The Walking Dead: Welcome to the Tombs
April 1st, 2013
The third season of “The Walking Dead” followed sweeping new story arcs, brought our heroes to the brink of desperation and introduced new players on both sides of a classic showdown between good and evil. To keep pace, I expanded the sound of the score from the earthy, intimate timbres of the first two seasons. Tonight brings us “Welcome to the Tombs,” the final episode in the season and one that presented me with a number of challenges. As you ‘ll see in my video blog, in addition to writing the score, I also made myself responsible for playing one of the featured instruments!
WELCOME TO THE SPOILERS: Be warned, do not read beyond this point until you’ve watched the episode! Major spoilers lie ahead…
The episode opens with a tense scene between Milton and the Governor. Throughout this sequence I strove to stay out of the way, and simply underline the dread with dissonant string textures and distorted guitar tones. Though subtle, the music is relentless, and builds intensity as the Governor plays with Milton, terrifying him and ultimately mortally wounding him. David Morissey’s outstanding performance of this sadistic character is so vital that a strong musical presence would run the risk of undercutting him. So, I avoided big gestures, kept the music in the background, and created unsettling textures to help us feel Milton’s fear.
After the Main Title, I introduced a new musical idea for the montage as we see our heroes packing up and leaving the prison. Here, the music is the sequence’s driving force, connecting the various story threads together.
The producers and I spent a lot of time on this montage, because it turns out to be a pivotal scene for the episode. We need to feel like our characters are retreating, but still keep the energy up so the audience internalizes that the excitement is actually building, contrary to the images on screen. In discussions with producers Scott Gimple and Gale Anne Hurd we finally stumbled upon the phrase ‘energetic melancholy.’ That idea really clicked for me and I began to imagine a way to achieve these two moods that are seemingly in conflict.
My solution was to introduce a new instrument to the TWD score, the piano, and combine it with the orchestral strings. Listen carefully to this cue and you’ll realize that all the rhythmic activity is in the piano. The strings are playing long, dark chords that would sound forlorn on their own. But, the piano follows along, arpeggiating the chords in a quickly repeating pattern:
The combination is, in my opinion, the perfect musical realization of ‘energetic melancholy.’ The chords inspire deep emotions as we watch Carl interact with his dad, or Michonne thanking Rick for sparing her. During all this, the piano adds an unexpected urgency and gives the audience the feeling that something exciting is on the horizon, even though there’s no way to know exactly what.
Lastly, to give the montage more shape, I added some simple parts for electric bass, played by Mike Valerio, and acoustic guitars, played by Ed Trybek. The bass tone is clean and raw, with a little fret noise that tells us a real person is playing. This whole cue is just so beautiful, when it all came together it reminds me of something Roger Waters might have written for “The Wall.” I can definitely hear a Michael Kamen influence in my string writing here (he did orchestral arrangements on that album).
In the next sequence, the Governor and his crew roll into the prison like total badasses, preparing for the ultimate fight to the death. Here, I expanded the Governor’s synthesizer-based theme, nicknamed “The Pulse” by fans, into its most aggressive and ominous version yet.
But, when they get there… nobody’s home. And the score actually settles down, gradually decaying away until its gone entirely. Rick soon springs his trap, and the tombs become a shooting gallery of chaos, zombies, bullets and barbed wire. This scene was so loud that I knew at first glance it needed to no score. The sound effects created all the tension needed.
Once the Governor decides to retreat, however, the score comes in and plays Glen and Maggie’s attempts to kill the Governor. Despite the chaos, I used intimate chords to suggest that Maggie and Glen are not trying to kill everyone running away, just the Governor. He uses his crew as human shields because he knows they won’t cross that moral line and slaughter everyone to achieve their goal, a line which he himself will cross shortly.
The rest of the episode builds up, focusing mostly on Andrea’s attempts to escape before Milton turns, and the Governor’s betrayal of his own people’s trust. I scored the Andrea scenes keeping in mind the fact that most people fully expect her to escape. So, I always took opportunities to highlight possible escape routes or hopeful turns. This helped make her fate even more shocking.
Like his opening scene with Milton, the final scene with the Governor needed an atmospheric approach. This scene, where he guns down his own people, is obviously a very touchy one and needed to be approached with caution from every angle. I chose a subjective route. The music isn’t acknowledging the horror of his actions, because there really wasn’t time for that kind of emotional commentary. Instead, I used dissonant clusters of strings and synths to underline his insanity, essentially creating the musical equivalent of a tea kettle left unattended on a stove: a ramping, piercing, unsettling sound that you want to go away the louder it gets.
Rick decides to return to Woodbury with a small group and for this scene I wrote an exciting cue called “The Badge,” (you can hear a clip of it at the beginning of the video blog). The sequence starts with an emotional exchange between father and son when Carl gives his dad’s badge back.
My first version of this scene was an obvious approach: I wrote an emotional piece of music underscoring Rick’s heartbreak at seeing his son return the badge. In fact, it was a variation of “Rick’s Despair” from the pilot, a theme has been expanded for many key moments involving the Grimes family.
But, producers Gimple and Hurd leant a fascinating insight to this scene that caused me to rethink it and approach it from another angle. Rather than playing emotion, I played dread. The string orchestra ebbs in and out with dissonant tremolo clusters. It actually feels like it could be a suspense cue, more appropriate if they were sneaking past hungry walkers.
I was initially worried it would distract from the emotion of the scene, or perhaps even suggest that walkers are about to leap out and attack Carl and Rick. To the contrary, it brought a whole new dimension of emotion to the scene. The score tells us that Rick’s worst fear has come true: his son has been consumed by this new world. Yes, the dissonant strings still represent the imminent threat of the walker-infested world, but now the threat is coming at him through his own son. With this new approach, the look on Rick’s face is even more devastating. The world is so bleak that sad music has no meaning anymore.
As those dissonant strings sustain, a solitary electric bass enters with a new chord progression as our team gears up to head out. One by one, everyone agrees to an obviously dangerous plan. The score gains momentum when the strings stop sustaining long notes, and move to an exciting ostinato pattern:
At last, they hit the road and the score goes crazy. Huge pounding drums enter, the electric bass goes into overdrive and a wailing electric banjo solo underscores Carol and Beth stabbing walkers as they open the gate for the car to leave. The orchestral strings chug away, doubling the bass and acoustic guitars, creating a rockin’ texture that really gets the blood flowing. The score tells us that Rick is going to charge into Woodbury and rescue Andrea!
Of course, that’s not what happens.
In the episode’s penultimate scene, Rick, Michonne and Daryl make their way into Andrea’s cell only to discover her dying. I underscored Andrea’s final moments entirely with the orchestral strings and solo piano. I was able to strip away the layers of dissonant harmonies and simply write moving chords that underscore her words. The scene was tough, because it had to be emotional and worthy of Andrea, but also couldn’t be so big as to push the scene into melodrama. Seeing the emotion in Michonne’s face alone nearly moved me to tears, so I knew I had to tread lightly.
My orchestration here is almost the opposite of the big montage cue in the beginning. Here, the strings move in big sweeping chords, providing the rhythmic motion, while the piano plays a background role.
At the end of the scene, the orchestra goes quiet for a moment, leaving plenty of space for the solitary gunshot to ring out that tells us Andrea has died. But, she’s died on her own terms and been awarded the end she always wanted. Though the music is sad, I don’t think it’s bleak. I’m not even sure I can articulate in words what I did specifically to make this work, but when I watch the scene back that’s how I feel. The music allows us to mourn for her, but feel strangely happy for her at the same time.
The final montage of the episode features our heroes returning to the prison. Conceptually and visually, it mirrors the montage in the beginning of the episode, so it was an obvious choice to have the music mirror that cue as well. So, once more, the piano enters with a solo ostinato, a slower variation of the first ostinato:
Though the orchestral strings gradually build up an emotional presence, the first instrument to join the piano is a solo violin, playing a wistful melody (featured in the video blog if you want to hear it):
The arrangement and harmonies connect this cue to opening montage, but this melody is actually new. I’m not sure what to even call it, or if it will become an important theme in Season 4. I imagine I’ll give it a name if it ends up being a theme I draw from in the future. What would you call it? What did hearing this piece mean to you?
The montage’s visual imagery is peaceful and serene, so the score matches the mood: there’s minimal dissonance in the writing, and what little there is quickly resolves into beautiful harmonies. I generally avoided commenting on exact plot points here. A few moments are acknowledged specifically, like Rick looking up at the last place he saw Lori and seeing that she’s gone. The score hits you on a deeply emotional level and lets you react in your own way to the individual moments.
The episode’s conclusion was so peaceful that it seemed inappropriate to throw us back into the jarring theme for the end credits, so I composed a special end credit just for this episode, one that is a continuation of this new theme. It allows us to end the journey of Season 3 in a meditative mood, even though we know our heroes’ problems are far from over.
As far as journeys go, few could be more exhilarating than working on “The Walking Dead.” Beginning with my first interactions with fans of the graphic novel, at Comic Con 2010 when my involvement in the series was first announced to a shockingly excited crowd, I’m constantly amazed and honored at how much my score means to all of you. Through dozens of brilliant covers posted on YouTube and literally thousands of tweets and Facebook posts, not a day goes by that I don’t hear from someone who loves my work on this show. I’ve scored my fair share of series with passionate fan bases, but not even those experiences could have prepared me for this tidal wave of enthusiasm and support. You guys are the reason I do this. Creating music is a joy in part because I know there’s a world of people out there waiting to enjoy it, as a dramatic experience to picture and also as an art form entirely its own. Clearly, not everyone understands that film and television music can stand alone as an artistic experience, so I know I’m very fortunate to have fans that do. Thank you for sharing this journey with me.