SPOILERS AHEAD: This week’s episode of “The Walking Dead,” Save The Last One, focuses on the group’s efforts to save Carl’s life. The story follows two different narratives. The first takes place at the farmhouse where Rick and Lori wait with growing impatience while Herschel tends to his wounds. The second storyline follows Shane and Otis as they try to get surgical supplies from a local high school, but are trapped by zombies at every turn. I wanted to create a score that would unify both these narratives with unrelenting tension, and I brought an unexpected musical instrument to the score, as I discuss in this week’s video blog:
My initial plan was to only use the Rhodes for the opening cue, where we cut between Rick and Lori in the bedroom and Shane and Otis running for their lives. The deep, warm bass tones of the electric piano, combined with the stereo vibrato, created a melancholy tension that was somehow also mesmerizing:
[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/wd204a.mp3|titles=High School Story]
As soon as I wrote this cue, I knew I was on to something. The haunting combination of rhodes and electric bass laid a beautiful foundation. I used gentle clusters of string orchestra and synth pads to create a harmonic bed. And the last touch of rhythm came from chugging overdubs of me playing hurdy gurdy harmonics (I will cover my use of hurdy gurdy in “The Walking Dead” in an upcoming entry).
This cue was so effective, I decided to try using it as a template for the rest of the episode. After all, my goal was to create something that would musically unify the entire episode. The only problem was that the Shane and Otis scenes really were full-on action scenes. I had my doubts that this subtle approach could work. But, the result was surprisingly effective.
In one of the first major sequences, Shane is cornered by a chain link fence and running out of ammo. I started by taking all the elements from the opening cue, including the rhodes and rhythmic hurdy gurdy harmonics, and using them as a foundation upon which to build a more intense action cue. I added tense layers of percussion, including struck autoharps, hammered dulcimer, bowed psaltery and kick drum:[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/wd204b.mp3|titles=Shane Link Fence]
One of the most significant changes I made to the opening musical idea was increasing the tempo (you can actually hear the tempo change within the music in the last clip — the cue starts off fairly slow and picks up steam as the zombies close in). This is an idea that I applied to the entire episode, creating a general tempo change from the first cue to the last.
As you watch this episode, you may not consciously notice that each cue with Shane and Otis is a little faster than the last. But, this increasing tempo does ratchet up the tension over the episode in a subtle way. This musical approach simulates a sort of “ticking clock” in the audience’s subconscious. It underscores the idea that time is running out for Carl if these guys can’t find a way out of the highschool.
While most of the episode’s score was written using this rhodes bassline as a foundation, certain cues needed to stand out. The most urgent had to be the scene where Rick and Lori authorize Herschel to begin the surgery on Carl without the proper medical supplies. For this scene, I used an energetic 6/8 pattern in the drum kit and acoustic guitars to create tension. A simple melody line was played by 12-string guitar and hammered dulcimer (using soft mallets for a more gentle sound):[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/wd204c.mp3|titles=Into Surgery]
This is one of the most high-energy cues in the episode, but it’s also infused with sadness. I wanted to suggest that this could be the end for Carl. If Herschel begins the surgery before Shane returns, we know that even the best outcome, where Carl survives, would involve a mercilessly brutal surgery. The music is meant to prepare us to endure seeing this.
Thankfully, however, Shane returns in the nick of time with the supplies. But, mysteriously, he returns alone. And in the episode’s closing moments, we learn why. He goes to the bathroom and shaves his head while we are given flashback glimpses into what really happened.
The score for this sequence mirrors the first cue in the episode, which began on this very imagery. Unlike the rest of the score, these “Shane Mirror” cues are very ambient, almost like sound design in nature. Shane is a complex character and I didn’t want to muddle this sequence with emotional or tense music. I wanted to leave it up to the viewer to decide how they feel about him. Is he a hero? A criminal? Did he cross a line that Rick would not have? The score doesn’t comment on any of that:
Washy beds of synthesizers, electric guitars, bowed psaltery and tremolo celli and violas create a deep, ominous tone. The mood is scary, yes, but it’s not clear whether it’s scary because of what Shane escaped from or what he has become.
As we glimpse flashbacks of the final moments escaping from the high school, the intensity in the ambient music reaches a breaking point. Electric banjo sneaks in (over shots of zombie carnage) and the violins flutter percussive col legno phrases across their strings. Deep, blaring synthesizers groan beneath the texture as the string ensemble glisses upward with a terrifying cluster:[audio:https://www.bearmccreary.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/wd204e.mp3|titles=Shane’s Reflection]
In the episode’s closing image, Shane stares at himself in the mirror. The ambient score washes away like an ebbing tide, and we are left with just simple sound design and the deep rumbling bassline of the rhodes, fading us into the black.
Save the Last One was a bit of an experiment for me. Even after I’d finished recording the score, I wasn’t sure how well it would translate to the final mix. But, when I went to the dub stage (where sound effects, dialog and music are merged together), I was stunned at how effective the music was. While percussion and guitars frequently get lost in the chaotic sound design of a big action sequence, this unique blend of rhodes and electric bass cut through the sound effects and dialog perfectly, laying an ominous foundation beneath the action scenes.
An approach I considered unusually subtle actually had a bigger impact than a typical aggressive action score would have had. I definitely filed this away in my bag of tricks to draw from later.
PS: Happy Halloween, everybody! Raya and I got pretty geeky with our costumes this year. If you can identify us… well, you’re a geek too. But, we love you! 🙂