AMC’s The Walking Dead: episodes 1-3

Zombies. They’re everywhere. They’re coarse, they’re rough, they’re decaying and, like vampires and werewolves, they’re here to stay … for now. The ironic proliferation of the virulent undead across our pop culture landscape has not gone unnoticed, but the latest entry in the zombie pantheon isn’t a brainless cash-in. The Walking Dead is a TV adaptation of a comic that has been running since 2003. You probably already know this, but context never hurt anyone.

With three episodes – half of the first season – down, The Walking Dead has turned out to be more of a character dynamic mood piece rather than black and white panels made flesh. This is an interesting approach, and it makes for a significantly different experience. Frank Darabont is playing with character reactions to situations and drawing on source material only when he sees fit. It’s possible that this is offending a lot of people, but it also means that The Walking Dead is perfectly capable of standing on its own.

Very mild spoilers within!

Rick Grimes is a policeman in a small country town. He’s shot in the line of duty, and wakes up to a world inexplicably overrun by zombies. He’s not very happy about it, but he has to survive to find his wife and son.

There’s a lot of dialogue in The Walking Dead. There’s a lot more dialogue than there are zombies, but this sort of genre does best when it’s either one man doing his best to survive, or a group of survivors holed up in relative safety pondering their next move.

It’s not so strange that the genre often works best when the situation is static. It’s not just because it is technically cheaper to remove zombies from the equation and substitute them for the implied threat of zombies, but because the other is presented as a way for humans to reflect on themselves.

Face it: zombies are boring. They are creatures of instinct, defined only by their insatiable hunger. In the modern age, humans’ hunger is famously consumerism, clear from the very first moment a zombie set foot into a mall all those years ago. Humanity’s greatest fear is that we have more in common with the other than we’d like to believe. We have to stay away from the zombies. Zombies themselves aren’t interesting: it’s the effect that they have on humans that we derive our entertainment from. Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead worked so well because they were character driven stories.

The Walking Dead has none of the knowing winks to the camera of those two vehicles (hitherto fore the only zombie film properties I’d really bothered with), but it expects us to identify with Rick Grimes, every (law)man who just wants the right thing for his family: that they not be eaten. He’s the innocent abroad at home, and it takes him quite a while to cotton on to the fact that there are zombies and that there are certain common sense rules that he has to come to understand. It’s strange that Andrew Lincoln was picked to play Rick, because in my eyes, at least, he is most famous for playing the “guy who is in love with Keira Knightley so hard” in Love Actually. You know, ineffectual and slightly pathetic British guy.

Rick is a man of the law, a man with a family, a man with family issues. Lincoln brings absolutely no baggage from his Christmas movie to the role, and should be commended for that. He has to carry the earliest parts of the show by himself, and the sheer atmosphere of Andrew Lincoln walking through empty corridors and, later, a field of body bags, is commendable.

One addition in the adaptation appears to be bombast. Now, I haven’t read much of the comic, but the TV show is trying to invest a lot of meaning and gravitas to every single interaction. One thing that the comic definitely has over the TV show is the preamble: it takes one page of the comic for Rick to get shot, but approximately six minutes in the show. As it’s not supposed to be about gun fights (at least not yet), it seems strange that a protracted battle between the law and the outlawed would take place on the screen.

The audience is also not introduced to the zombies at the same time as Rick is – there’s an unnecessary cold opening which gives a taste of what post-apocalyptic travel involves (post-apocalyptic travel involves shooting little girls). Yes, everyone watching the show knows well in advance that there are going to be zombies – but because of this, wouldn’t it have been okay to do away with the cold opening altogether and not try to bring us in with a mysterious group of abandoned cars? It’s one thing to peddle atmosphere, but it’s another to actively waste time when that ground will be covered elsewhere and better.

The first episode is somewhat problematic mainly not in the way it diverges from the source material, but in its very structure: it’s not simply one episode. What we’ve been given is an episode and a bit: a normal length episode with a proper ending, followed by a sixteen minute mini-episode with a cliffhanger.  It was probably written this way but it doesn’t feel right, yet it’s clear that the last sixteen minutes wouldn’t work as the opening of the second episode – but it devalues the strength of the first episode as a whole.

With the second episode, Darabont has chosen to break with the comic almost entirely. A two character piece balloons to seven. A new situation is forged: the new guy meets a team of veteran survivors and subtly alters their team dynamic past the tipping point. This episode begins to tackle racism in a very heavy handed way, suggesting that people in the zombie apocalypse are stupid. This is then subtly backed up in the third episode, which introduces more characters in further depth along with the blatant spectres of sexism and spousal abuse.

The show is coming on a bit too strong with this stuff and there is very little progress thanks to Darabont’s love of character interaction. As most of the characters are irrational idiots, this isn’t that fun to watch. I guess I don’t know much about human nature but these people’s alliance is so tenuous that I’m surprised that someone – possibly the racists – haven’t already killed everyone else in their sleep.

It actually got to the point where I was actively screening out everything that the Racist on the Roof had to say, but at least Racist with a Crossbow seemed at least a little worth watching.

The other thing that Darabont is trying to do is make Shane, Rick’s partner and fellow survivor, unlikeable right from the start. The marital discord injected before the zombies have even hit is a new addition and one that casts an entirely different pall on the relationship between Rick and his family. Lori seems to overreact to just about everything (and does not seem to back up what we’ve heard of her in the first episode), and Shane is just a total dick. It’s interesting, though, because I have no way of predicting what’s going to happen. The Walking Dead is confounding me, and that’s actually a good thing.

My largest misgiving (outside narrative and character, I guess) about The Walking Dead is the makeup. The zombies seem more caked on than anything, and they have reverse panda-eyes. They’re not convincing, so it’s for the best that we don’t have to see a lot of them. There’s no style-guide, no Strunk and White, for zombies, and the walkers are recognisable for the most part, but I have to force myself not to look too closely lest my brain refuses to parse them.

So zombies are everywhere. Some zombies are smarter than others; they are the zombies that storm the safe house and eat as many humans as they can before finally succumbing to a headshot. The Walking Dead is the most Darwinian of zombies, leaving the shambling masses far behind to earn its place at the height of the zeitgeist – and maybe they’ll eat some of these stupid gits while they’re there.

Potted recaps

Episode 1

Rick is shot, wakes up in hospital. He finds that the world has been overrun by zombies and he is not best pleased by it. Convinced that his wife is alive, he holes up with a father and son duo living in his neighbours’ house before he makes a break for Atlanta.

Atlanta is overrun, however, and Rick finds himself trapped in a tank until he hears a voice on the radio.

Episode 2

Rick is saved from the tank through the directions of Glenn, a scavenger from a camp just outside the city. Rick’s gunfire has drawn zombies and Glenn and his scavenger team are forced to seek refuge on the roof of a department store. Unfortunately one of the scavengers is a racist and an altercation leads to the racist being cuffed to a pipe.

Rick and Glenn manage to get a truck and create a diversion, thus escaping the city, but the key to the handcuffs is lost and Merle, the racist, is left behind.

Episode 3

Rick arrives at the survivor camp only to find that Lori and Carl, his wife and son, are safely ensconced in the survivor community. Shane, Rick’s partner, is displeased that Rick has survived because he had been using Rick’s presumed death to seduce Lori and substitute as Carl’s father.

Collective guilt leads to Rick and three others venturing back into Atlanta to save Merle. Upon reaching the rooftop they find that Merle has disappeared, leaving only his hand behind.

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