Old News: Walking Dead, S1:E1, “Days Gone Bye”

[During the mid-season break of The Walking Dead, I’ll be going back to the beginnings, providing a recap and analysis of Season One, and trying to see it through fresh eyes. Follow along! It’s like a time machine! -Cassie]


Morgan: Gunshot? What else? Anything?

Rick: Gunshot ain’t enough?

A Sheriff’s car pulls even with an 18-wheeler on its side. No lights flash, no sirens wail. The cop is unsurprised, and as the view widens the residual chaos is apparent and the silence eerie. He walks with a gas can past burnt wreckage, mangled campsites, and cars of corpses to a station with a sign proclaiming, “No Gas.” A soft noise–loud amidst such stillness–grabs his attention. A child picks up a stuffed bear. He tells her not to be afraid, he’s a police officer. But when she turns something is very wrong. Though unsurprised, his expression is one of devastation; he shoots her in the head and she drops the toy.

Rick Grimes and Shane Walsh, Sheriff’s Deputies, talk woman troubles in their squad car over lunch. Judging by how Shane dips his fries in the ketchup on Rick’s burger and the intimacy of their conversation, the pair are more than coworkers; they are friends. ‘Reverend Shane’ preaches about the women driving him crazy, trying to get Rick to open up. Apparently Rick’s wife Lori has expressed similar sentiments, and in front of their son Carl.

mmm, teddy bear.

A call ends lunch with news of a high-speed pursuit. The squad car roars by two crows picking the flesh from roadkill. Shane and Rick set road spikes with calm efficiency. The youngest cop is less composed, Leon hoping they’ll get on TV. Rick chastises, “You need to stay focused. Make sure you’ve got a round in the chamber and your safety off.”

Following an awesome crash, the officers approach the overturned car with caution as the suspects come out armed and shooting. When Rick is shot Shane is all business, shooting until the suspects are down before rushing to Rick, who’s been saved by his bulletproof vest. “Son of a bitch shot me, you believe that?” He begs Shane won’t tell Lori, but a third man has crawled from the wreck and Rick isn’t as lucky a second time; this bullet hits home. Shane does what he can to help while screaming for an ambulance for the downed officer. While his actions are calm his voice is frantic. His friend is dying.

Shane brings flowers, seen through Rick’s sedation. He tries to be comforting but it’s clear he’s done this routine awhile and is trying not to grow disheartened. Rick wakes, responding. He’s got weeks’ worth of stubble and the room is silent around his spluttering. Shane’s gone, the flowers dry and dead. The clock is stopped at 2:17. Clearly in pain, Rick strips off breathing tubes and IV drip. His legs don’t support his weight, and no nurse comes to his hoarse calls. A gurney blocks his door and the hallway is desolate but littered with debris. Finding the phones dead, Rick follows the emergency lights until he sees a body in the hall, bloody and eviscerated. There’s more carnage now that he’s looking–pooled blood and gory handprints. The Cafeteria’s doors are padlocked shut with the cryptic warning, “Don’t Open Dead Inside.” The doors shake and fingers wend between them, accompanied by inhuman moans and growls. Terrified, Rick flees the hospital.

Outside, the scene grows more macabre. Shrouded bodies are laid out with as much dignity as could be granted in an obviously tumultuous time. The hospital is a wasteland of blown windows and crumbling walls as Rick struggles up a hill to find an abandoned military camp with more devastation. As he reaches for a bicycle, a legless corpse reanimates and he blanches, horrified, before  scrambling onto the bike and rushing home.

Inside his house, he screams for Lori and Carl, frantic with worry and heartbreaking desperation. “Is this real? Am I here?” In spite of being a man of few words, his love for them is obvious. Outside he raises a hand to an approaching stranger, and another creeps up behind and hits him with a shovel before yelling for his father. Delirious, Rick thinks the boy is Carl. The father asks about Rick’s wound, threatening to shoot him, and Rick faints.

He revives, calmly assessing that he’s tied to a bed in another house. Morgan is tense, worn, asking if Rick was bit. Rick doesn’t understand the questioning, and after a few final threat sot ensure their understanding Morgan cuts Rick loose. They share a simple meal, Morgan trying to provide some normalcy by saying grace and enforcing proper grammar in his son Duane. Morgan realizes Rick really doesn’t know what’s happening. “But you know about the dead people, right? ….Not the ones they put down. The ones they didn’t. The walkers.” He explains what he’s learned: they get more active after dark, they’re drawn by noises like gunfire. “Bites kill you. The fever burns you out. But then after awhile, you come back.”

Morgan asks about Carl, sympathetically hoping Rick’s family is safe. Rick’s explanation of being a Sheriff’s Deputy is interrupted by a car alarm. Duane dims the lights and they peer outside. As walkers flock to the noise Duane recognizes one, a woman who approaches the fortified door. Morgan muffles his son’s cries with a pillow as the walker tries the door, explaining how his wife died from the fever but he didn’t have the strength to put her down.

“Are we sure they’re dead? I have to ask just one more time.” Rick confirms in the morning. Morgan instructs his first real foray into the new world, explaining they’ve got to destroy the head as Rick beats one with a bat. In his house he explains Lori and Carl packed clothes and family photos, so he knows they were alive when they left. Morgan laughs. “My wife, same thing. There I am packing survival gear, and she’s grabbing photo albums.”

Duane mentions a refugee center in Atlanta by the CDC, where people were advised to go before the radio broadcasts stopped. The men were overjoyed by the simple pleasure of hot showers. Rick opens the armory and they talk of teaching Duane to shoot. “You pull the trigger, you have to mean it.” They discuss conserving ammo. Morgan intends to linger to teach Duane to shoot, and Rick gives him a radio and plans to reconnect in Atlanta. Morgan approves of Rick thinking ahead. “Can’t afford not to anymore.”

Morgan offers one final tidbit of sage advice: “They may not seem like much one at a time, but in a group all riled up and hungry… Man, you watch your ass.” Rick sees Leon, the ‘careless and dumb’ cop from the day he got shot, and puts him down as a mercy, symbolically severing ties with his old life. The flag still flies in front of the station as they part. Morgan boards himself and Duane into the house. He goes through pictures and prepares to kill his wife at last. Rick returns to the legless walker, offering an apology. It weighs on his heart, and he shoots her. Morgan lets his wife walk away. They’re both good men, but in this, perhaps Morgan doesn’t have what it takes to survive the long road ahead.

Rick’s radio broadcast reaches a group but signal is weak and he can’t hear their attempt to warn him. Shane, clearly the leader of a group with tensions and varied ideas, follows an angry woman to reason with her. He insists she stay safe for her son so he won’t ‘lose his mother too;’ Clearly Shane is not the boy’s father, and this is not the woman who can’t turn a light off. He jokes to ease tension and she kisses him before her son interrupts.

Rick flips down the squad car’s visor, revealing a family photo. Surprise–that’s his wife and son with his best friend. He takes the photo, prepared to abandon the car if he can’t find gas. At the farmhouse he finds a grisly scene–bloody words on the wall read “God Forgive Us,” accompanying a murder/suicide.

Rick, grab that gun.

Rick, grab that gun.

The truck outside is a dead end, but Rick finds a horse, surely the most sensible means of conveyance in an undead apocalypse. I guess Morgan didn’t stress the hunger enough. The road to Atlanta is desolate, while the one leaving is gridlocked. Vultures circle derailed trains and the city is silent. Closer, the scene is similar to what Rick left: abandoned chaos. As he passes, walkers begin to come awake. Horse is anxious but Rick boldly assesses them as nothing they can’t outrun. A pair of crows pick the flesh from the dead atop a tank; if the military left such artillery behind, it’s not a good sign.

Crows eat better in the apocalypse!

Rick sees/hears a helicopter and gallops after it… into a swarm of walkers who scramble after 1,500 pounds of fresh meat. They’re quickly overrun and while the walkers are distracted by the horse, Rick scrambles under a tank. He’s running out of ammunition and apologizes to Lori and Carl. As he presses the barrel to his temple he sees an escape hatch into the tank. The dead soldier inside isn’t dead, and in the metal confines the shot is deafening. Rick sticks his head out, surveying; walkers swarm the tank and he’s at least 20 feet from his arsenal. He despairs, temporarily safe but generally fucked. The tank’s radio crackles to life. “Hey you. Dumbass. Yeah, you in the tank. Cozy in there?”

Rick gapes.

Some observations:

  • Rick’s insistence on wearing his police uniform is symbolic of his adherence to outdated rules–he won’t break into the farmhouse to collect that shotgun and ammunition and the keys to that truck, nor will he siphon gas or hotwire the truck. The horse issue he skirts by talking to the beast like it can consent to help him. In contrast, Shane wears civilian clothes–he’s a new man in this new world.
  • But seriously. You just left that shotgun there. Really, Rick?
  • But seriously. A horse, Rick? Why not just ring the dinner bell? Arguably it saved your ass, but arguably without it your ass might not have needed saving.
  • Twenty feet, while a short distance in the regular world, has literally become a matter of life and death in the undead apocalypse.
  • Parallels: The crows preceding the fire-fight in which Rick is shot and nearly dies/The crows preceding the walker stampede in which Rick nearly dies.
  • Morgan’s tattoo looks like his dead wife. Once she’s dead, I mean.
  • Classic hero-journey setup here: something (Lori/Carl) has been taken from our hero-to-be, and he needs to leave home to recover it. With the help of a sage guide (Morgan), he learns the way of the world and is given the tools to succeed or fail on his quest. His arrogance almost gets him killed when he dismisses both the threat of walkers and his earlier inclination to plan ahead, but he’s granted a second chance with the mysterious caller in the tank. Bonus: if his wife and son have been ‘taken’ from him, will that cast blame on circumstance, the insurmountable apocalypse, or on Shane, the handsy best friend?


4 thoughts on “Old News: Walking Dead, S1:E1, “Days Gone Bye”

  1. Robb Zahm says:

    Additional afterthought: I really appreciate the bus-riding-walker-in-a-suit in Atlanta. He has a very distinct look to him, so the camera crew can work off him well, and I feel they use him as a bookend in the tank scene, first getting off the bus with a couple other shambling perambulators, and soon after as a face among the milling masses, to silently echo Morgan’s advice, as you’ve already quoted, “They may not seem like much one at a time, but in a group all riled up and hungry… Man, you watch your ass.”


  2. Robb Zahm says:

    This time through, I looked for the reason I got hooked on this series the first time I had watched it. I found that the really compelling moments for me were the human reactions to the surreal setting. Rick’s awakening in the desolate hospital and his casting about for people with whom to connect, his horrified reaction to the discovery of the well-eaten corpse in the hallway, his removal of the finger-stick and IV while calling for the nurse even though that sort of thing would have any nurse in fits when she finally comes in had there been one at the desk – these were all very understandable, human reactions to such a surreal scenario. Rick’s break down inside his house, his desire to “wake up” because he was unable to accept what he was experiencing. And the first “walker” Rick encounters (not including those behind the chained door) takes on significance to Rick, sufficient to compel him to seek closure with her by finding her in the park the next day before he sets out for Atlanta – zombie films don’t spend as much time on these things, this acknowledgement of the human element when starkly contrasted with a surreal environment, because they don’t have as much time as a series does. (As an aside, I love that the first “walker” Rick encounters is only a torso, devoid of anything from the waist down, save her left femur; but I digress…)

    Rick continues to impress me with his need to coax the horse, talk to it. Only having met and spoken to Morgan and Duane since waking from his coma, and unable to bring up any response on the CB, Rick has a very human need to communicate with something, anything. This continues as he rides the horse, explaining his plan of approach into Atlanta, reassuring the horse that a couple walkers coming out of a bus are nothing to fear. It’s a shame that horse got eaten – it was really shaping up to be quite the vehicle for Rick’s dialogue. And again, all of this spoke to me as a viewer because it is illustrative of Rick’s humanity, his consciousness, his reason. And that’s really the most significant factor differentiating survivors from walkers – a sense of self-awareness that makes one respect a final resting place rather than break in and take the gun, or have to explain to a horse why you’re in its pasture.

    To that end, I fear I have to disagree with you on the usefulness of horses in a full-on zombie apocalypse, and not just as a get away hors-d’ouvre. Although they have significantly more upkeep when not in use, fuel for horses can, given time, be grown. Heck – so can more horses, if it comes to that. You’ll eventually have trouble overcoming the broken-down vehicle syndrome (with which I’m all too familiar because I’ve never once owned a vehicle that hadn’t seen a decade before I bought it), and fuel has been a problem for Rick since literally the first scene of the series. It may not have fared too well for Rick or the horse, but I think it might have been a good way to go, had Rick not ridden the thing straight into Atlanta despite the fact that everybody else in the area apparently had abandoned their vehicles while attempting to do the exact opposite.

    But going back to the idea of retaining humanity, clinging to a sense of normalcy: I really appreciate Morgan and Duane. Proper grammar, saying grace, demanding respect for the weapon – Morgan is still intent on raising his child to respect the values of the world they’ve lost. It may not work out, but Morgan’s sense of what’s right requires that he try. And I think that’s part of why Morgan can’t leave with Rick, not quite yet. Sure, Morgan says he wants to take time to reacquaint himself with a weapon and teach Duane a little too, but Morgan didn’t seem all that rusty when he went up into the second floor bedroom and started playing “bell-tower sniper” with the walkers outside, and Duane can learn on the road easily enough. I really think Morgan stayed behind because he felt he had unfinished business with the walker that had been his wife. Sadly, it seems that business remains unfinished at the end of that scene, which is different from how I had recalled it playing out the first time I had watched. I could have sworn I had heard one final gun report as Rick was leaving town the first time I had watched this episode, but I kept listening for it this time – nothing. It doesn’t seem Morgan is quite ready to leave yet; as he said, once his wife passed, he just kinda hunkered down.

    Good work, Cassie – nice re-recap, and particularly well done on your omission of spoilers. Looking forward to next week!


    • fissionerror says:

      Outside of the fact that I a) love horses and b) they can sustain themselves on replenishable food sources as you mentioned, I think the fact that they’re giant bags of meat with sometimes skittish temperaments makes them a wash, if not a bad decision. In season 2 they work out a little better on the farm so your suggestion that had Rick not ridden Horse into a giant crowd it would have gone differently holds true. But you can’t explain to horses the need to be quiet etc. I feel like something inedible like a bicycle would really be the way to go. I mean who wants to eat a bicycle?


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