Best Episodes Ever: The Pilot
Well, you voted for it, so here it is: the first of my new blog series, Best Episode Ever. In this series, which will run for about ten weeks, I’ll be looking at exactly what makes a great episode of television: from premiers to finales to bottle episodes to action, sex, and character studies, I’m going to be breaking down precisely what makes an episode of TV brilliant, drawing on a number of shows, old and new, in the process.
And it makes sense to start at the beginning, so I’m kicking off this series with a look at what makes a great first episode. And the show I’m using to investigate that? The Walking Dead.
I’m going to try and hold back on offering any comment on the show The Walking Dead has become (though I have covered that topic at great personal cost in a variety of articles in the past), and look at the show at it’s arguable peak. Despite the punishing downturn the show has taken these last couple of years, the very first episode of The Walking Dead, titled Days Gone Bye, still stands out as one of the all-time best examples of what a first episode should do.
First and foremost, a premier has to teach it’s audience how to watch a show. That sounds like a weird thing to say, but stick with me here: take something like Riverdale, for example, as a show which fails to do that in it’s opening episode. Riverdale’s season one opener plays like a crappy high school CW drama nightmare, so far removed from the sly, self-referential, genre-bending mindfuck that nearly every other episode of the show would become that I almost skipped the show for good. The silly, over-the-top drama was as much in place as it has been in this last excellent half-season, but because it hadn’t yet taught us how to consume that drama, it felt po-faced and dull as a result.
But Days Gone Bye sets up precisely what kind of show we’re looking at before the credits even roll. With no lead-in, we get a long, near-wordless sequence of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) wandering in full sheriff uniform in the post-outbreak streets of the rural Georgia, searching for food and gas. He comes across a young girl, who reveals herself as the first zombie of the show’s run, and is forced to shoot her in the head. Cut to credits, and we already know who this show is about, the role he fulfilled in society before the outbreak and how that role will be corrupted in the episodes to come. And all of that with barely a word spoken. It’s a crisp, lean bit of storytelling
and a reminder of everything this show could be before it decided that Jeffery Dean Morgan screeching every line was a good idea oh God how can a show go off the boil this badly
Ahem, anyway. Frank Darabont wrote and directed this episode, and his skill and media literacy really come through in this hour. Rich but straightforward storytelling is definitely the name of the game for Days Gone Bye, and it achieves this by drawing on tropes from two separate genres, both horror (of course) and the Western.
Tropes get a bad rap in pop culture, often because it’s the offensive or outdated ones that are still getting trotted out by directors who don’t seem to know any better (Joss Whedon, what’s good), but when you’re setting up a world with a dense cast of characters and a whole lot of backstory for most of them with only an hour-long premier, you have to invoke that shorthand if you want to get anywhere worthwhile. The great iconic image from this premier and arguably from The Walking Dead as a whole is Rick Grimes riding into the ghost town of Atlanta in his sheriff’s gear on the back of a horse: it’s a shot that could be pulled from any classic Western, but the way the show juxtaposes it with the horror elements at play corrupts the image of the sheriff as a delivery system for order and lawfulness. Invoking the shorthand of what we know about Westerns and what images from that genre are meant to intimate and placing them within the zombie apocalypse setting of TWD tells us everything we need to know about our main character and his place within the world that we wake up in along with him. It’s a great use of visual storytelling, a quick way to get the point across, and also looks deadly cool to boot.
But the episode isn’t just about setting up Rick in his place in the world, though a lot of it is dedicated to him coming to terms with the horror of everything that’s happening around him. This first season as a whole is built around the survivor’s camp that contains both Rick’s wife Lori and his son Carl (and yes, everyone just said that as “Corl” in their heads, and that’s fine), not to mention his ex-partner Shane (who is still the best and most cohesive character TWD ever pulled off, not to mention the role that got me on to the brilliant, brutal Jon Bernthal) – and yet, the show takes it’s time in getting Rick down there, as he shares the most screentime this episode with Morgan (Lennie James) and his son Duane (Adrian Cali Turner).
And that’s interesting, because Duane and Morgan have very little impact on the rest of this season as a whole – in fact, until the last season or so, they only appeared in one other episode. And yet, they’re the most important characters in Days Gone Bye apart from Rick himself. So, why?
Most obviously, the show needs an exposition machine there to tell us the rules of the zombie apocalypse, and Lennie James is a good enough actor to get us to forget that that’s really one of the main reasons he’s here. But again, The Walking Dead is already laying the groundwork, with this brief storyline, for what to watch for the rest of this season (and in Rick’s initial arc in the show, which starts here and finishes after the death of Shane in season two). Morgan and Duane, father and son, surviving but at the cost of their wife and mother and their freedom and peace of mind, are the first of these recurring images throughout The Walking Dead about the corruption of the family.
Obviously, while he doesn’t know it here, Rick has been usurped by his partner, Shane, who immediately moved in on his wife after his apparent death, and this first season features a whole lot of death for the families who make it out of the initial wave of the zombie outbreak – Andrea’s sister Amy bites it (pun fully intended) a few episodes down the line, as does Carol’s husband, with later even the venerable Merle Dixon (also known as Michael Rooker, also known as The Biggest Crush I’ll Ever Had) biting the dust. Morgan and Duane are a portentous parallel to those ideas, and the scenes Rick shares with the two of them are utterly compelling, with both James and Lincoln on strained, effective form. It works both in the moment and as a part of the wider show as a whole, and that’s a hard thing to balance.
There’s a case to be made for the show as a whole being about the destruction of Rick as a character – from husband, father, and sheriff to widower, grieving parent, and amoral pseudo-villain – and it’s right here in this first episode that the show tells us that, explaining with the exploration of the Morgan/Duane storyline and with the imagery of Rick as a sheriff so incongruent with the world around him that who Rick used to be does not fit with the world that now is. And it does that while giving us the rules of the world at large, setting up some of the conflicts over at the survivor’s camp, and eking one of Andrew Lincoln’s finest performances out of him in the process.
In just over an hour, The Walking Dead sets up a sublime show without ever having to sit down and explain precisely what it’s trying to tell us, using tropes, genre shorthand, and parallels between plots to get across all it needs to. And that’s how The Walking Dead teaches how to watch it with this first episode – or, at least, teaches us how to watch what it was for the first few seasons, before it turned into just That Show Where Jeffery Dean Morgan Leans Over A Lot. For my money, The Walking Dead never quite topped this opening; both as a character study of Rick Grimes both past, present, and future, as well as an introduction to the eerily cold world of the post apocalypse, Days Gone Bye is a potent reminder of everything that The Walking Dead used to be – and everything it seems to have forgotten now.
Tune in next week for the next part of this series, while I’ll be looking at a fantastic example of action in television – with a show you might not expect! If you enjoyed this series and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting me on Patreon for access to exclusive articles or check out my other site No But Listen for my movie-related writing with another pop culture blogger.
(header image from The Walking Dead)