The Walking Dead: Pretty Much Dead Already

I’m a bit late posting this week’s blog entry because I needed some time to absorb the episode’s impact, and to get fan reactions before I offered my own commentary.  Because the music I wrote for Pretty Much Dead Already is some of my most powerful yet for “The Walking Dead,” I didn’t want to trivialize it by cutting it up into excerpts, so there are no audio or video clips this week.

Before going any further, I must point out that the remaining blog entry will deal almost exclusively with the final scene.  The words “SPOILER ALERT” do not begin to describe how important it is that you watch the episode before reading any further.  So, if you haven’t watched the episode, please go to your DVRs, TVs, iPods, Computers, DVDs or whatever you have and watch it first. Ok?  Good.  Here, we go…

… seriously.  SPOILER ALERT.  SPOILER ALERT!!!

… Ok, everyone who hasn’t seen the episode is gone.  It’s just us cool kids now.  :)

On with the blog. Pretty Much Dead Already contains only four pieces of music.  The first two cues are purely horror pieces meant to underline how terrifying the barn has become.

For the past few episodes, I’ve taken every opportunity to associate ominous music with images of the barn.  Now that you’ve seen the ending of this episode, you can fully understand why.  The barn becomes the spark that lights a fire of conflict building up for several episodes.  The opening minutes of score provide a dark undertone to the sequence where everyone discovers what Herschel is keeping there.

The third cue is a short emotional piece that accompanies Maggie and Glen reconciling their relationship.  A solo fiddle introduces a fragment of their melody shortly before an acoustic guitar offers an echo of the music first heard when they kissed back in Cherokee Rose, making this simple chord progression a love theme for them.

However, the most memorable piece of music is, of course, at the end.  Shane flips out and releases the zombies in the barn, challenging Herschel’s entire world view and forcing the other characters to choose his path.  First, the score is ambient: an amped up version of the dark string clusters  first heard as he shaved his head in Save the Last One (one of two “Shane Themes”).  The ambient synth and guitar clusters are still there, but this time they are punctuated by increasingly violent phrases from the string orchestra.

The music makes a subtle entrance.  I made sure not to press too hard on the drama.  After all, we’ve just watched nearly 40 minutes of drama with virtually no music at all, so I had to sneak in carefully for fear of ruining the scene with unnecessary melodrama.

At last, the zombies in the barn charge out.  At this moment, a steady chugging ostinato begins in the percussion, introduced by a solitary electric banjo.  Astute listeners will recognize it as the musical “wave” effect first heard in the highway sequence of What Lies Ahead.  The wave is returning, but this time, no one is hiding under cars.  They are directly in its path and must face it head on.

The “wave” builds energy, propelled by a heavy drum kit and electric bass, pounding away relentlessly.  More layers of electric banjos magnify the dissonant texture as the orchestral strings saw away at discordant phrases.

At last the final zombie falls and our heroes are left standing before a pile of bodies outside the barn.  A lonely melody played sul ponticello in the celli offers a quiet commentary on the bloodshed, punctuated by gentle arpeggios from acoustic guitars.  The mood is solemn and resolved, as if the show were about to end.

Of course, it doesn’t end.  A sound in the barn draws their attention and they brace for one more zombie to emerge…

… you guys know I’m serious about that SPOILER WARNING right? …

… last chance…

… ok, here goes. A zombified Sophia emerges from the barn an steps toward them!

The remainder of the episode contains no dialog other than her hysterical mother weeping and screaming in the background.  The entire story is told in images and music.  And the music is unlike anything I’ve ever written for the show.

As the recognition of Sophia sweeps across our main characters, an oscillating pattern begins in the strings. More traditional orchestration overtakes the piece as it builds.  Subtle brass and woodwinds sneak in above a child-like harp and celeste pattern.  The entire cue is made of variations of the central “Sophia Theme:”

With this sequence, my whole approach to the orchestra was different.  Or not different, I should say.  With every cue in ”The Walking Dead” I write for traditional orchestral in very unusual ways, composing clusters and dissonant, angular phrases.  I frequently use sul ponticello, tremolo, glisses, bends and other orchestration effects to create a sense of fear and alienation.  Here, I dropped all the tricks and fully embraced the warmth of a live orchestra. I was writing purely for beauty, emotion and tragedy.

This was not an easy decision for the producers and I to make.  We’ve taken great pains to ensure that the score to “The Walking Dead” does not sound like a traditional film score.  But, this sequence was special.  We had taken the time to develop this story arc and had the emotional capital with our audience to do something extraordinary.

Ultimately, the music I wrote for Pretty Much Dead Already matches the imagery in that it is emotional and operatic.  When you look at how skillfully director Michelle MacLaren staged the actors, it really does look like something from a Shakespearean tragedy.  A curtain could have fallen instead of cutting to black at the end!  So, I took my cue from that direction and wrote music equally soaring.

Of course, the story is actually as bleak as anything we’ve seen from this show.  Perhaps more so.  This scene is an emotional punch to the gut for me, because it not only makes us lose hope of finding Sophia, but makes us realize that all their efforts to save her were for nothing.  Perhaps there’s no hope at all.  That message is so powerful and instantaneous when you watch this sequence I knew I couldn’t improve upon it with dark music.  By playing the score as purely emotional and operatic, almost contrary to the images, it ultimately made that message of hopelessness even more pervasive.

That’s the last episode of “The Walking Dead” for a few months, but there’s a lot more going on here at my blog, so keep checking in.  I’ll be blogging about the absolutely delightful “Eureka” Christmas Special which airs next Tuesday on SyFy.  And soon, I’ll be posting some video clips from our recent Freddie Mercury Tribue Conert: “The Show Must Go On.”  As always, thanks for reading!

-Bear