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Things You Never Noticed In The Walking Dead's First Episode

AMC's The Walking Dead has thrilled us, shocked us, and (if we're being honest) occasionally frustrated us over its ten-season run. The story of a band of intrepid survivors trying, and often failing, to survive in a post-apocalyptic world overrun with "walkers" (please, don't call them zombies) hasn't always fired on all cylinders. Nevertheless, it's a remarkable achievement, expertly establishing and building upon its world while never being afraid to introduce daring (and often controversial) new plot wrinkles.

So many characters have come and gone over the years, and so many storylines introduced, that it can be tough to remember just how tense, taut, and claustrophobic was The Walking Dead's pilot episode, "Days Gone Bye." While the episode introduced us to a goodly number of the first season's main characters — including Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal), Dale Horvath (Jeffrey DeMunn), and, by way of one smartass voice communication, Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun) — its focus was decidedly on Sheriff's Deputy Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), who recovers from being shot in the line of duty to find that the world has changed very much while he's been out of commission, and not for the better.

That first episode, directed by original showrunner Frank Darabont, was a masterclass in pacing, suspense, and world building. Viewers were made to ascertain a great deal of detail about the world they were being introduced to simply by observing, adding to their sense of empathy for Rick, who was pretty much in the same boat. For the truly observant, though, the episode contained a number of little details that served as sly nods, outright homages, or just fun asides. Here are a few things you may not have noticed in the very first episode of The Walking Dead.

The county where Rick lives is definitely an homage

The episode briefly shows us, by way of flashback, what life was like for Rick and Shane (his partner on the police force) before the entire world went pear-shaped. They were just a couple of deputies patrolling the dusty byways of King County, Georgia. Immediately before encountering a few desperate men and engaging in the shootout which would land Rick in the hospital, they had been sitting in their parked cruiser, munching burgers and fries and talking about Rick's marital problems.

Things had been pretty uneventful for the friends, right up until they weren't. We get the feeling that not much ever went down in King County, although we can't say for certain, because we don't have a real-life counterpart to compare it to. While The Walking Dead is rarely known to make use of fictional locations, there is no actual King County in the state of Georgia — and if you're at all familiar with Darabont, you can probably parse out why he chose to use that name. It's a blatant homage to the Master of Horror himself, Stephen King, with whom Darabont has been closely associated for the bulk of his career. 

Darabont's very first produced film was a short which adapted King's short story The Woman in the Room, and he would go on to direct and write the screenplays for The Shawshank RedemptionThe Green Mile, and The Mist. Chatting about his affinity for King's work with Deadline in 2019, Darabont said, "The real underlying thing is a secret superpower, but now not-so-secret, is [King] always really makes you care about [his] characters. You really become invested and that's a tremendous skill for a writer to have, and I don't think anybody does it quite as well as Stephen does."

A great name for a survivor

After leaving the hospital, Rick's luck briefly changes for the better when he is taken in by a pair of survivors, Morgan (Lennie James) and his young son Duane (Adrian Kali Turner). The pair nurse Rick back to health (after Duane mistakes him for a walker and brains him with a shovel, but that's neither here nor there), and the trio plan to head for Atlanta, where Morgan has heard that the CDC is working on a cure for whatever has caused the dead to begin reanimating.

The small but cool detail that might have escaped a lot of viewers here is Morgan and Duane's surname: Jones. Fans of the zombie genre may remember that Duane Jones was the lead actor in George A. Romero's original 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead. At the time, Jones — a Black man — was a bold choice to lead his film, but Romero always insisted that he never had any preference as to the race or ethnicity of his lead, he simply went with the best actor to audition. Unfortunately, Jones passed away in 1988, but Darabont's homage in The Walking Dead's first episode is proof that his contribution to one of the most beloved genres in all of horror will not be forgotten any time soon.

Rick unlocks an achievement

One of the more shocking moments in The Walking Dead's pilot episode comes when Rick, Morgan, and Duane visit the King County Sheriff's Department in order to secure supplies and weapons (and a hot shower, thanks to the department's propane heating system). After loading up Rick's police cruiser, the trio plans to meet up again in Atlanta; Rick will get a head start, while Morgan while stay behind for a few days so that he can teach Duane how to shoot. Before they part ways, though, Rick notices that one of his young deputies — an unfortunate soul by the name of Leon — is now a walker, clawing hungrily at the chain link fence separating him from a fresh meal.

Rick discloses that he had never had a terribly high opinion of the young man, but he is still remiss to leave him in such a state. So he does the most humane thing possible, and shoots Leon in the head right through the fence. As he does, sharp-eared viewers might have noticed a distinctive audio cue. You have to listen very closely, but partially buried in the audio mix as Rick's shot rings out and the fence jangles is the "Achievement Unlocked" sound specific to the Xbox 360. We're not sure we even want to know what exact achievement Rick unlocked, but at least poor old Leo — such as he was — hungers no more.

Nobody is having fun tonight

The conclusion of "Days Gone Bye" is unbelievably intense for Rick, and viewers could be forgiven for thinking that the show's creative minds had introduced us to this compelling, well-drawn character only for it to be curtains for him immediately. Upon reaching Atlanta, Rick finds it to be a deserted wasteland; the lone sign of help that he spots, a helicopter which buzzes overhead, leads him directly into an enormous horde of ravenous walkers. He manages to find refuge in an abandoned tank, but — with zero supplies save for his sidearm, and completely surrounded by walkers — he briefly considers suicide before Glenn makes his presence known. His voice crackles over the tank's radio with one of the most perfect lines of dialogue in television history: "Hey. Hey you, dumbass. You in the tank. Cozy in there?"

As the episode ends, we're regaled with the strains of a bouncy, upbeat tune that only the most hardcore pop fans would have recognized. The song is called "Space Junk," and it's performed by Wang Chung — a band best-known for their ubiquitous hit "Everybody Have Fun Tonight," but one that decidedly does not deserve their one-hit wonder label. This particular song was a new track included on the 1997 compilation Everybody Wang Chung Tonight: Wang Chung's Greatest Hits, which included all 11 — that's right, 11 — of their charting singles. 

The song serves as a nice, pleasant juxtaposition to Rick's predicament, but we can't help but wonder if The Walking Dead's music director was subtly pointing out that Rick would, in fact, not be having any fun that night whatsoever. If they were, well, that's pretty darned awesome — and if they weren't, we feel like they should have been.