The Walking Dead - Season 1 Review - Part 1: "Origin of The RV Gang"

With the Season Two premiere of the The Walking Dead coming up tomorrow night, it's time to review the short, spectacular first season of AMC's zombie series.  Rather than take last season episode by episode (as I'll be doing for all of Season Two), I'll cover the two main story arcs from last year, which we'll call "Origin of The RV Gang," followed by "The RV Gang Hits the Road."

"Days Gone Bye" - Episode 1.1

Much has been made of the exit of series developer and Season One showrunner Frank Darabont, before the start of Season Two, but I would argue that Darabont's exit may be the best thing for helping The Walking Dead have a long life as a television series.  Darabont's most impressive credits come from the movies -- and rest primarily on The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile -- and he did an amazing job in crafting the first episode, "Days Gone Bye."  The pre-apocalypse scenes with Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal) -- particularly the long conversation about relationships as the two sherriff's deputies talk about their relationship problems -- create the heart of the dramatic questions that will dominate the primary character's lives for much of the first season. Shane's got little patience for the woman in his life; Rick's got nothing but frustration with his own family of Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and Carl (Chandler Riggs), but he still loves them.  From that point, the action picks up as Rick and Shane rush to set up a roadblock to help in a high-speed police chase.  The criminals are stopped, and ultimately taken down, but Rick is badly injured in the shootout and ends up in a coma.

Many weeks later, Rick wakes up in a hospital.  The power is out, the building in complete chaos, and there are unnerving signs of bloody, gory struggles around every corner.  Rick manages to find his way outside, where he staggers past hundreds of bodies laid out in the hospital parking lot, past a crashed helicopter, eventually making his way back to his house, which is deserted.  Andrew Lincoln's performance as a man struggling to comprehend what exactly has happened to the world is movingly painful, and he's all but given up as he moves back out into the street, where, before he can be attacked by a walker, he is saved and then rendered unconscious by Duane Jones.  Duane and his father Morgan (Lennie Jones) have been holed up in a neighborhood home, unable to move on, as the now zombified Mrs. Jones is hanging around.  The Joneses get Rick into better shape, explain the basics of the zombie apocalypse.  Rick takes the Joneses back to the Sheriff's Department building for supplies -- including plenty of guns -- and they part ways.  Rick gives Morgan a radio, and suggests they try to keep in touch, as Rick's going to try to reach Atlanta to find survivors.  In what for me was the most tragic scene in the whole series, Morgan takes to an upstairs window, scoped rifle ready, knowing that he has to take out his zombie-wife before he can move on, but breaking down again and again, unable to pull the trigger.

Rick, in the meantime, works his way through a series of horrors,finally arriving in Atlanta on horseback (as gasoline is scarce), but not encountering any zombies until he reaches the skyscraper-dense downtown, and when he does, it's terrifying.  Rick rounds a corner and there are a hundred zombies coming at him; his horse panics, throwing Rick and his big bag of guns to the street.  While the horse is torn apart by the hordes of walkers, Rick scrambles under an abandoned National Guard tank, and pulls himself up through the bottom hatch to safety.  In one last "Yikes!" moment, a zombified solider almost grabs Rick, but has the top of his skull blown off.  Rick finds a pistol with a few rounds in it, and a single grenade, but escape seems impossible, as walkers have been drawn directly to the tank by all the commotion.  Then a voice comes over the radio: Hey you, dumbass. Yeah, you in the tank. Cozy in there?"

There's so much to admire in this first episode, which feels much more like a movie than a television series -- right up until the twist in the final ten minutes.  Darabont's script and direction borrow much from Robert Kirkman's initial issues of the comic book, right down to very specific images -- most notably the wide shot of Rick on horseback clip-clopping down in the interstate into Atlanta.  Enough can't be said in praise of Andrew Lincoln's performance, which has to carry credibility and humanity almost every scene, most of them without the benefit of other actors.  At this point in his odyssey, Rick still dons his uniform and tries to serve the greater good.  At one point, he finds one particularly pathetic zombie who's been torn in half and can only drag herself weakly across the ground.  "I'm sorry this had to happen to you," says Rick, who then delivers a incapacitating bullet.  Not that viewers would know it at the time, but the great strength of this first episode lies in its loyalty to much of the material from the comics -- from the characters, to the dialogue, to the storyboarding.  The zombie makeup and, for lack of a better word, choreography is particularly gruesome and disturbing.

"Guts" - Episode 1.2

As strong as this second episode is, charging right into the action with Rick's escape from the tank with the assistance of Glenn (Steven Yeun), a former pizza-delivery boy whose intimate knowledge of the city streets is put to fine use by a character who, in the long run, will demonstrate a knack for tactics and logistics.  Glenn introduces Rick to the rest of his crew, all of them survivors from a camp outside the city who've come back to gather supplies.  Holed up in a department store, they are now unable to leave because of the disturbance created by Rick's streetside adventure.

The folks at the department store -- perhaps too many to give enough time to in a single episode -- are a cross-section of society: along with Rick and Glenn, there's the tough Andrea (Laurie Holdren), the "urban" T-Dog (IronE Singleton), the professional Jacqui (Jeryl Prescott Sales), the family man Morales (Juan Pareja), and, of course, the racist ex-con Merle (the awesome Michael Rooker).  There is some ugly business between T-Dog and Merle, whom Rick takes down and handcuffs to a rooftop pipe.  One problem solved, but how will the gang escape?

More time is spent at the survivor's camp outside the city -- barely shown in the premiere -- where we learn that not only has Shane saved his buddy Rick's wife and son, but that he and Lori have started an affair.  Among other camp-dynamics, the pragmatic retiree Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) is trying to supervise day-to-day operations and get his RV working.  Among the residents, the most despicable is Ed Pelletier (Adam Minarovich), a hulking, bullying jerk who most certainly beats up his weary wife Carol (Melissa McBride).

Meanwhile, back in the city, here's the plan.  The folks in the department store turn a zombie corpse into a pile of guts, which are then smeared on Rick and Glenn's clothing, so they can sneak their undead-smelling asses a few blocks away and grab a big panel truck that can get everybody home. Glenn gets to tear around the neighborhood in a hot-wired Dodge Challenger, alarm blaring, to draw the walkers away from the department store.  Rick rescues the gang in the store, and everyone takes off for the camp.  Merle is left on the roof to fend for himself -- zombies or not.

As much as I enjoyed the premiere, "Guts" is the episode that got me hooked.  Its profanity and gore, its twisted sense of humor, and the deranged, sweaty, gritty desperation of it all made for an hour of television that I had not seen the likes of before.  After having read the comics, I'm not so sure about the addition of some of the characters to the television series -- Merle especially seems to be a wasted effort, as great as Michael Rooker's performance is.  But, overall, the moral ambiguity and ugly side of humanity that any effective post-apocalypse narrative explores is fully at work in The Walking Dead.

"Tell It To The Frogs" - Episode 1.3

Within the zombie-apocalypse genre, you won't find too much time for the kind of character-development like you find in "Tell It To The Frogs."  I suggested that my wife start watching The Walking Dead, and we tuned in for this episode, much to her disappointment, as she's a hardcore horror fan.  I can understand now that, form time to time in the modern-day television serial -- like Lost or Battlestar Galactica -- there needs to be the occasional "getting organized" episode.  Here's what happens:

1) Rick is reunited with his wife Lori and son Carl
2) Lori and Shane discontinue their affair, much to Shane's frustration
3) Walkers appear to be encroaching more and more on the camp
4) Merle's brother Daryl is pissed that his brother's racist ass was left behind
5) Rick leads a team to go back to Atlanta to retrieve his bag of guns and to rescue Merle
6) Shane beats the living crap out of Ed
7) Rick's rescue party finds nothing but Merle's hand back at the spot where they left him.  Did Merle hack off his own hand and escape before the zombies got him?

What works best in this episode is what should work best -- a little more opportunity for the actors to develop their characters.  Andrew Lincoln as Rick, now reunited with his family, is awesome, as usual -- although his willingness to leave his wife and son to return to the city is a bit of a stretch.  Jeffery DeMunn infuses the rumpled Dale with a casual gravitas, and Norman Reedus, as the bitter, hard-edged Daryl Dixon is outstanding as well.  There is the sense that, with three writers on this episode's script, the series is looking for a narrative direction.  "Where do we go now?"  "Let's go back to the city!  It worked before!"  But this episode and the next are necessary to set up Rick as leadership material, Shane as a tormented potential back-stabber, and the other characters in their eventual more fully developed roles.

"Vatos" - Episode 1.4

This episode is important in terms of the production of The Walking Dead because it features a script by the writer of the comics series, Robert Kirkman.  To have Kirkman aboard as a viable member of the production team means that his original sense of the world and the characters will have some weight as the series continues.  The plot elements that continue to develop here -- Rick's rescue team discovers that Merle has in fact sawed off his own hard, escaped from the roof, and cauterized the stump of his arm; the big bag of guns is retrieved; and the growing presence of walkers at the survivor's camp -- are secondary to the elements that Kirkman adds.

The title is a Hispanic term, essential describing a gang, "vatos" meaning, "dudes in a gang."  As Rick and his gang are trying to get out of the city with their guns, Glenn is kidnapped by another gang, but not before Rick's grew grab a hostage of their own.  Essentially, Rick's gang and the "Vatos" have a showdown over who will get the guns.  Rick wins the standoff, and is smart enough to leave a few weapons behind, as the baddies aren't so bad after all.  These scenes develop a prominent theme in the comics, that of the emergence of self-sufficient gangs, each with its own distinctive style of survival and its own (a)moral code, is a crucial feature of life in the post-apocalyptic word.  When civilization has its reset button pressed, what might appear in the reboot will shock and surprise.

Rick and the others return to the camp just in time to battle an invasion of night-time walkers, during which the scumbag Ed and a few others die.  Andrea's sister dies, and is likely to turn into a zombie within a few hours. All of this apparently had been foreseen by a fellow named Jim (Andrew Rothenberg), who had been freaking out everyone with his obsessive digging -- of graves, as we now understand.  With this development, Kirkman also highlights a second premise of The Walking Dead world: staying put is very difficult, if not impossible, as the walkers are bound to find survivors sooner or later, as their numbers and sheer relentless nature make the discovery of the living inevitable.  Jim knows this, and he's going mad as a result.  If we're going to stay put, best to prepare for the inevitable.

And, with the setting and primary characters established, The RV Gang is in place, and The Walking Dead takes to the road as it moved toward the season finale.

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