A Binge-Watching Guide to The Walking Dead Season One
Season one of The Walking Dead hardly counts as a binge-watch at only six episodes, but it should be discussed separately from season two, if only because it's the start of a phenomenon. Critically acclaimed from the start, it now has the best ratings in AMC history, often beating out the NFL on Sunday nights. The fanbase is completely rabid, and rightly so, because it's one of the best sci-fi shows in recent memory, not to mention a huge crossover hit.
Here's our guide to binge-watching the abbreviated first season:
Why Should You Start It?
If you already planned to start it, but just haven't gotten around to it, then I would strongly suggest you start it as soon as possible, because it's really, REALLY hard to avoid spoilers. The Walking Dead is so huge in popular culture, and especially on social media, that even the most spoiler averse get spoiled at some point if they don't keep up with it in real time. Whatever happened on The Walking Dead on Sunday night, you can be pretty much guaranteed to see it as a hashtag on Monday morning. If you haven't started watching, most of it won't make sense to you, so you won't remember it. But as a future Game of Thrones fan who has already been spoiled on the Red Wedding, trust me, some of it sticks with you.
There are good reasons that someone wouldn't want to watch it at all, it's not for everyone. For example, if you're queasy about violence, it will be fairly difficult to watch. But if you haven't planned to start it because you "don't like zombie shows" or something similar, keep in mind that the zombies are paradoxically secondary to the proceedings. They're there, of course, but they're mostly used as a backdrop for character development, sociopolitical commentary, and all-around human drama. The show has become more fast-paced and sensational as it's gone along, but especially at the beginning, it's very much a "drama" rather than a "zombie drama." Think less Evil Dead or World War Z, more 28 Days Later.
Very low. Again, barely counts as a binge-watch at only six 45-minute episodes. You can comfortably finish it in under a week, or ambitiously finish it in a day.
I have a soft spot for the season finale, especially since it features a wonderful guest spot from The Americans' Noah Emmerich, but objectively the best episode is the pilot. It hits all the right notes: the cinematography is beautiful, doing for Atlanta what 28 Days Later did for London, the post-apocalyptic world is gently established, and the character work is subtle and emotionally affecting. If I have one complaint, it's that Rick is a relatively lackluster protagonist, which causes problems when he's mostly on his own and doesn't have more compelling characters to bounce off of, but the overall thoughtfulness of the writing more than makes up for it.
The second episode, "Guts," is still a solid episode of television with a wonderfully memorable sequence near the end, but has a few missteps, particularly in the overly broad characterization of supporting players such as T-Dog and Merle Dixon, both of whom act more like ciphers than flesh-and-blood humans. If you get stuck here, try to soldier through, because it's not indicative of the quality of the rest of the season.
Character Everyone Loves
Daryl Dixon. He doesn't appear in the comics, so he didn't have a built-in fanbase. And at the beginning, he's not entirely likable, as he just comes off as a slightly softer version of racist redneck Merle. But the character quickly becomes the most psychologically complex and sympathetic on the show. He doesn't shy away from getting his hands dirty, but manages to retain his capacity for loyalty and kindness no matter how bleak their situation becomes. He's also played by cult favorite Norman Reedus, who is extraordinarily likable and easily one of the best actors on the show.
What's Going On with the Women on This Show?
I was going to write a "Characters everyone hates" section, but then realized it would just be the two female regulars, so let's talk about that. This show has a woman problem, there's no getting around it. The two regular female characters, Lori and Andrea, are two of the most despised characters on television, particularly Lori. They're both written to be extremely illogical and incompetent (you know, because that's just how women are), not to mention inexplicably stupid at times. And the supporting female characters are little more than one-dimensional stereotypes: the battered wife, the ditzy teenager, and the woman of color that the writers don't bother giving a personality. Because yes, this show has a race problem as well. Both of these problems get better over time, but slowly. Five seasons in, and the representation is undeniably better, but still occasionally problematic. The Walking Dead is far from the most sexist or racist show I've ever seen, but if you care a lot about social justice in the media then you will be disappointed from time to time.
Themes to Watch Out For
One of my favorite quotes of the season actually comes from my least favorite episode, "Guts." When Merle is being racist, as he is wont to do, Rick tells him, "Things are different now. There are no niggers anymore. No dumb-as-shit-inbred-white-trash-fools either. Only dark meat and white meat. That's us and the dead." (A surprisingly insightful statement from a show that is often so terrible about race.) It's fascinating to watch the subtle ways in which the apocalypse has broken down social order. This will become more explicit in later seasons, but the first season lays the foundation for which characters are holding onto morals and values that have become obsolete, as practicalities take precedence in an emergency situation. But then it also explores the flip side: is there a point to staying alive if you're only surviving, and do you deserve to live if you're willing to do terrible things to continue to exist?
The final theme that persists throughout the show is the question of the nature of evil. The zombies aren't evil, they're just hungry, while humans have the capacity for reason and goodness, but also for selfishness, bigotry, and malice. The brevity of this season means it's only touched on a couple of times, but there's a particularly significant moment in the season finale that serves as the show's first of many assertions that humans without the restrictions of civilization and social pressures are a far greater threat than mindless walkers.
Things to Keep in Mind While Watching
-If it seems like the quality and tone of the first season is inconsistent at times, it's probably because every single episode was directed by a different person, although Frank Darabont wrote or co-wrote four of the six episodes. Also, fun fact: Michelle MacLaren, who directed the second episode, is also a writer and director on Breaking Bad and has been tapped to write the Wonder Woman movie.
-Thomas Jane almost played Rick Grimes! That would have been a very different interpretation of the character.
-The word "zombie" is never used in the entire series. Keeping track of all the different names they use for the zombies is a fun game. (My personal favorite is "geeks.")
-There's a deleted scene from the season finale that I wish had been kept in, because it's devastating. I won't tell you what it is so as not to spoil you, but you should look it up after you've finished the season.
-The season ends with a somewhat infuriating mystery, in which it's unclear whether the audience will ever know the answer. Spoiler alert: you will.