The Walking Dead: While You Were Sleeping (Part 1)

I’m going to be trying something a little different today. So far, every TV show I’ve mentioned on this blog is one that I’ve either seen in its entirety or seen a significant amount of. However, I haven’t yet viewed past the pilot of The Walking Dead. I want to. It’s a good show, and I’ll have some nice things to say about it shortly. But it’ll be interesting to see how I fare in my commentary without the benefit of hindsight.

But before we start fighting any zombies, I have a story to tell about myself.

Last semester I was talking to a director about the possibility of having one of my short scripts produced. It was set on a post-apocalyptic college campus, and he let me know right off the bat that he wasn’t feeling to good about that, this being a low-budget affair and all. I’d thought ahead on this and suggested that the film be shot on a Sunday morning because campuses (or mine, at least) tend to be pretty deserted around that time. His response was “Well, we might want to have some flipped cars.”

At which point I shut up because flipped cars sounded like an awesome idea.

Flipped truck

Had it been produced, it might have looked like this.

As the first scene in The Walking Dead demonstrates, flipped vehicles are a kind of visual shorthand for a post-apocalyptic setting. How did that truck get turned over? Did some unfortunate trucker wreck as he speeding away from an infected city? Did the zombies somehow manage it? We don’t really know, and we’re not meant to know. That’s how visual shorthand works. After that, we move up through more explicit imagery–a trashed gas station, fly-ridden corpses–to the big one: the zombie girl.

Probably the main reason for putting a flashback at the beginning of the episode like this was so that we could get a good introduction to Rick right off the bat. Without much dialogue exchanged (zombie shows will do that for ya), we see him first trying to help what he thinks is a little girl, then despairing when he sees that she’s a zombie and finally shooting her clean through the head. When I first watched this scene I was worried that the zombie girl would turn suddenly and startle me, but the opportunity wasn’t taken. Looks like this show is going to find different ways to be scary.

We get to meet Rick some more in the next scene, along with his partner. Although Rick seems a little detached from the conversation, we get the feeling that they’re very close in spite of seeming very different. Seriously, case study in differing character voices right here.

And then there’s the exchange that takes place while they’re waiting for the oncoming car to drive over the spike trap. Leon makes some crack about police chase shows and Rick shuts him down for not being focused. Shane makes the same remark and he gets an eye roll. What we see here is Rick exhibiting that seasoned brand of professionalism that differentiates between messing around by someone who knows what he’s doing and messing around by someone who doesn’t. It’s a little thing, but here at the start of the episode, it’s good to know.

Rick and Shane

In light of the fact that we know Rick’s having trouble with his wife, it seems significant that he gets shot while telling Shane not to tell her that he got shot. His relationship with his family is his downfall. Hmm.

Let me step out of the chronology for a moment here to say that I really, really, REALLY like the way that this post-zombie-apocalypse world unfolds to Rick from the time he wakes up in the hospital to the time he meets some actual people who can give him some answers. Everything happens just a little bit at a time, and we the audience really get to be there with him every confusing and frightening step of the way. Take note of the order in which things happen.

It starts with him realizing that the hospital he’s in is abandoned–the shriveled flowers, the stopped clock, the general lack of a nurse coming to assist him when he falls over. Which, by the way, is a good really quick reminder of the little inconveniences that exist in a post-apocalyptic world. No readily available medical staff. No a lot of other stuff, too.

Rick on the floor

“This day is only going to get worse, I just know it.”

With the dead woman and the bloodstains spattered around the hallways, we (and Rick) start to realize that something is really, really wrong here. By the way, this is visual storytelling at its finest. We’re getting all this information and not a word of dialogue spoken. Actually, as it turns out, the next words we encounter are DON’T OPEN DEAD INSIDE. Or maybe DON’T DEAD OPEN INSIDE, depending on how you read it. Okay, time and a place, I know.

Rick’s first encounter with the undead and it’s indirect. So not only is something wrong, something is weird–and probably dangerous. But still no definite zombies.

One trip down an abandoned stairwell later is when the real shock happens. Rows of dead bodies, like something out of a war film. These are no zombies or supernatural stuff of any kind; this is REAL. This is an important thing to have in supernatural drama, I think; it has to be anchored in reality in some way. Seeing all those dead bodies, you know there’s been some kind of disaster. Something horrible.

Dead bodies

And combined with the abandoned military equipment, the whole thing smacks of some government crackdown out of a not-too-distant-future dystopia. We get to linger on that for a while…and then we get the attack of the creepy half-decayed zombie woman.

So then what happens? Well, the short answer is that Rick shrieks like a little girl and bicycles for dear life, his hospital gown flowing majestically in the wind. The long answer is that he’s already way more shaken than he’s probably ever been in his life at this point, not to mention worried for the safety of his family and friends, and given that he still has no idea what’s going on, now isn’t the time to question the living corpse crawling towards him; now is the time to get to safety as soon as possible and regroup. The most satisfying answer is that Rick shrieks like a little girl and bicycles for dear life, his hospital gown flowing majestically in the wind.

Rick on bicycle

And speaking of realism vs. not realism and impossible encounters and whatnot, let’s take a moment to appreciate the fact that Rick doesn’t ask (or show any signs of asking internally) whether this is real until he comes to his house and finds his wife and son gone. Because that’s the worst thing of all.

But this lengthy solo scene (dead people don’t count) comes to the end with a shovel to the face. So it’s bad because shovel to the face, but good because Rick’s not the last person on Earth after all.

Given that Morgan threatens Rick more than once in the next couple of scenes and also ties him to a bed, I think it’s nice that we get to meet the kid first. Having a character be the father of a ten-year-old from the word go takes the edge off of…well, everything.

Morgan and Duane

During the scene around the dinner table, we get a picture of a broken family that’s trying to hold onto normalcy. Morgan corrects Duane’s speech and Duane reminds Morgan to say a blessing over the food. Then Morgan breaks the news that the show’s been preparing for us all along: that there’s a sickness around that makes people come back from the dead. He comments that it must seem crazy “if this is the first you’re hearing it.” Well, yes, it’s the first he’s hearing of it, but it didn’t come completely out of left field.

The horror of a zombie apocalypse takes on a new dimension with the introduction of a walker that the characters know: Morgan’s wife. Rick listens as Morgan laments about how he was unable to “put her down” when he knows that he should have. Would Rick have been able to kill her? Will he, when it’s one of his friends or family who gets bit? Well, we did see him kill that little girl zombie at the start of the episode…

Wife

Part two coming soon.