The Walking Dead: Sick

SPOILERS BEYOND: The last two minutes of the season premiere left us with some pretty jarring cliffhangers: Herschel had his leg chomped on by a walker, chopped off by Rick and then Daryl discovers that the prison has human survivors. Picking up immediately where we left off, Seed, starts with an adrenaline-laced scene as they rush to treat Herschel.

The opening two cues are direct continuations of the huge action cue that ended the last episode.  Pounding toms, scraping autoharps and acoustic guitars are set against a dissonant wall of wailing distorted banjos and a chromatic chugging line in the low strings and baritone guitars.  The chromatic bass line continuously works its way up through the aggressive percussive texture, never landing on any key.  This gives the entire cue a deliriously 12-tone quality, one that unsettles and heightens the panic.   Musically, it was a hell of a way to start an episode.  Frankly, I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to top the energy of this cue later in the episode (but I think I eventually did!).

Sick has some incredible action sequences in it, but one in particular is actually the funniest of the series for me.  Our crew is trying to teach the surviving prisoners how to kill zombies, and as they near their prey, Daryl starts counting down for the attack.  The cue I wrote for this scene, humorously entitled “Zombie Killing School,” starts off as the string orchestra, bowed psaltery and ambient synths form dissonant clusters that ramp up slowly while Daryl counts down.  But, before he finishes counting down, the inmates abruptly scream and charge in.  The music stops suddenly, and lets their fight play for dark comedy.  It was a fun twist on the ‘zombie-killing’ scene.

Bloodshed aside, my favorite scenes in this episode were the ones revolving around Maggie and Herschel.  As she waits to see if her father will turn into a walker, Maggie must come to terms with the fact that she may lose him.  In the episode’s most emotional scene, Maggie says goodbye to her father, giving herself permission to let him go.  Actress Lauren Cohan absolutely delivers in this scene (and I hope to see her scene in an Emmy broadcast next year).

My job was to underscore the emotion without weighing her performance down with unnecessary sentiment.  I used gentle string harmonies and a solo electric guitar to offer a sense of peace and resolve just beneath the emotional pain she’s going through.  Thematically, I went back to Season 2′s Nebraska, where I had written a theme for Herschel.  I brought that theme back, but turned it on its head.  This variation is really Maggie’s Theme now, because she’s preparing to live without him.  (A secondary goal for this cue was to underline the very real possibility that Herschel is going to die in this episode.)

The guitar in this cue is a unique sound for “The Walking Dead.”  It is running clean through the amp, without any distortion or processing besides some light delay.  While guitars have been a major part of my score for this series, they have always been manipulated and distorted, frequently beyond recognition.  Stripping all that away, and leaving just the sound of the clean electric guitar has a powerful emotional impact on an audience that’s been saturated with distortion for two seasons.  Of course, it always helps when you have Oingo Boingo’s Steve Bartek playing your guitar parts!

Maggie’s Theme returns at the end of the episode when Herschel awakens, now signifying that Maggie does not have to say goodbye after all.  The arrangement at the end is fuller and more emotional, and brings the theme full circle.

When writing a score like “The Walking Dead,” moments like this can often be the most fun because they offer a stark contrast from the dissonant darkness that comprises most of the cues.

Next week’s episode will introduce a new theme to the score that will be incredibly important to the rest of the season.  I think you know who it will be for!  :)

-Bear