“Things change so quickly now,” Sofia tells Nick at the beginning of “Grotesque.” As I watched the episode, the line brought to mind one of Dorothy Gale’s most famous in The Wizard of Oz: “People come and go so quickly around here!” The parallel between the two lines is probably unintentional, but it nevertheless made me realize that Nick is following his own long, winding road: towards Tijuana, and an unknown safe haven beyond the mountains. The key difference between Dorothy and Nick is that he would never say something like, “Things change so quickly now.” He prides himself on his self-reliance, and tonight, it winds up biting him in the leg.
Nick’s also afflicted by something akin to denial. At the end of the episode, he says that he’s seeking a place “where the dead aren’t monsters.” Because of generic expectations, we know zombies are mindless humanoid monsters. But Nick hopes to skirt that moral judgment, having been given more than one second chance himself. He also still believes, to some extent, that it’s not his time to die. “Grotesque” bears that theory out, but not before testing Nick’s faith. Violence may be arbitrary, but the world of Fear the Walking Dead is not lawless: The strong survive, but only if they keep their heads down. Nick does just that, so he’s rewarded for it.
Maybe a better analogy for Nick’s journey would be a hard science-fiction narrative. Think of Arthur C. Clarke’s or Ben Bova’s short stories, or recent films like The Martian or Gravity. In these stories, the hero’s personal life takes a backseat to his/her technical acumen and adaptability. Nick is adaptable, as we see when he instinctively steals a hobbled zombie’s belt to make a tourniquet for himself. Like the heroes of those stories, Nick’s journey is desolate. He’s the quintessential lone survivor, a character who must adjust to everything from a loss of provisions to physical injury without assurance that outside help is on the way. The only human contact that Nick expects on the road is a group of armed scavengers whom Sofia refers to as “Las Manas,” or “The Hands.” These guys shoot to kill and only look out for themselves. They are worse than zombies because they prey on their own kind. Nick expects to to be attacked by a self-interested pack of thugs. But these guys get their just desserts because they think they’re above the post-zombie-apocalypse laws of nature.
The presence of Las Manas is, realistically, where Nick’s story enters survival-horror territory. In a typical survival-horror story, the lead protagonist is also a loner. But unlike the hero of a hard sci-fi story, survival-horror characters must navigate an unjustly cruel terrain. The typical environment in hard sci-fi story is mostly indifferent. People live and die based on their know-how. But in a survival-horror story, an ill-timed encounter can cost you your life. The pack of armed killers who take aim at Nick do whatever they want because they make the rules … until they inevitably take that power for granted.
And they’re not the only ones Nick has to worry about. He may have mastered the art of zombie camouflage, but that doesn’t make him impervious to hungry dogs or their noses. Nick’s encounter with these two dogs is one of the most affecting and upsetting in Fear the Walking Dead’s brief run to date. When the dogs are torn apart by a pack of zombies, we hear them whimper several times before they die. Episode director Daniel Sackheim and make-up effects guru Greg Nicotero make matters much worse with an unsettling close-up of a dead dog’s grizzled carcass, red meat sticking out from a bloody rib cage. You wouldn’t know this is a dog’s corpse if it weren’t for a couple tufts of fur. It’s a tough scene to watch, and it effectively reminds us of Nick’s vicious reality. One minute, you’re a predator, the next, you’re prey.
Of course, “Grotesque” throws Nick a life vest shortly after he passes out, when a group of kindly, gun-toting survivors rescue him. Luciana, the group’s leader, hesitates repeatedly before agreeing to save him. Without lowering her guard, she ultimately leads Nick to her group’s home-base: a walled community of survivors that looks a bit like a smaller-scale version of season one’s quarantined suburbia. People talk among themselves, and Nick is even treated to a few choice pseudo-mystical lines by the local pharmacist/doctor, like “Death is not to be feared. But it shouldn’t be pursued. There is a difference.” The community is further proof that people are, at heart, good, and that no man has to be an island to survive. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before Nick leaves them, and resumes his itinerant search for safe haven.
I don’t have much to say much about Nick’s flashbacks, though, because they didn’t really go anywhere interesting. Tragedy strikes — while in rehab, Nick learns that his father died in a car accident — but doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on the episode’s present-day events. It’s all a bit mystifying. We don’t see Nick overcoming adversity in the past: We see him overwhelmed, and defeated by circumstances that are completely beyond his control. One could argue that these flashbacks are a reflection of Nick’s hopelessness, but whose mind races to a bleak memory when they’re already starved for water, and hobbling away from bullets, zombies, and dogs? Fear the Walking Dead still doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on its characters, but episodes like “Grotesque” are a welcome step in the right direction.
- In tonight’s episode, Nick drinks his own urine, eats cactus meat, and vomits up the contents of his empty stomach. More where this came from, please!
- Where did those guys learn to shoot? Nick can’t be that hard to shoot, can he?
- Nick, role-playing: “Fathers are supposed to show sons how to be a man in the world. But I guess being in the world is too much for you.” Where was this anger and resentment until now? I’d love to see more of it.
- I’m amazed that Nick got as far as he did after being thrashed by that aluminum baseball bat. Then again: After he’s attacked, why didn’t he just subdue his attacker and take back his stuff? I guess he was badly wounded, but now I’m curious.
- Can we please call a moratorium on bombastic dialogue like this: “Friends say you were walking with the dead […] That is strange company.” This line doesn’t mean anything.