Fear the Walking Dead is a spinoff of (wait for it) The Walking Dead, a series that co-creator Robert Kirkman, writer of the original Walking Dead comics and co-author of tonight’s Fear the Walking Dead pilot, conceived as an endurance test.
Kirkman originally wanted to create a series that would pick up where most zombie narratives left off, and follow a single character (i.e., Rick Grimes) for as long as the series lasted. Almost 12 years later, that series is still a frustrating formal experiment, as Rick’s longevity ensures a certain stifling level of normalcy in The Walking Dead’s shambolic narrative. Rick can lose limbs, loved ones, and his sanity, but Rick cannot die. By contrast, Fear the Walking Dead assumes a different kind of status quo: No matter what happens to the show’s human protagonists, zombies will break out and decimate the human population of Los Angeles.
While The Walking Dead assumed that we didn’t need to know how zombies took over the earth, Fear the Walking Dead focuses on the early onset of the zombie crisis for the sake of reinforcing the latent aspirational sense of ethics that Kirkman and co-creator Tony Moore used in their original comics series to show humanity as it should be, not as they think it really is. Tonight’s Fear the Walking Dead pilot reminds us that on some level, The Walking Dead has always been a progressive show designed by creators who don’t always know how to present their characters as signifiers of that ideal human behavior.
Written by Kirkman and co-showrunner David Erickson, “Pilot” overenunciates some of the key ideas that will presumably unfold over the Fear the Walking Dead, or maybe just the show’s first season (it’s hard to tell after one episode). Tonight’s episode doesn’t always convey its big ideas well, but it does have a messy, personal quality reminiscent of the early years of the Walking Dead comics. So while “Pilot” doesn’t always work, it’s rarely boring, and always at least strives for a humanistic/optimistic effect that the last two seasons of AMC’s The Walking Dead haven’t achieved.
That being said: The best parts of “Pilot” are, tellingly, the scenes that plunge viewers into experiential terror. We know that zombies are about to break out, but characters like Nick (Frank Dillane), a drug-using teen who is among the first to spot zombies in the wild, isn’t so lucky. Nick’s subplot is the most compelling in tonight’s episode for that reason. There are two moments in the episode that remind viewers of what a really good zombie drama can do when its creators unclench, and emphasize slow-motion choreography and wracked body language over blunt dialogue and contrived conflicts.
In that sense, the best parts of “Pilot” take cues from Frank Darabont’s supremely confident direction of The Walking Dead’s pilot, which was at its best when it was a silent film about a shell-shocked man who wakes up to find himself lost in a post-human environment. Nick is similarly compelling in the scenes where he first discovers Mona (i.e., the episode’s pre-credits cold-open), and where he breaks down in the arms of mother Madison (Kim Dickens) at episode’s end, thinking that he’s hallucinated the death of his friend/dealer, Calvin (Keith Powers).
The latter scene also leads us to one of the most thorny and fascinating moments in “Pilot”: the scene where Calvin embraces Nick and reassures him that everything’s going to be okay It’s both an unsettling and tender moment, but it also speaks to the show’s ungainly (but thankfully not too preachy!) outlook. As the zombie crisis looms, we see humanity in miniature as a post-chauvinistic society, one where Nick, the only white male protagonist, needs comforting. That’s a welcome but atypical jumping-off point for this show.
Throughout “Pilot,” men programmatically defer to women. That deference isn’t a bad thing, but the schematic nature of it is distracting. For starters, high-school English teacher Travis (Sunshine’s Cliff Curtis) tells a skeptical cop that he’s “not as eloquent” as Madison, his partner. (Travis is half-joking at the time, since Madison has just bluntly shooed the cop out of Nick’s hospital room.) Matt (Maestro Harrell) tells his girlfriend, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), Madison’s daughter, that he isn’t as smart as her (“Unlike you, I’m not smart enough to be teaching classes”). And Nick praises Alicia for being “perfect” (“You’re perfect, and I’m not”). Not only is Fear the Walking Dead a post-human world, it’s also a post-male and post-Caucasian world. Sounds great, right?
But it’s more laudable in theory than in execution because the show is usually more concerned with spelling out its opinion of characters and events than in allowing viewers to organically reach those same conclusions. I’ve criticized Kirkman and The Walking Dead in the past for having three types of female characters: crazy, weak, and dead. So it’s nice to see Kirkman going in the opposite direction with Fear the Walking Dead. But it would be even nicer to see women like Liza, Madison, and Alicia enjoy more than token importance. Yes, compliment their intelligence and fortitude, but also show those qualities in action, and make them integral to the show’s plot. After all, Madison only reunites with Nick because Nick trusts Travis, and doesn’t realize that Travis is bringing Madison along with him. Alicia is supposed to be bright and witty enough to paraphrase Einstein — “You repeat the same actions, but expect different results” — but only gets to wait on Nick and then wait for Matt, delivering a weak punch line through text message when he doesn’t show up: “You better be dead.”
Travis’s relationship with Madison, meanwhile, is interesting because it is, as Madison rightly psychoanalyzes, Travis’s way of making up for mistakes he made in his previous marriage. Travis wants to rescue Nick because he fouled up with Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie), his resentful biological son. Which sounds great, but it’s hard not to sympathize with Travis’s ex-wife Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez) when she chews Travis out for not doing enough for Chris.
He petulantly fires back by telling Liza that she isn’t being optimistic enough: “Can you carry some hope into the discussion?” Not only is that the worst line of the episode, it’s also setting up an incredible concept: In spite of a reality as daunting as, say, a zombie apocalypse, we have to try to behave, and do better. Travis also lectures his students in a class about Jack London, telling them that London teaches readers “how not to die,” in the words of one stereotypically bright but lazy student. It’s telling that Travis is the show’s main provider-type, and the only thing he’s provided so far is optimism.
Travis is, in that sense, a natural foil for Rick: Rick’s first response is to try to organize, to lead, to act, while Travis seems to prefer to let cooler heads prevail, even if they’re not his. That fundamental difference in character types is symptomatic of the difference between The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead’s perspective so far: The former series starts with a character who must contend with the heavy burden of knowing he can’t change or care for a world that’s already been consumed by zombies; the latter is a show about a man whose optimistic faith in community and selflessness is immediately tested by zombies. Still, we haven’t seen Travis do anything more than say he respects the judgment of family members like Madison, effectively granting her a hollow sort of empowerment so far.
That’s Fear the Walking Dead in a nutshell so far: a shaky introduction to a world where good ideas are appetizing in the abstract, but too forcefully underscored.
- Did Tobias bring a steak knife to school? Or was that a penknife? I honestly couldn’t get a good shot of his weapon …
- Anyone else taken aback at the scene where Travis reflexively pushes zombie Calvin away, towards the rapidly approaching pickup truck? I rewatched the scene and he’s definitely pushing him away, but it’s not clear if he’s doing it as a flight-or-fight thing, or because he wants Calvin dead. It seemed like the latter, a reading I believe since Kirkman’s beta characters never stop apologizing or explaining themselves when they get macho and alpha-y.
- Case in point: Travis’s commentary during the news footage of the zombie crisis was ridiculous. That dialogue would have been annoying in The Walking Dead comics, but understandable. But hearing real people exclaim aloud that they’re amazed at how many bullets one kid can take is absurd and unnecessary expository dialogue. We’re looking at the same footage! It requires no additional commentary! Thank you!
- Monster/makeup effects artist Greg Nicotero earned his paycheck during the church scenes. He always does, but still, the man deserves a shout-out every now and then.