Have The Walking Dead ever produced a more iconic image than Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) riding into an abandoned Atlanta via an empty highway? It’s a wonderfully bleak shot that establishes the tone flawlessly, and its reputation has spread so far that even people who have never watched the show can recognize it. Seemingly AMC also realized its power considering how much they slapped it on every piece of marketing for the show’s first season – a season that, in retrospect, feels like it belongs from an entirely different show. There was a time when The Walking Dead was considered prestige television, talked about in the same way as fellow AMC shows like Breaking Bad spirit Mad Men. But those days are long gone, and now The Walking Dead seems to exist simply because watching the latest episode has become part of our weekly routine. Recent seasons may have kicked some much-needed energy into proceedings, but it’s probably for the best that it’s concluding.
But The Walking Dead didn’t always exist as a vehicle to create (what feels like) an infinite number of spin-offs, and returning to Season 1 after such a long time feels like peeking into a parallel universe where everything came up roses. It was the only season where Frank Darabont served as showrunner, and was also the only one produced before AMC infamously slashed the budget even while demanding more episodes. As a result, Season 1 feels like a true cinematic spectacle in a way future seasons don’t, telling an intimate story about nuanced characters that’s reaching for the big screen at every opportunity. It’s fascinating to return to, and its genius is cemented in its very first episode. In a mere 67 minutes, Darabont crafts the purest zombie experiences in popular entertainment, distilling with all excess until he’s left with one of the most horrifying but tragic stories in the genre. It’s up there with the greatest pilots in television history, and it’s what The Walking Dead has spent the past twelve years frantically trying to live up to. The episode is called “Days Gone Bye.” In hindsight, they couldn’t have picked a more fitting title.
The Greatest Strength of “Days Gone Bye” Is its Restraint
Rather than overloading the episode with action and bloodshed in the hopes that would attract attention, Darabont (who also directed this episode) keeps things simple. Very little happens from a plot perspective (the result of Darabont taking his original script, cutting it in two, and then embellishing both halves to deliberately keep the pace down), but from a character standpoint, we’re given plenty. Future episodes would play into the ensemble nature of the show – cutting between multiple storylines with dozens of characters that can occasionally feel a tad disparate – but “Days Gone Bye” does not follow this approach. Instead we’re with Rick for practically the entire runtime, and by keeping auxiliary material to a minimum, Darabont turns the episode into an excellent character piece that reveals characterization through actions rather than words.
Rick Grimes is a refreshing protagonist for a show like this. On the one hand, he’s a police officer with extensive knowledge of weapons and survival techniques, but he’s also a recently comatose man that still hasn’t recovered from his injury. His backstory establishes him as someone who lives according to a strict code of ethics, but suddenly he’s in a world where such things no longer apply, resulting in an interesting dynamic where he’s simultaneously the best and worst prepared person for a zombie outbreak. The decision to thrust him headfirst into the apocalypse after waking up from a coma is one of the smartest decisions Darabont made. Not only does it allow him to jump straight to what we’re all here for, but it also makes Rick the perfect audience surrogate. He spends most of “Days Gone Bye” wondering just what the hell happened while he was gone, piecing together the fragments of his missing months at the same rate we do. There’s a reason why Rick continued to entice viewers even after the show’s decline, and it’s impressive how much Darabont and Lincoln were able to get right with his first appearance.
Darabont Has Horror Chops
Darabont may be famous for directing The Shawshank Redemption spirit The Green Milebut he got his break as a horror writer, contributing to the scripts for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 spirit The Blob. With “Days Gone Bye” (the only episode he also directed), that lineage is on full display, with multiple scenes vying for the title of scariest Walking Dead moment. One of the lead contenders is the hospital scene, a sequence that manages to turn ten minutes of someone walking through corridors into a masterclass in building tension. Sure, seeing a cafeteria door with ‘Don’t Open, Dead Inside,’ scrawled across it is a bit of a giveaway, but it’s the subtleties that really sell the moment. The wilted flowers, the broken clock, the absolute stillness that permeates throughout the whole episode – things that would be of no concern in isolation, but together they paint an entirely different image. Even before Rick leaves his room we know something is very wrong, and things are about to get much worse before they get better.
What follows is a visual representation of waking up in a nightmare. Every step Rick takes plunges him further into the pits of hell, and that sentiment proves strangely accurate when he has to descend a pitch-black stairway with only a pack of matches to light his way. It’s one of the most nerve-racking sequences in television, and your heart will be pounding its way out of your chest in anticipation of the inevitable jump scare before it’s over. But Darabont doesn’t resort to such cheap tricks. Instead, he lets the audience’s imagination do the work for him, and as the greatest horror films have continually proven, there’s nothing more terrifying than that. When Darabont does unleash a haunting image he waits until we’re in the comfort of day, tricking us into believing we’ve escaped the worst. As the glare of the afternoon sun fades away, Rick peers out over this strange new world to see row after row of body bags scattered across the parking lot. He gazes at them, not even attempting to hide his tears, then runs off in the vague direction of his house. The disturbing imagery is the perfect way to close this impeccable horror sequence, and it sets a precinct the show has struggled to match since.
Even putting aside this scene, it’s impressive how many memorable set pieces Darabont can fit in such a short runtime without making things feel overstuffed. At times “Days Gone Bye” has the feel of a greatest hits collection, cramming every zombie-related idea Darabont has ever had into one script with no regard for how that would impact future episodes. One minute Rick’s lamenting the state of things after discovering a couple who committed suicide in their farmhouse, and the next he’s fighting off a horde of zombies while trapped beneath a tank. Even the in media res opening, a delightfully creepy sequence where Rick encounters a zombified little girl in the middle of a deserted highway, has become a famous part of horror culture in its own right. The silence is what makes it. Rick’s search through the metallic graveyard is made so much creepier by his footsteps being the only sound for miles around, and it’s amazing that the simple addition of a second pair can elicit such immediate fear. It’s the calm before the storm, and peace has never felt so ominous.
Rick Meets Morgan
Rick doesn’t encounter many living people in “Days Gone Bye”, but the exception to this is Morgan (Lennie James), a character who solidifies the episode’s brilliance. When we meet him he’s living in a rundown house in Rick’s old neighborhood. “This place, Fred and Cindy Drake’s,” says a shell-shocked Rick as he stumbles around the ruined living room. “It was empty when we got here,” replies Morgan, a cold statement that says more than enough. Whatever it once was is irrelevant – now it’s a haven for him and his son Duane (Adrian Kali Turner), and his knowledge of the outside world proves invaluable as he guides Rick through this hellish new reality. When Rick asks why he hasn’t moved on, he’s coy with his reasons, but the eventual reveal becomes the episode’s most devastating moment. His wife has turned, and now she’s roaming the streets outside the house as a living symbol of his failure. Morgan’s secret is Rick’s worst fear, and this revelation is all he needs to resume his search for his family. They part with the promise they will meet again. It’s unclear if either of them thinks that will happen, but the hope is there, and they could both do with a bit of hope right now.
The following scene is among the best of Darabont’s career. Tormented by his past too long, Morgan takes up a rifle and attempts to put his wife out of her misery… but he can’t do it. Instead he just breaks down in tears. It’s heartbreaking to watch, and serves to highlight just how distressing a zombie outbreak would be. These are not mindless killers who exist solely as target practice for the living, but little pockets of tragedy who all have their own story to tell. Darabont intercuts Morgan’s ordeal with footage of Rick encountering a legless zombie on his way out of town. Rick mourns that this had to happen to her, failing to hide those tears once again, then fires a single bullet through her head to give her a modicum of peace. The juxtaposition between the two scenes is phenomenal, and together they give the impression of a show that would never allow simplistic thrills to overshadow the inherent human misery of such a scenario. After nearly two hundred episodes, The Walking Dead has still never beaten this moment.
Returning to “Days Gone Bye” is a strange experience. It feels like reading a novel where the original author was quietly removed somewhere around the chapter four mark, and that’s not a stone’s throw from the truth. Darabont’s firing during Season 2 is a blow The Walking Dead never fully recovered from, and while we could spend time speculating about how things would have looked had he stuck around, we should be thankful we got what we did. All of Season 1 is worth a watch, but there’s no question that “Days Gone Bye” is the standout. It’s a shame The Walking Dead peaked with its opening, but that’s also a testament to the episode’s quality. The following twelve years have cemented its place as one of the great TV pilots, and for those seeking a pristine zombie experience, it’s hard to recommend anything better.