10 Years Later: The Walking Dead Pilot is Still Great
The Walking Dead, “Days Gone Bye” Review
Once upon a time, The Walking Dead was exciting. No unnecessary spin-offs existed (with several more in the works), the walkers’ presence signaled danger instead of inconvenience, the filmmaking was executed with nuance and played on tension rather than shock and gore—more akin to psychological horror like Rosemary’s Baby than to the most forgettable of ’80s slashers. More importantly, viewers were ready for a zombie apocalypse series and not fatigued by them. They actually tuned in. “Days Gone Bye”, the pilot episode of the original Walking Dead series, has all of the promise and none of the creative anxiety. It is The Walking Dead firing on all cylinders and, I’m extremely relieved to say, it remains one of the most enjoyable TV pilots of all time, even in 2020, and even despite the disappointing turns the series would make in the years following its debut.
By the time “Days Gone Bye” dropped on Halloween of 2010, AMC was already in the process of bullying HBO out of its spot as the top destination for prestige dramas. Mad Men (2007) and Breaking Bad (2008) came out swinging and had already aired their fourth and third seasons, respectively—two near-perfect runs of episodes (as was Mad Men’s third season). As surprising as it is to admit now, most of us felt The Walking Dead would be the network’s third significant pillar, not just ratings-wise but in terms of quality as well. And, even though there were bumps in the road along the way, the first four seasons of The Walking Dead made a pretty convincing argument on behalf of itself. It certainly skyrocketed in the ratings department, eventually eclipsing the record-breaking Breaking Bad finale in numbers and becoming the most-watched non-broadcast network series of all time; but it was also good—and, sometimes, it was even great.
If “Days Gone Bye” isn’t quite the best episode the series has ever done to this day, then it’s still damn close (and I’ll encourage the readers to make pitches for any of the others; mine would be season three’s “Clear”). The trademarks of what made The Walking Dead so enticing are all here: incredible makeup, haunting score and grounded performances. In fact, even though this episode belongs to Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), it’s Lennie James as Morgan Jones who leaves the strongest impression. James has visible and audible gravitas as the episode peels away both layers of general exposition and Morgan’s backstory. There is a “this is what’s happening in this series” conversation between Rick and Morgan which would normally come across as forced on the page, but the strength of the performances makes the words feel necessary to the characters and viewers in equal measure.
“Days Gone Bye” also functions miraculously well as a self-contained episode of a horror-themed television series.
What impressed me most in revisiting this, though, was director Frank Darabont’s confidence and trust in the viewer. There is no jump scares in this pilot. In scenes where you might expect a device like that—especially Rick in the fire exit stairwell with some matches or the reveals of several of the walkers—Darabont lets the dread of the situation set in without trying to force the viewer into a certain emotion or reaction. And, while many TV critics would later go on to catalog the various ways in which The Walking Dead became oppressive in its pessimistic worldview, Darabont injects moments of levity and sublimity into the pilot. We don’t get flashbacks of Morgan and Duane, his son, having endured months of cold or no water. But we feel the joy we see in their faces as Rick takes them to the sheriff’s station for a hot shower, where they get to laugh and dance amid the world crumbling around them.
Darabont was already an expert writer-director by the time The Walking Dead went to series. And even if he hadn’t been adapting the source material from Robert Kirkman, there’s no doubt this pilot would still have succeeded. Too much care and expertise are evident: the sparsity of dialog allows the viewer to take in the Southern surroundings and touches in the set design; the passing of time is signaled through a super-sharp device of a vase of flowers that have wilted; for the majority of the episode, we get information as Rick gets information. The pilot has the viewers ask exactly the right question: “What would I do if this was me?” That quality of being an audience surrogate makes Rick a worthwhile character here and through several seasons, even as the story dips into more melodramatic concerns (as established in “Days Gone Bye” by us being able to see his wife romantically entangled with his friend and colleague).
More than all this, though, “Days Gone Bye” also functions miraculously well as a self-contained episode of a horror-themed television series. Long-form horror tends to do much worse than short-form horror, since it’s so difficult to sustain the tension needed to build to certain kinds of releases, especially across episodes and seasons. But “Days Gone Bye” is a wonderful way to spend an hour on this or any Halloween. It’s creepy and well-done like some of the best horror films of the last decade (The Babadook, The Witch, or Hereditary). Of course, it needs to end on a cliffhanger and introduce plotlines we want to invest in, but on a re-watch instead of a first watch, that impulse to continue beyond the pilot can (and, maybe, should) be ignored; this works perfectly fine just by itself alongside your other favorite annual Halloween watches—doubly so, if you can track down the black and white version.
It’s easy to use The Walking Dead as a punching bag these days. The series has gone through too many showrunners who had different visions and opinions about what made the series interesting for the audience. That seems, to me, an even better reason to try to remember and revisit the series when it was this good. It’s easy to sour on a series because of where it went—ask many Game of Thrones fans. But the people working on The Walking Dead in the early years, and especially on this pilot, made a lot of great creative decisions. That’s what paved the way such an unprecedentedly huge audience (the series averaged over 10 million viewers between seasons three and seven) and so many online discussions, similar to Lost’s effect on the zeitgeist. That’s what got so many of us TV critics excited to have a zombie apocalypse series that seemed to actually work. It may not have stayed on that path, but it started on the right one—here.