches of episodes came when it needed to write out a bunch of actors (many of whom were playing characters still alive in the comics) in one fell swoop, and in 2014, when it essentially turned the comics into whatever it wanted.
But I think another key promise and pitfall comes from the show’s ready embrace of what I’d call “traditional red state values,” and its unwillingness to examine those values. I’ve written a few times about how this is one of TV’s most (small-c) conservative shows. It’s really about the re-establishment of the American small town as the center of society, and how a small town is all that stands against the chaos of the outside world—in other words, a Western in the classical sense. And that’s great! That’s a flavor you don’t really get anywhere else on TV, and I think it explains both the show’s immense popularity (it’s one of the few shows watched rabidly in both blue and red America) and why its many imitators have never quite captured what make it popular (it’s not the zombies).
But the best TV shows constantly examine, undermine, and critique their value systems, even if they ultimately decide those value systems are worthwhile. And The Walking Dead doesn’t do that, which is especially galling when it comes to its main character. Every so often, the show will come to the cusp of saying that Rick has gone around the bend, or has lost it, or something else, but then in the very next episode, his primacy as the only true man in the wasteland will be reaffirmed, and we’re done with examining him as a character.
You’ll often hear that The Walking Dead has no good characters or something similar, but I don’t think that’s really true. The show has examined and picked apart Daryl and Carol and Michonne and even Carl at this point, and it’s found things worth building up about them and things worth criticizing them for. But it has almost never extended this treatment to its main character, who continues to have almost all of his character development performed by a hat. And at a time when a show that really examined the crumbling state of rural America in metaphorical terms could have more juice than ever, it’s only become more clear how unable The Walking Dead is to truly question itself.
I agree with a lot of what my friends have to say, and yet even if I wasn’t writing about The Walking Dead, I’m sure I’d still be watching it (unlike Fear The Walking Dead, which I bailed on almost as soon as I quit reviewing). I think that’s because I ultimately don’t demand that a show like this have anything coherent to say about humanity. It’s not that genre stories are inherently brainless. One of my top 10 movies of all time is George Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead, which is both a superb piece of fantasy/horror and a sly commentary on greed, privilege, and consumerism. But as much as The Walking Dead’s writers undoubtedly sit in their offices and contemplate the emotional arcs of their characters, their big hook will always be zombies. And on that very primal fright-and-flight level, the series still delivers.
As for the ridiculously incremental plotting, well, The Walking Dead is often one of TV’s worst offenders—but, to be fair, also one of the medium’s most innovative practitioners of narrative creep. For all the talk about contemporary television as art form that fuses the visual style of great cinema with the complex long-form storytelling of a novel, the truth is that a lot of the potential artistry of TV dies in the writers’ room. The demands of filling hours upon hours of airtime, week after week, can sometimes prompt creative solutions. More often, it’s anti-art, preventing writers and producers from serving their story in the way that a great novelist or filmmaker can.
Genre shows especially should be taking more of their inspiration from the likes of Elmore Leonard, who believed stories should start as late into the action as possible, rather than leaning on a lot of set-up. Modern television production would consider that wasteful. If a character has to travel a long distance to accomplish a task, that could be an episode. If something major happens in the plot, the next episode (or two, or three) could explore how it affects everybody. Nothing is elided. Even when a TV episode does start in the middle of something exciting, viewers have been trained to wait for the inevitable cut to a caption that reads something like, “Three hours earlier….” It’s not always super-important to rush a story ahead, especially given that a large part of the pleasure of television comes from hanging out with likable characters within the show’s inviting world. Still, a lot of what prestige TV series think of as vital information just isn’t. It’s time-wasting wheel-spinning, explained away as “thematic.”
The Walking Dead doesn’t always get due credit for how daring it’s been with that “use every part of the buffalo” philosophy. Convention (and contracts) often force TV dramas through a formulaic mill, where episodes purposelessly whip between all their major characters and locations, checking in with everybody so that certain moments are memorable but the episodes themselves often aren’t. The Walking Dead is willing—hell, eager—to devote entire episodes to only a couple of characters, on adventures that lead them someplace new. That’s all part of the legacy of “Days Gone Bye,” too. Aside from the one digression into Shane’s camp—for a scene that in retrospect doesn’t really fit with everything else—this episode is all about Rick’s awakening.
The narrow focus is rare for the first episode of a TV show, which traditionally tries to reveal as much of its world as possible, to hold the attention of the widest possible viewership. All The Walking Dead needed to win audiences over was one dude. But maybe it’s because the first episode did so well with such a limited perspective that this show has always been good (and popular), but has only been great in short stretches. At its best, for an hour or two or even for several episodes in a row, The Walking Dead can be as exciting and provocative as any Emmy-winning, list-topping show on television. Yet even “Days Gone Bye” graphically illustrates the limits of where a drama with this kind of story, characters, and philosophical underpinnings can go. Seven years later, Rick’s still slugging away, charging ahead into blind alleys, wrongly convinced that he knows all he needs to know to thrive.
Next time… on A Very Special Episode: The Untouchables, “The Rusty Heller Story”