Leaving the Dead in the rear view

I was sad to see it go. Because while The Walking Dead can certainly continue to be awesome, there’s nothing like the first time. It can never be like this again. It will never feel so new, so surprising as before. From now on, there are Expectations. Now that we know how The Walking Dead can be, we will expect it to always be that way. There’s only one first time, and nothing is ever like it.

I look back on season one of The Walking Dead as the season that I fell in love with Officer Rick. I mean that seriously. He is wrecking real men for me right now. I want them all to be Officer Rick and when they’re not, I am not interested. I love Officer Rick. I want an Officer Rick poster to put on my bedroom door and kiss before I go to sleep every night. I haven’t had a crush on a TV character in a long, long time. I am a jaded viewer, granted, but it just seems like real men have been vacant on television for so long that it’s refreshing to have a leading man who is a Real Man. I don’t crush on Don Draper because he’s a terrible person and while one night with no strings would be fun, do you really want that black hole of morality in your life on a regular basis? No, of course not. You can’t count on Don Draper, except to break your heart. But you can count on Officer Rick.

Officer Rick is as good a place to start as any, so here we go, looking back on the first season of The Walking Dead. Andrew Lincoln, the English actor who portrays Rick Grimes, caught some fanboy flak when he was announced as the lead of The Walking Dead. Mostly people seemed disappointed that he wasn’t Timothy Olyphant, but there was also some question if a “poncy Brit” could play badass sheriff’s deputy and zombie killer extraordinaire Rick Grimes. Answer: YES. Not only does Lincoln sell Rick’s badassery, he gives Rick a warm gooey center. Rick is a family man, a man with an unerring moral compass, and a natural-born leader not because he’s the toughest dude in the bunch but because he’s the one guy who can put others before himself. He’s a good man, and in many ways is a cipher for the audience—because Rick missed the onset of the zombie apocalypse while in a coma, he is discovering this changed world as the audience does. His confusion and fear is our confusion and fear. But Rick is no fraidy cat—he determines his family is alive and he pursues them with single-minded efficiency.

Did you notice what a good cop Rick is? He deduces that his family is still alive because the family photos and albums were removed from his house. Rick’s powers of deduction are kind of awesome. He’s usually the first to comprehend a situation, which feeds his natural leadership and alpha status. Take bigot jerk Merle (Michael Rooker). While everyone else stood around and shouted at Merle to stop shouting (thus attracting zombies), Rick handcuffs him to a metal pipe so he can’t continue to interfere with their escape plans. Granted, this turns out to be a questionable decision as it results in Merle getting left behind in zombie-infested Atlanta and ultimately having to cut his own hand off to survive, but Rick does try to go back and save Merle. If Rick messes up, he tries to make it right.

Unlike Shane (Jon Bernthal, The Pacific). Shane sucks. I hate Shane so much. As established in the excellent pilot, Shane is Rick’s best friend and a fellow deputy. Shane is also fucking Rick’s wife, Lori, who thinks Rick is dead. Lori thinks this because Shane tells her it is so. We see in the opening of episode six, “TS-19”, that Shane tried to save Rick from the hospital where he was in a coma. But Shane’s idea of checking for vitals—remember, he is a trained law enforcement officer—is to listen to the heart beat by pressing his ear to Rick’s chest. In the middle of a military action. So amidst gunfire and bombs, Shane—a trained law enforcement officer—tries to physically listen to Rick’s heart beat. Not only does Shane suck, he also sucks at his job.

Lori Grimes rubbed me the wrong way at first—cheating on Officer Rick is a no—but in the best character arc of season one, Lori goes from survival slut and/or cheating whore, to genuinely sympathetic victim of terrible circumstances. Lori (played by Prison Break’s Sarah Wayne Callies) really believed Rick was dead and her shock at finding him alive is massive shock. Callies embodies Lori’s guilt so well—when she apologizes to Rick “for everything” it is crushing because while Rick is clueless at this point, you can really see how much Lori is suffering and will suffer under the burden of what she’s done. Her storyline will only grow more complicated.

As for the rest of the survivors, season one was too short to really introduce everybody, and many people died before we really had a chance to care about them. Andrea (Laurie Holden, The Shield) registers a bit but her character won’t really be explored until season two, and her younger sister Amy (Emma Bell, Frozen) only exists to be bitten by a zombie. Ditto for Jim (Andrew Rothenberg) who is only around so that when he is bitten Officer Rick can confront his own sense of morality and mortality and how those notions may be changed by the zombie apocalypse. Amy and Jim are ciphers more than characters. And Jacqui (Jeryl Prescott, The Skeleton Key)? Who really cared about Jacqui when she elected to stay behind and die at the CDC? Anyone?

With only six episodes, it could be said that that isn’t enough time to make us care about so many people, but then, The Walking Dead managed to integrate some characters fantastically well in only one episode. Merle is a one-episode guy and despite being a terrible racist, we all care about what happens to him (mainly, I think, because we expect he’s going to try and kill Rick). And of course, Lennie James made a huge impression in the pilot as Morgan, the first survivor (along with his son, Duane) that Rick encounters after waking up. Rick continues to leave radio transmissions and notes for Morgan and Duane in case they try and follow him, but as much as I liked Morgan, I’m not sure the show really needs him back. I think it’s enough for Rick to continue talking to him, holding out hope for other survivors.

The show itself was a bit up and down. None of the five episodes matched the pilot for its energy, in fact, episodes two and four fell quite flat for me. Too much redundant exposition and uneven character development for them to be really satisfying. I was not bothered, though, that the finale was a bottle episode. The Walking Dead is a zombie show, but it is not about zombies. That the finale was about the survivors locked into a space with a crazy man has more to do with the spirit of the show than an epic zombie battle would have. Although Daryl (Norman Reedus, The Boondock Saints) did have a great zombie kill at the end. Anyway, I think a well-acted human drama about what survival will really mean in this new world is more pertinent to the show than gratuitous zombie kills. In the finale, Dr. Jenner (Noah Emmerich, a great character to be seen next in Super 8) is like Officer Rick—a good man, a fair man—but unlike Rick, Jenner has lost hope. His confrontations with Rick are the best part of the episode.

One thing that did remain consistent was the quality of the filmmaking (televisionmaking?). The cinematography was beautiful, making the most of abandoned landscapes and wasted streets. The makeup team, headed by legendary monster makeup maestro George Nicotero, did a spectacular job with the zombies, and the production design/set dressing team deserves a special medal for the pilot’s hospital scene and episode five’s CDC exterior. They were gross, terrible, frightening and fascinating sets. And the frames taken from the comics—Rick on his horse riding into Atlanta, the group outside the CDC as the doors open, and many others I’m sure I missed—made for some great visuals without being too comic-book-y. The quality of television produced in these six episodes is a testament to every single person who worked on this, down to the last gaffer.

Overall, The Walking Dead leaves me wanting more. I can’t wait for season two. But there is still room for improvement. The unevenness in the storytelling (an issue that can most likely be fixed with Frank Darabont’s firing of the writing staff) needs to be addressed, and we definitely need some time to learn about the rest of the group. Andrea and Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn, The Mist, Shawshank Redemption) have a wonderful friendship blooming and I want to see more of a positive, non-sexual male/female relationship on TV. And Glenn (Steven Yeun), the former pizza boy turned zombie strategist has the potential to be the next-most interesting person, after Officer Rick. He’s already becoming Rick’s right-hand man (especially since Shane has all those latent anger/jealousy issues with Rick). I’m hoping with thirteen episodes Darabont and the show’s production team let these characters breathe.

Burning questions for season two:

  • What about that helicopter Rick saw in the pilot?
  • Will Rick ever realize what a huge douche Shane is?
  • Where has Merle been all this time?
  • Why didn’t Rick leave some kind of message for Morgan that the CDC was a bust?
  • Will Lori and Andrea have a she-wolf style throw down for “alpha female” status?
  • Will Lori ever confess her transgression to Rick?
  • Where does Shane keep finding hair gel?

2 thoughts on “Leaving the Dead in the rear view

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