The Walking Dead: assessing the bleakness of ‘Days Gone Bye’

Rick Grimes and the long road ahead (screenshot from episode)
Rick Grimes and the long road ahead (screenshot from episode) /

If you’re at all familiar with The Walking Dead, you have surely seen “Days Gone Bye,” the very first episode of the series.  It packs a punch.

Right from the start we see it won’t be a lighthearted TV series, as we famously see the first zombie get shot, who also happens to be a little girl. Instantly we are placed into the fray, and we know there is a rough ride ahead full of dangerous, potentially contagious zombies. Not long after the girl gets iced, we learn of more human troubles ahead, as we flashback to a shootout that placed Rick in the hospital. This suggests a rough ride ahead full of dangerous, potentially contagious people. Danger! Proceed with caution!…and be prepared for some drama, and many of what the internet calls “WTF moments.”

This leads to a simple question: Is the show intentionally bleak? Possibly. It certainly lacks the comedic tone of Zombieland, or most George A. Romero zombie movies. However, the markedly bleak tone of AMC’s The Walking Dead is a good, refreshing thing.

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All too often in life we are told to “think positive,” because things tend to work out for people who do. Of course, that thinking is not geared for lives where terrible things happen all the time. Frankly, it never makes sense to think everything will work out, and to just avoid negativity. Sometimes you have to face life’s negatives, and possibly take on their characteristics just to survive freak circumstances. Sometimes you might not survive. We’re not all the lucky ones. Life isn’t always pretty, and it often doesn’t smell nice.

This is why zombies (or “walkers”) work so well symbolically. Yes, they usually move slowly, but they can gang up on you and take you down if you’re not careful. You may even need to hide in the “belly hatch” of an M1 Abrams tank (Interesting note: According to the IMDB, the M1 Abrams tank doesn’t actually have a belly hatch, so it’s listed as a goof in this episode). The tank itself functions as a bleak symbol, as it used in warfare. A Freudian would theorize that the army tank is a disgusting symbol of some kind, but who knows? Sometimes an army tank is just an army tank.

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Interestingly, in the army tank womb we get a small reprieve from the doom and gloom onslaught, as we are introduced to the character Glenn Rhee (though we don’t learn the character’s name in this episode of The Walking Dead). Some actual humor ensues in the dialogue between Rick and Glenn over the tanks’ radio. What other humor happens? Rick Grimes talked to his horse a bit. He and Shane badmouthed women, perhaps half-jokingly. Of course, such humor will prove short-lived and won’t get rid of the zombies who want to devour pretty horses and pretty women.

This starkly brings us back to the bleak tone. Seldom do we get significant breaks from the bleakness. It’s like being trapped in a hail storm while an earthquake starts and a tornado develops.

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On top of the hypothetical weather crisis situaion, it’s clear that Rick’s relationships were strained before his hospital stay and the inevitable tank symbolism. He was having arguments with his wife Lori and, in a basic way, competing for alpha male status with his buddy Shane (a running dynamic through The Walking Dead).

Then, of course, we see Rick alone in the hospital, clearly suggesting abandonment. He stumbles out of the hospital into a new, even more hostile world. His rescuers Morgan and Duane at first treated him like a dangerous felon. Even after they get cozier, they split up in little time at all. We also see how so-called “law and order” has basically dissolved. In fact, it’s worth considering how law and order had hospitalized Rick and separated him from wife and child to begin with. Way to go, civilization! For Rick, Morgan and Duane, the only use the police station served was a free shower and some extra guns and ammo. No sandwiches. No sandwiches? No sandwiches!

Next: Season 1 Episode 2: Guts

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Perhaps the bleakest aspect of the episode is the final pan-out shot where we see Rick’s tank basically engulfed by walkers. This doesn’t mean Rick won’t get out of the tank, but it’s perfectly symbolic of the forces up against him, and perhaps the forces against us all. The universe has bleak surprises in store. Farewell to having nice things that last.

The title of the episode definitely fits, and now I want a sandwich.