The year of 2010 is the year that many hardcore fans of “The Walking Dead” were finally able to see their favorite comic book series come to life on the small screen with an incredible cast of actors. Free of clichés, free of science fiction doldrums and flash, fans who have stuck by the comic book series since the beginning were finally able to see their fantasies realized in an epic television series. And much like the comic book, every episode of the first season tested the fan’s devotions by completely twisting and mangling every sub-plot imaginable to the point where the band wagoners were shaken off and moved on to other things, while the true fans and new fans stuck by it.
Season one was comprised primarily of only six episodes, and this is likely due to the fact that a horror show about people surviving through the zombie apocalypse was a gamble. Let’s face it, no matter how much headway horror makes in literature, it will never be taken seriously. Robert Kirkman has turned his comic book series in to a brilliant zombie epic that was at first nodding to the classic zombie films, and then went off on its own path for greatness.
As someone who has been following the series by individual issues (I’m not one of those people who say “I’ll wait for the trade paperbacks!”), I can assure you that the show was tricky. Horror has a tough time being taken seriously, and regardless of Kirkman’s adult writing and sharp characterization, “The Walking Dead” as a TV show was a gamble. And it had every chance to fail. Any network could have turned the series in to a flashy action show like “Resident Evil” or just completely toned down the gore in favor of a PG-13 vision. But AMC Network rolled he dice and went for a score, and surely enough the series was welcomed with open arms with massive ratings and critical acclaim. But let’s be honest, when all is said and done, the ratings is what counts. Nothing else. And when season one came to end AMC had every reason to bring the show back. Season one consisted of six carefully written and drawn out episodes that tested the waters on every single episode. It introduced characters, it killed off characters, it left plot lines in the air–just in case they came back, and they effectively closed up the entire arc for the first season.
You know… just in case the show had rock bottom ratings and were greeted with a thud. That way AMC could end the show without any lingering questions, and they could insist it was primarily just a mini-series. But we know it’s coming back for a season two in October of 2011 and will have many more episodes than season one did. For better or for worse, “The Walking Dead” has been going off on its own tangent and it’s been a trying experience. For folks like me who have read every individual issue it was fantastic to see some of the great moments of the series come to fruition. Frank Darabont provided a wonderfully realized vision of Kirkman’s world in stark and gritty color, with a pilot movie that expanded on some things in the first three issues of the series, and reduced others. Rick’s awakening in the hospital in “Days Gone Bye” after the zombie apocalypse and his venturing in to the bowels of the abandoned medical building is a harrowing and horrifying experience to this day.
Darabont’s insistence on relying on stark silence to convey the graveyard atmosphere in this hospital is absolutely disturbing, and Rick’s stumbling on to signs of the carnage are incredible. Darabont improved on much of the first issue from Kirkman’s series by relying on subtlety. Kirkman had to sell his first issue for audiences to become a hit, so the first issue features Rick opening the doors to the cafeteria to see a horde of zombies feasting on human victims. It’s disgusting, nauseating and he manages to getaway by the skin of his teeth. Darabont instead opts for a much more subtle approach to where Rick stumbles on to the entrance of the cafeteria where he sees a warning to keep away and watches as mangle hands slide in through the crevices of the door. Rick knows there is something truly dangerous behind the doors, and he knows better than to investigate. Meanwhile to compensate for the lack of grue in the first half, Rick lays on a young girl in the dark hall of the hospital who has been eaten down to her skeleton with only her face in tact and looking up sleepily.
Not to mention to convey the extremity of this new world, the opening minutes feature Rick’s confrontation with an undead little girl he has to shoot down once she lunges at him. This is after she takes it upon herself to pick up her teddy bear when Rick spots her under a car. Another of the big moments from the comics is the reunion of Rick and his family to where a tearful reunion in the comics becomes one of the most heartbreaking television moments of the year in the episode “Tell it to the Frogs.” No matter how good a comic book is, if you have a proper cast, they can really launch it in to sheer fame, and the combined cast of Andrew Lincoln, Chandler Riggs, and Sarah Wayne Callie remains a truly gripping moment in the show considering Rick fought to get to safety. In the series Rick is found by Glenn in the middle of Atlanta, and Glenn helps him travail the rooftops to where they make it in to the woods to meet with his family. Here the series makes Rick earn his salvation in “Guts.”
The episode “Guts” does give us a better more complex look at key characters Andrea and Glenn, both of whom are perfectly portrayed by the fantastic Laurie Holden and Steven Yeun who is flawless as the reluctant hero of the group. Not to mention the episode was able to stage one of the more memorable scenes from the comics but with its own individual flavor. Rather than Rick and Glenn donning SWAT team outfits slapping guts on themselves to grab guns, Rick and Glenn slap guts on themselves with thin medical robes and have to venture in to the horde of geeks to find transportation to the Atlanta camp. Both variations end up being gripping since the introduction of the rain is one sick twisted joke from fate. All the while I commend Darabont for taking throwaway characters like Morgan and Dwayne in the first issues of the comic and expanding on their character transforming them in to parallel struggles for survival in the aftermath.
In the comics they were good characters but convenient plot devices. Darabont gave them their own survival arc, and many people are wondering where their fates lie. My dad continues wondering whatever became of them. I’m also a fan of the show turning Shane in to an actual complex person rather than making him in to a heel right away. Jon Bernthal’s unhinged erratic portrayal of Shane is superb, and he is a delightfully despicable human being with no scruples who seems to work under the delusion that no matter what he does, no matter who he hurts, he’s doing it for the better of his fellow survivors.
But we know he’s a selfish egomaniac incapable of making the right decisions. His insistence on staying in camp is clearly the display of cowardice, but to him he’s being heroic. Bernthal has turned Shane in to a three dimensional being and one who is given an admirably new plotline in the final episode where we see his last confrontation with Rick and his escape from the hospital. Even in the face of sleeping with his best friend’s wife, he is still convincing himself that he’s doing it for his own good.
I’m still not sure how I feel about Jim’s omen of the impending zombie siege if only because it’s a supernatural element that isn’t needed or shouldn’t have been added. The series has stuck to the realism as much as possible and Jim’s omen is nothing short of far-fetched. But I did enjoy the added elements that are sprinkled along every episode as a grim reminder of the character’s impending fates. If you watch the episodes, you can see the looming horizon of the city of Atlanta over the tree lines like a specter of death and it’s one of the more subtle and uncomfortable plot devices of the season. And who can forget the amazing episode “Vatos” where Rick and co. have to duke it out with a seemingly ruthless Mexican gang who take Glenn hostage.
Like every fan of the comic I initially hated the idea because there is no such sub-plot in the series. But prior to learning Kirkman wrote the episode, it ended up being a truly remarkable sub-plot that stuck true to the values of the Hispanic culture. And this entire episode led up to the massive zombie siege that was terrific in its chaos, and carnage leading to the death of character Amy. Anyone who read the comics knew Amy would eventually die, but it all became a matter of “When?” once we discovered the show was intent on being its own animal. I can still remember stirring at the news of the gorgeous Emma Bell playing Amy, but realizing that I shouldn’t get too attached because Amy does die. Her character’s death is crucial to the development of Laurie Holden’s character Andrea.
I won’t give away how, but it has to happen and it becomes yet another truly remarkable moment in the first season. After Amy is bitten over and over by invading zombies she basically withers away in her sister Andrea’s arms and the episode ends on the question “Does she turn?” Many people came to me wondering if she did indeed turn and after “Wildfire,” the series turned it in to a spiritual experience thanks to both actresses who are not only strong performers, but were very believable as sisters with a generational gap. Laurie Holden has proven time and again she can out-act most women in Hollywood, and her delivery at the sight of her dying sister is powerful and gut-wrenching. Everyone else’s families were relatively in tact, and Andrea was left alone in this new world. Emma Bell is a remarkable actress (if you were also blown away by her role in “Frozen,” as I was) and she proves it by turning the transformation of a living breathing being, in to a corpse, re-awakening as a different animal in to something of a compelling sequence.
The effects of the infection are very ambiguous and we’re never really told if the victims retain their memories, but we see with Amy’s transformation that the geeks do maintain some memory. Amy’s metamorphosis from sleepy eyed gaze, to recognizing and caressing her sister, to opening her eyes to this new state and then giving in to her urges trying to bite at Andrea mercilessly is an exploration in to the new form of grief in this world. Every character has to find a new way to grieve now that the people they love will eventually come back and begin snapping at them hungrily. But then the series has displayed some courage by trailing off on some sub-plots and introducing some new characters that were never in the series. Merle and Daryl Dixon are non-existent in the comic series, and here they both play a real significance. Michael Rooker is a good enough actor but his character is terrible, and in season one he added nothing but an excuse to bring Rick and co. back in to the Atlanta warzone for a confrontation with the Mexican caretakers.
There’s still no indication on what the series is going to do with Merle or where he even is. The assumption is that Merle stealing their truck and driving through the woods is what brought the geeks to the camp, but as Dale explained, the geeks were heading up to the camp more and more everyday for some reason. And Merle has added nothing to the show so far except to garner another job for Rooker who is a friend of Darabont’s. I’m still not sure how he could hotwire the truck, and drive it through the rail yard without passing by the camp in the woods. It’s another baffling plot hole. However, the introduction of Daryl is a refreshing change of pace. I admittedly hated the idea of Norman Reedus being integrated since I despised “The Boondock Saints” but he has managed to become an admirable anti-hero who is always on the verge of turning on his fellow survivors, but is also a pragmatist whose entire viewpoint of the geeks is realistic, logical, and sensible.
“Wildfire” is a mostly mixed episode because while it does revolve around Andrea waiting for her sister Amy to rise from the dead, it also hands us the big climax that introduces an element that was never given to readers in the comics. The Center for Disease Control. To this day I’m still not sure how I feel about this sub-plot. I can still remember seeing the ending of “Wildfire” where the group are let in to the Center for Disease Control and wondering if I hated it for its bold direction or loved it for its bold direction. Noah Emmerich’s character ended up being a shifty individual whose intentions toward the Atlanta survivors was questionable. Many expected him to infect one of the team to garner a fresh skin sample under the delusion he could find a cure, but thankfully “TS19” ended up avoiding all of the “Resident Evil” nonsense and instead focused on the important aspects of this scenario. Emmerich’s character Dr. Jenner is a man who finally realizes that the world is over. He has no solution. He has no plans for the future. His center that houses food, supplies, and shelter is going to run out of fuel and will leave them in the dark and without comfort.
And he offers them a quick and steady resolve to their problems. The center will explode in a matter of hours, and through this scenario, the entire Atlanta group discovers they have the will to live. They want to live. In spite of the odds being stacked against them, and the entire finale is left as a way of closing the series while also leaving it open for us to ponder on. Why did they beg to be left alive if Dr. Jenner explained quite clearly that all of the world’s resources were gone and there was nothing left? Why do we continue to want to live in the face of impossible odds? More importantly, why do we continue to cling to false hope in the middle of carnage and desolation? Are Dwayne and Morgan on their path to follow the Atlanta survivors? The final episode of the season is a lingering statement about the willingness to survive in the middle of the apocalypse and we’re given some shreds of sub-plots that have the potential to be amazing arcs next season. Dale’s confession to Andrea was mind-blowing, the suicide of Carol who stood behind in the Center was gripping, and you just have to love the final scene of the remaining survivors riding off in to the city.
By and large, “The Walking Dead” has been filled with the usual woulda, coulda, shouldas of any comic book adaptation. Thomas Jane would have been fantastic as Rick Grimes, but Andrew Lincoln is superb just the same, the show could have covered a lot more of the first arc from the comic books, but the series has been and continues to be a gamble that has be to be treaded lightly by the writers and Robert Kirkman, and the second season should have been given to us much sooner, but perhaps by October 2011 we’ll see a new season that will be allowed to fine tune plots and characters, re-invent storylines and stick more closely to the arc of the comics now that there’s a surefire second season with twice the episodes of the first season. Darabont and Kirkman have explained Michonne and Tyreese will be introduced, and Darabont promises to turn the Governor in to one of the most memorable villains in television history.
To you newcomers you’re likely scratching your heads and wondering who these people are and if you should check the internet or not. To the folks like yours truly who have invested in every issue of the comic series individually from the first issue so many years ago, you’re as excited as I am. So in the end, I give “The Walking Dead” season one a resounding recommendation for giving us horror entertainment that focuses on characters and human drama first and horror and grue second. Fingers crossed “The Walking Dead” continues climbing new heights and doesn’t deflate like “Heroes” did. I anxiously await season two.