There’s a fundamental disconnect between the ways characters act in “Monster,” and the way we want them to act. We, the viewers, have certain generic expectations about zombie stories, and Fear the Walking Dead showrunner Dave Erickson does not prioritize satisfying them in this season premiere. That decision isn’t surprising, given how season one was so drawn-out and anticlimactic. It’s also not entirely a bad thing: Erickson and The Walking Dead co-creator Robert Kirkman have made Fear the Walking Dead a slow-burn family drama that also happens to be a zombie thriller. Excuse the pun, but that’s a gutsy choice.
That’s also why, despite its slow pace, I can’t really condemn “Monster.” Like Fear the Walking Dead, it’s too frustrating to be great, but too eccentric to be dismissed.
Take the episode’s opening scene, which picks up right after the season one finale. Our protagonists are on the beach, moments away from being rescued by Strand and Nick. But Chris does not want to go: His fight-or-flight response has led him to dig in his heels, and refuse to accept that Travis shot his mother Elizabeth to protect his family. Chris’s fit is consistent with his behavior in season one. His relationship with Travis, an estranged parent, has never been ideal. But when you introduce that dynamic to a scene with such familiar stakes — we, as fans of zombie movies/TV shows/video games/beer koozies, know this setup all too well — it’s tough not to see his reluctance to budge as anything but an unbelievable plot point designed to drum up a canned conflict.
How can you not roll your eyes at a table-setting scene where one of the show’s least essential main characters pitches a fit, putting Travis’s group in danger because … well, he doesn’t know that his mother is a zombie, and zombies don’t heal, regenerate, or get better.
That’s the crux of Fear the Walking Dead’s main conceit: What if you lived in a world where characters didn’t have the knowledge that we do, and therefore couldn’t rely on established notions of how the world would work post-zombie crisis? (This is what made Rick Grimes such a compelling hero in The Walking Dead’s first season. He didn’t know what to do, how to act, or who to rescue in a world where alpha males weren’t necessarily at the top of the food chain.)
Back to this opening scene. Raise your hand if you wanted to scream, “Why can’t you be more like Nick?!” It’s hard not to watch this scene without getting fed up about Chris’s selfish decision. What does this kid bring to the show beyond teenage angst?
Likewise, who wants to be patient with Alicia when she naively gives the location of the Abigail, Strand’s ship, to a mysterious survivor named Jack? This is a classic zombie-film dilemma: Do you help people, or save your resources and live comfortably for as long as you can? Again, Alicia’s innocent response is symptomatic of what sets Fear the Walking Dead apart from other zombie shows: She doesn’t know yet that being selfish in the middle of an insurmountable crisis is not really a bad thing. Strand, though he’s being a dick, is not wrong to insist that Travis’s family obey his orders, which boil down to “My boat, my rules.”
Of course, you don’t need to be a Dawn of the Dead diehard to know that Alicia’s faith in Jack is misplaced. Let’s say you trust Jack because you enjoy the dulcet Bobby Sherman–esque tones of his voice, or you believe his benign cover — I mean backstory. There are a couple of major warning signs that should make Alicia suspicious of Jack, particularly the fact that the landmark closest to him is a plume of black smoke. Jack even uses the smoke to help steer Alicia to his group. What kind of person hears “plume of black smoke” and doesn’t ask, “Uh, excuse me, my good man, why are you near something that is on fire whilst being surrounded by an abundance, nay, a whole body of water?”
Okay, maybe that’s too specific. Let’s focus on what matters: “Monster” is an occasionally fruitful episode that’s explicitly about the moments that happen between major confrontations. One of the best scenes in the series thus far — the sequence when Nick bobs around in the water, and is assaulted by a water-logged zombie — also wouldn’t be as effective if the rest of the episode hypnotized us with its relatively mundane narrative.
This season premiere is meant to orient viewers, reminding them of the show’s frustratingly laid-back rhythm. Sure, it may be a bit basic, but what do you expect from a show that still hasn’t capitalized on its main premise? We’re still waiting to reach the full potential of a zombie story about people who don’t know what to do in a zombie story.
The best parts of “Monster” are the moments where characters’ inability to know what comes next sinks in, like the creepy sequence when Madison tries to find Strand and sees that the ship is literally steering itself. This is a little moment in an epic narrative, so it can easily get lost in the shuffle. But moments like that — when you realize that anything is possible and nobody is safe — are where a really good zombie story gets under your skin. I think Erickson and his fellow showrunners know that, but are remaining coy. For now.
- C’mon, Chris, punch Travis harder! Nobody’s going to teach you how to punch your dad right? Well, maybe Daniel.
- Since when is “talking to ghosts” a “characteristic of the gifted?” Anybody else roll their eyes at this line of thought?
- Also: Anybody else distracted by the way they skipped around David Bowie’s “Five Years” during Alicia’s big scene, as if they were unsure of what part of the song to excerpt? All they had to do was let the song play, but no, they shortened it anyway. What a weirdly mismanaged needle-drop.
- There’s a decanter of alcohol in the family-togetherness montage. Care to speculate what Travis is drinking?
- The Coast Guard’s message — “There is no rescue by air, or by sea. Forgive us.” — is effectively creepy, and easily one of the episode’s highlights.