The Walking Dead Pilot – “Days Gone By” Beat Sheet
Note this analysis is based on the script that they went into production with rather than the finished programme as broadcast, but if memory serves correctly the broadcast pilot was very similar. You’ll see the script fits largely to Blake’s Beat Sheet, with the most notable difference being that the B Story comes after the Fun and Games and of course, as you’d expect with pilots for serialised drama, the “Finale” actually ends by throwing up problems and questions – as a cliff-hanger into the next episode.
Script duration length: 60 pages. (Actual broadcast pilot runtime (in UK): 64 min)
Written and directed by: Frank Darabont
Genre: Dude with a Problem
Opening Image (Page 1): Big wide, seemingly peaceful landscape. Empty. Oddly quiet. TEASER continues as: A tiny figure appears – a police car (IMAGE MOTIF of loneliness). Dishevelled cop, Rick (Andrew Lincoln), is inside. Runs out of gas. Heads to gas pump. Abandoned cars. Dead bodies. Catches glimpse of a small girl, who disappears. Sees her again. She looks emaciated – dead! Yet she lunges towards him. He shoots. Corpses rouse to life. He’s surrounded by them! (This teaser is a flash forward. Story returns to linear timeline after this.)
Set-Up (Pages 3-12): A long Set-Up, bedding us in with the characters: Cops Rick and Shane (Jon Bernthal) are chatting over junk food, in their police car, about women versus men. Rick seems a 100% classic good guy hero. Shane seems slightly rougher round the edges, with his manner of speaking about women. Their chat establishes the fact that Rick and his wife, Lori, are having issues.
They get a call through of a car chase. As they prep, we see imagery of crows attacking a road kill, foreshadowing the bloody future. Shane and Rick and two others set up a stinger. Banter between the cops establishes Rick is a confident leader and respected by the others. Car eventually arrives, hits stinger and capsizes. Rick approaches. Two criminals open fire. He drops to the ground. They’re shot. He’s okay. He banters with Shane – don’t mention this to Lori! (She dislikes his dangerous job.) Third criminal appears and shoots Rick again – this time a bad hit. Falls unconscious.
Rick wakes in hospital, Shane beside him with a vase of new flowers.
Theme Stated: The story and imagery are about being alone and separated from loved ones – in Rick’s case separated by emotional distance before the zombie outbreak, which is about to occur, and there’ll be a physical distance after the zombie outbreak – and a fear that his family may be dead. In Morgan’s case (see B Story), the body of his wife will be heartbreakingly near (and she wants to come home!) but her humanity is dead and gone. The theme can be seen explicitly expressed in these two instances:
Page 7 – RICK (of Lori): “Last thing she said this morning? ‘Sometimes I wonder if you even care about us at all.’ ” (By the way, in the context of such a wholesome, good character as Rick, it seems that this comment may be unfair on Rick, but nonetheless suggests an emotional distance, even if it the issue might actually come from Lori.)
Page 15 – GET WELL CARD: “Dear Daddy. We miss you. Get well soon and COME HOME!!! I love you, Carl.” (Rick’s desire to re-unite with his family is the main thrust of the story.)
Catalyst (Page 12): The event of a zombie virus spreading and taking hold of the world is not experienced – but the catalyst is Rick waking up, after the fact, in a deserted hospital in a radically changed world.
Debate (Page 13): A short debate: Rick wakes up finding himself suddenly alone. Flowers are withered. The bell for the nurse fails. The clock has stopped. No-one seems to be immediately around. WHAT HAS HAPPENED? HOW LONG HAS HE BEEN UNCONSCIOUS? IS HE DESERTED? WHAT SHOULD HE DO? He decides he needs to get up. Answers will be delivered later as the story unfolds, but importantly he decides he needs to act…
Break into Two (Page 14, bang on the page number you’d expect it to be): Decides he must manage to clamber out of his bed and find people – and so begins the…
(Dark) Fun and Games (Pages 15-21): Note that there is a B Story, but this comes AFTER the Dark Fun and Games, which delivers the horror-esque sequence that we have tuned in for – the promise of the premise – as Rick comes into the fear and horror of the new world of the Walking Dead….He explores and first finds a deserted hospital, with blood on the walls. Sees a door sealed off, marked with “Don’t Open” and “Dead.” Suddenly zombie fingers start clawing to get out through it. Mind reeling, he walks into the stairwell: Pitch black. Smells horrible. He uses matches but they reveal very little and each one runs out so fast. He makes his way slowly down. Low on matches. One shows a glimmer of an exit sign. Makes his way towards it. One more match, throws it down the stairwell. Hits a corpses head. Horrified, he bursts out through the exit doors, almost blinded by the outside daylight.
He briefly returns back inside, needing to know more, to confirm and… sees the bottom of the stairwell is stacked full of corpses. As he moves through the outside hospital grounds, sees piles of bodies in white sheets. Goes into the street. Sees carnage. It’s deserted. IMAGE MOTIF: Rick is a small dot on his own.
He walks the streets. Tries cars. Finds a bike. There’s a dead woman by it. She suddenly moves her head. Scared, he drops the bike. Finally he returns to it and rides off. Sounds of moaning of the dead woman, writhing weakly. His lone figure cycles through the streets (IMAGE MOTIF again).
Reaches his house. Door open. House is empty. They’ve gone. A low point. Sits dejected on the porch.
Sees a “man” on the street walking. Rick, in a daze, waves and he comes towards him. Another figure approaches Rick from behind. WHAM – Shovel hits Rick’s head and he’s out cold.
B Story (Pages 22-38): The B Story is all about Rick meeting Morgan (Lennie James) and Duane (Adrian Kali Turner). And in classic form, there are tensions but then they become friends – typical for a Buddy Love story even in this Dude with a Problem series – and Rick learns much more about what’s happened, starting to make sense of the crazy world he is in – information which will later fuel his journey into Act Three…
Rick is on the floor, having momentarily lost consciousness after being hit with the spade. A boy, Duane, is primed to now kill Rick. Father, Morgan, shoots the walking man and halts his son from killing Rick – but Morgan is very suspicious, especially of the bandage (thinking: has he been bitten?). Thrusts his gun to Rick’s head demanding information about the wound – but Rick falls unconscious again.
When he wakes up, Rick finds himself tied up. Morgan questions about the bandage. Rick explains it was a gunshot and falls unconscious again.
Rick wakes. Morgan releases the restraints. After a caution to Rick to behave himself, the three of them eat together and Morgan explains what he knows. Rick learns that “Walkers” are wondering around outside. Duane spots a woman through the window and is mysteriously upset. She’s a Walker. She comes up to the window and then the door. She starts scratching, as if trying to get in. She tries the doorknob. Morgan explains she’s his dead wife. She had a fever and died – and then “turned.” He hates the fact he didn’t kill her before she turned.
Next day, they leave the house. Rick kills a Walker en route. They go to Rick’s house. Rick explains he believes his family is still alive – there’s evidence they at least left the house alive and human. Then Rick learns of the Atlanta Refugee Centre where they’ll probably be – and of the Centre for Disease Control.
That’s the Midpoint (Pages 37-38; slightly later than the Page 30 you’d expect for Blake’s Beat Sheet): A moment of hope and a sense of purpose when Rick learns of the Atlanta Refugee Centre. Thinking he can find his family alive and well (and might the mention of CDC suggest there could even be a cure on the horizon?), this is a moment of false victory.
They embrace a respite of relative positivity as they visit the Police station, take showers, and gear up for the Rick leaving his B Story buddies. They discuss going to Atlanta together. Morgan says not yet (rather gruesomely, he needs to kill his wife first!). They collect the remnants of guns and bullets from the police armoury and Morgan says he’ll maybe join Rick in week or so. Rick gives Morgan a radio which he’ll check everyday, waiting for Morgan to join him. (He doesn’t want to be left all alone again! Tapping into the theme.) A Walker appears, on other side of the fence. Rick knows him – a cop from back in the old world of the living! He gives him a mercy shot. Then Rick and Morgan/Duane part their ways.
Bad Guys Close In / All Is Lost / Dark Night of the Soul (Pages 43-46; unusually compressed): The Bad Guys are internal bad guys inside Rick and Morgan’s heads as they both struggle to cope with the new world, leading directly into All Is Lost and Dark Night of the Soul. These three beats in truth seem slightly forced (interrupting the proactive flow of Rick setting off) and slightly weaker than you’d usually expect (because there’s just recently been established a hope and a plan which hasn’t been contradicted – Rick believes his family are alive and he intends to head off to Atlanta to find them) – but it is an effective period designed for the audience and the characters to take in the weight of what has happened to the world and to appreciate the power of that tragedy. What happens is as follows…
Morgan and Duane are alone together again, but saddened at the fact. Rick finds the half-bodied Walker from near the bike and sits down on the grass “feeling his sadness.” He turns slowly to the Walker and says, “I’m sorry this happened to you.” And with more than a whiff of death, he shoots her. Meanwhile, Morgan pulls out photo albums. He also starts picking out Walkers to shoot with his sniper’s rifle. Then he’s looking for his wife. He sees her, hand on trigger… and she looks up at him. Hesitates – and finds he can’t do it.
A tragic sense of loss for both and of a clear defeat for Morgan, who can’t do what needs to be done.
Break into Three (page 46; exactly the page you’d expect) and straight into the Finale: We effectively leapfrog STEP 1 OF BLAKE’S 5-STEP FINALE (forming a plan; this has already been formed over earlier scenes) and go straight into STEP 2 OF THE 5-STEP FINALE (pursuing his plan – going to Atlanta to find his family)…
So Rick sets off in his police cruiser and uses his radio to see if anyone else is out there. Unknown to him, a girl in a small camp hears Rick’s transmissions, suggesting to the viewer a great hope. She tries to reply but he can’t hear her and his transmission then breaks up (a loss, but onwards he goes). Meanwhile, tying back into the teaser flash-forward, Rick pulls up to gas station. Meanwhile, we discover Shane is in the small camp, trying to contact the “unknown” caller, Rick. Shane is with an unknown woman, with whom there’s a romantic connection [later in series discovered to be Lori!] and with her is a boy [Carl!] [The love triangle forms the beginning of a brilliant character story over the next few seasons.]
Gunshot. Girl falls to the ground. Then multiple dead arise and turn on Rick! (This is where the teaser ended.) Walkers amass, but he manages to races off in his car – and broadcasts more radio messages unanswered. Then his car breaks down. He gets out and walks, with gun bag and empty petrol can, towards a house. Finds a suicide body inside (more tragedy). He’s meeting multiple challenges in his pursuit of his plan, but nothing overwhelming yet. And in a positive discovery, he hears a horse. Manages to get on it and ride into town. But when he finds Atlanta –the view is one of a distressing wasteland of death. But then a moment of significant hope as he hears and then sees a helicopter! He races after it…
STEP 3 OF 5-STEP FINALE (Everything goes very seriously wrong!) (Page 56) – As he races on horse back through the streets, he turns a corner and suddenly finds the street blocked by a mass of Walkers. Turns the horse, but sees a mass coming the other way. The horse panics and throws him off. The Walkers surge towards the horse and attack – and then a few see him – and suddenly the hoard is after him. He rolls under a tank but he’s trapped and the Walkers are beginning to crawl under it, towards him. He knows he’s doomed – he’s going to be killed horribly by these zombies and then turned into one!
STAGE 4 OF 5-STEP FINALE (Doomed, he needs a new plan) (Page 57) – Knowing his fate of a grisly death followed by becoming an undead Walker, he decides there’s no choice but to shoot himself. He is about to when suddenly he spots an open belly hatch in the tank above his face!
STAGE 5 OF 5-STEP FINALE (Thinking on the fly, and discovering his best self, the hero executes the new plan) (Page 58) – He makes it inside just in time. But!… there’s a zombie in there. Rick kills him. Then deafens himself with that gunshot, reeling and now scared that zombies will try to get in through the upper turret hatch. He then sees one appear. He shoots it and drags himself up to the hatch. Rick sees his gun bag and radio down on the road below, surrounded by zombies. He’s lost those! And now zombies are climbing up around him, on to the tank. He closes the hatch – back into safety.
Obviously this only a Partial-Finale. If it were a feature film, the Finale would likely feature him finding his family and rescuing them. Instead Steps 4 and 5 of the Finale see a “victory” that is just an immediate one of survival.
HOOK FOR NEXT EPISODE (Page 59) – At the end of an episode is where episodes of a serialised drama are likely to deviate from Blake’s beat sheets, which were written for a stand-alone drama. Instead of everything wrapping up into a neat denouement, this is instead where the writer throws things back up in the air to set-up the next episode. We already know Rick hasn’t found his family and still needs to. We have also discovered in the Finale that Shane and others are alive and well, offering hope, even if Rick doesn’t know it. Now, in these last moments of an episode you want a dramatic ending, perhaps a twist or new information, to hook viewers into watching the next episode. And here we get…
Rick’s hauled himself into the safety of the tank, but now it dawns that he’s trapped in there. He’s totally unsure of his next move. As despair might be setting in again, the radio suddenly crackles and a voice addresses him – who? Is he here to help? Or is he an aggressor? Questions are raised as…
Final Image (Page 60): Zombies amass over the tank. Aerial shot conveying a sea of zombies! [In contrast to the opening image of Rick in a deserted, empty landscape.]
- Chris Roberts
Thanks Tom. Lovely to hear from you – very much enjoyed your Breaking Bad analysis in fact! Thought it was excellent. And good shout with the flash forward – very interesting spot!
- Brandon M
Great insight into the framing device placement. It’s something I’ve seen on quite a few episodes of Walking Dead (the one where it opens with Shane shaving his head comes to mind), and now I’ll have to keep an eye out for the placement of it.
- Tom Reed
Chris, drop me a line sometime. We should know each other.
- Chris Roberts
That’d be a pleasure. Will do!
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Outstanding beat sheet, Chris. Extremely specific and insightful. I’ve also read the pilot and I totally agree with every aspect of your analysis. Great work. One thing jumped out: the flash-forward framing story (or I should I say, the flash-back main story) mirrors the pilot for Breaking Bad exactly. The BB pilot teaser opens in the finale, at more or less the same spot (High Tower Surprise Two), and the main story catches up with it at almost precisely the same page number (the early 50s). Interesting that two writers as brilliant as Darabont and Gilligan utilized an identical framing device. BTW, has anyone ever mentioned that The Walking Dead is basically 28 Days Later, the TV show? I know it’s based on a graphic novel, but the similarities are remarkable. Once again, terrific breakdown.