Eagle eyed viewers of the The Walking Dead’s pilot episode (very, very eagle eyed viewers) would have noticed that the actor playing the zombie soldier Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) encounters in the tank was not played by any old extra, but by Sam Witwer, who portrayed Doomsday in Season 8 of Smallville, and provided the voice and likeness for Cade Starkiller in The Star Wars: Force Unleashed games. Talking to Comic Book Resources, he said that while Frank Darabont was show runner there was talk of Witwer’s character becoming the focus of a spin off web series which showed what happened to Atlanta and how it became the zombie ridden hell we see in the first episode. But when Darabont was dropped from the show, all ideas for that web series seemed to go with him.
But in a letter to Aint It Cool News, Darabont explains the plan he had for the character, and a very interesting one it was. Instead of the soldiers story being told in a web series, it would have formed the basis for the first episode of Season 2, a flash back episode to before the events of the pilot. As Darabont says himself:
“The idea was to do this with a very focused “you are there” documentary feel. Not going all shaky-cam, but still making it a bit rawer and grainier than the rest of the show. We’d start with a squad of maybe seven or eight soldiers being dropped into the city by chopper. They have map coordinates they need to get to; they’ve been told to report to a certain place to provide reinforcement. It’s not a special mission, it’s basically a housekeeping measure putting more boots on the ground to reinforce key intersections and installations throughout the city. And we follow this group from the moment the copter sets them down. All they have to do is travel maybe a dozen blocks, a simple journey, but what starts as a no-brainer scenario goes from “the city is being secured” to “holy shit, we’ve lost control, the world is ending.” Our squad gets blocked at every turn and are soon just trying to survive. I wanted to do a really tense, character-driven ensemble story as communications break down, supply lines are lost, escape routes are cut off, morale falls apart, leadership unravels, mutinies heat up, etc. (Yes, this approach owes a spiritual debt to a number of great films, including Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort.)
Along the way, I thought we could briefly dovetail this story with a few established characters from the show. Not to overdo that, mind you, because it could get silly and too coincidental if you load too much into that idea. But I thought it would be great to veer off on a quick narrative detour that brushes our soldiers briefly up against some people we know. Picture our squad arriving at a manned barricade where some civilians are being held back from leaving the city on shoot-to-kill orders to stop the spread of contagion, it’s a panicked high-intensity scene, and in this crowd of desperate people we find Andrea and Amy. The barricade gunners panic, the civilians start to get mowed down by machine gun fire, and in this melee the girls get pulled to safety by some old guy they don’t even know. It’s Dale. He’s nobody to them, just some guy who saw the opportunity to do the right thing and reacted in the moment. This would have been perhaps a minute or two of the episode, just a cool detour like the various outposts the soldiers encounter in Saving Private Ryan, but we would have witnessed the moment that Dale meets Andrea and Amy, seen where that relationship began. I also felt it would be a great way to get Emma Bell back into the series for a moment, because she was so wonderful and we were all so sorry that her character died and she had to leave the show. (Of course if this “brush with established characters” idea didn’t work in the script stage, I’d have tossed it out. You try a lot of ideas like that as you go, see how they play. But I thought this one stood a pretty good chance of being engineered to work well.)
So the story follows these soldiers through hell as the city falls apart and the squad implodes, with Sam’s soldier being the main character and the moral center of the group. He becomes the last survivor of the squad, and he finally gets to the map coordinates they’ve been trying to get to from the start: it’s the barricade at the Atlanta courthouse intersection from the pilot where Rick later finds the tank. The soldier is still alive when he gets there, but he’s been bitten. He’s accomplished his “simple” mission, but he’s gone through seven kinds of hell to do it (including being forced to frag his squad leader), and now he’s dying. And he crawls off into the tank just to get off the street and under cover. As his fever builds and the poor guy starts to hallucinate, he pulls his last grenade and considers ending his life. He sets the grenade down on that shelf for a moment to reflect on all the shit and misery that brought him to this sad end-point of his life, and to dredge up the courage to pull the pin…but before he can act, the fever burns him out and he dies.
The kicker comes in the last moments of this episode:
After the soldier dies this squalid, lonely death…and after a quiet lapse of time…we do a shot-for-shot reprise from the first episode of the first season: Rick comes scrambling into the tank to escape the horde…blows that zombie soldier’s brains out…now Rick’s trapped…fade out…the end.
The notion was to take the “throwaway” tank zombie Rick encountered in the pilot, and tell that soldier’s story. Make him the star of his own movie, follow his journey, but don’t reveal who he is until the end. The idea being that every zombie has a story, every undead extra was once a human being with a life of his/her own…was, in a sense, the star of his own life’s movie. And we’ve followed this one particular guy and seen how his life ended; we witness his struggles, see his good intentions and his failures, and we experience his godawful death in this tank. That’s why I cast Sam as that tank zombie in the first place instead of just casting some extra. I had this story in mind while filming the pilot, and I knew I’d need a superb actor to play that soldier when the time came.
And then starting with Episode 202, we’d be back with Rick’s group and back in step with the flow of the established story from last season.”
It’s an interesting angle to go with, and one that would have certainly jarred the viewer. Maybe the current show runners will revisit the idea, as they’ve have shown in the first half of season 2 a willingness to go back to events before the zombie apocalypse.
The second half of The Walking Dead season 2 begins February 12th.