As many critics have rightly stated, watching television shows on DVD allows the viewer to experience entire seasons of content (spread over months during their initial run) in one large block. This diminishes the impact of weekly cliffhangers usually associated with serial television, but it allows us to become increasingly entrenched in the overall scope of the story and characters, like an epic piece of continuous cinema. From a viewer’s standpoint, screening hour after hour of a particular show can be highly addictive (I watched all six seasons of The Wire in a little under a month), but it’s even more convenient for a critic trying to pinpoint the key themes and motifs of such lengthy programming. When the pieces to an intriguing televised puzzle adjoin in close proximity, I’ve found it adds thematic heft to a medium that sometimes feels weightless.
Frank Darabont, Robert Kirkman, and Gale Ann Hurd’s bold and bloody The Walking Dead works nicely under such a microscope. In just six episodes, the show creates an especially grisly yet affecting modern genre hybrid, beginning brilliantly while slowly fading into more conventional territory by the season finale. Like many of the recent “cinematic” television shows gracing cable channels today, The Walking Dead is about interior conflicts just as much as exterior ones, and this pattern develops early in the show’s superb pilot entitled “Days Gone Bye.” Sheriff Deputy Rick Gomes (Andrew Lincoln) wakes up from a coma to find his hometown in Georgia completely ravaged by a devastating epidemic, the result of which are undead “walkers” roaming the streets for flesh. Stylistically, much of the episode is made up of long tracking shots dedicated to Rick’s shocking tour of the new world: traversing a dilapidated and bullet-riddled hospital, walking past hundreds of rotting corpses, and witnessing massive atrocities that speak to the magnitude of the situation. The stink of death infuses every frame.
Directed by Darabont, “Days Gone Bye” brilliantly establishes the importance of disarming quiet to the world of The Walking Dead. Rick enters silent spaces reeking of decomposition with only the crickets, flies, and birds animating the space. Burnt-out cars, abandoned military vehicles, and corpses litter the streets, suspended in motion after so much visceral terror. A building sense of dread comes with this collective silence, especially in moments where Rick walks through structures searching for any sign of life. Strangely, Rick’s own suburban house is devoid of the bloodshed and violence he has seen elsewhere, but his wife and son are missing nonetheless. Rick sets out to find them at any cost, traveling to Atlanta after hearing about a utopian refugee camp protected by the military. At this point, The Walking Dead turns into a full-fledged road picture, with Rick’s personal journey of survival representing mankind’s universal struggle for purpose.
The pilot episode introduces the underlining necessity of morality and compassion in The Walking Dead, best signified by Rick’s decision to shoot a half-severed “walker” trying to crawl across a lush neighborhood park. Recurring conflicts like these plagues Rick’s decision-making process and those he meets on the road. It’s a motif that segues nicely into the second installment entitled “Guts,” a transitional episode in which Rick helps an enclave of survivors escape a downtown Atlanta department store despite thousands of zombie intruders. It might be the least fulfilling episode of the bunch, but it develops the core set of characters that make up Rick’s surrogate family, while also expanding the universe beyond the lead character’s point of view. “Guts” ends with another costly moral decision (Rick leaves a rabid racist named Merle, played by Michael Rooker, handcuffed on the roof), one that will inevitably come back to haunt the group later down the road. To survive a disintegrating world like The Walking Dead, one can never look back. But that doesn’t mean the past won’t eventually catch up with you.
The next episodes, “Tell It to the Frogs” and “Vatos,” can be seen as a mini diptych constructed around the weighty importance of family loyalty on individual characters. Rick and the survivors from the department store escape the dangerous confines of Atlanta, making their way to a rural area in the mountains overlooking the city. Rick is reunited with his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and their young son, not to mention his former partner Shane (Jon Bernthal). Taxing subplots emerge, like Lori’s infidelity and Rick’s parental duty, and thankfully it doesn’t take long for The Walking Dead to refocus on the imminent need for violent action. In “Vatos,” Rick leads a small group back to Atlanta to find Merle, tangling with a group of Latino gangsters. This episode about façades and appearances gives the show even more dimension and nuance, showing the potentially deadly cost of judging based on surface level interpretations—something Rick and anyone else in The Walking Dead can’t afford to do.
If “Vatos” is the thematic high point, The Walking Dead falters both aesthetically and tonally in its last two episodes, “Wildfire” and “TS-19.” Both segments try to develop the supporting characters, concerns, and conventions beyond the scope of the group, yet this approach only rationalizes the core themes so complexly explored in “Days Gone Bye” and “Vatos.” “TS-19” especially feels leaden, as the group travels to the Center for Disease Control and finds a lone scientist (Noah Emmerich) dealing with a heavy-handed question of morality of his own. Even though the overall goals of The Walking Dead remain strong, the characters seem to be on a repeat cycle, stuck in a quagmire of uninteresting agendas and arguments. By the final credits, it’s blatantly clear the narrative would benefit from a fresh start. A horror story like The Walking Dead that can’t sustain its thrilling promise begins to feel flaccid, so hopefully season two brings a much-needed shot of adrenaline.
By the end of The Walking Dead’s first season, a few strange anomalies stand out. For a show developed around both the familiarity and deconstruction of the zombie sub-genre, not once is the word used to describe the undead. With this in mind, Darabont and the show’s other creators want to distance themselves from the land of George A. Romero even while celebrating the tried-and-true conventions his films ingrained in the public discourse. This desire to singularize the narrative is best represented in the show’s use of long takes to open each episode, the importance of character-driven conversations, and the absence of specific political rhetoric in many of the most heated moments of conflict—blatant xenophobia being the issue that does reoccur. Whether this pattern will continue into the next season remains an important question.
Still, it’s important to remember The Walking Dead is just getting started, and it’ll be fascinating to see where Darabont and the show’s talented production take Rick and the remaining survivors in the future. Let’s hope the show solves some of the more cliché relationship issues between key characters and outwardly explore the physical reaches of the horrific silent America now echoing the screams of the dead. If that happens, devoted television viewers and DVD aficionados alike will have years of addicting material to anticipate.
The Anchor Bay 1080p transfer looks exactly like the high-definition transfer AMC aired back in the fall, which isn't necessarily a compliment. The color schemes, image detail, and clarity are all intact, but I wish the image looked crisper on the whole. A few cuts blur the image in strange ways and some scenes look downright monochromatic by accident. The black levels are a little uneven during night shots, with certain parts of the frame that should be in focus hidden in darkness. The well-balanced sound design outshines the middle-tier visuals, especially the contrast between blasting gunshots and the subtle hum of crickets and birds. Like all horror films sound design is everything, so it's great to see The Walking Dead overflowing with audible intensity.
The entire supplemental package plays like one long commercial for the show produced by AMC. The "Making of The Walking Dead" featurette is a total puff piece documenting the "amazing" artistic talent behind the show, including director Frank Darabont and graphic novelist Robert Kirkman. The featurette combines short talking-head segments with on-location footage, celebrating the show's virtuoso makeup work and risky material. Honestly, it's an entirely forgettable piece. The disc also contains shorter specific vignettes on each episode—something entitled "Inside The Walking Dead," which also mixes footage and interviews together to tell backstory and character motivation. It's annoying when materials from both featurettes overlap. "A Sneak Peak with Robert Kirkman," "Behind the Scenes Zombie Make-up Tips," and footage from the Comic-Con panel on The Walking Dead simply rehash information already established in the previous segments. The extra footage section of the disc lacks any substantive punch, further reiterating points of view that have already been given ample screen time. A trailer for the show is also included. Overall, this extras package is a complete dud.
After its maiden season, The Walking Dead is a stellar work-in-progress—a grisly, thrilling, and uneven take on the zombie apocalypse that's still finding its footing.