Fear the Walking Dead
When Fear the Walking Dead first premiered, TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz said that he wished the show would retain some of the things that we like about zombie narratives. It wasn’t an unreasonable request, especially given that so much of our enjoyment of zombie stories is, at this point, based on our familiarity with older zombies stories (particularly George Romero’s zombie films). Still, “The Good Man” proves my counterargument: You really wouldn’t want a traditional zombie narrative from Robert Kirkman and co-creator Dave Erickson.
Tonight’s episode is, for the most part, fine. It’s also often unremarkable. One of the key distinctions between Fear the Walking Dead and other zombie stories is that it takes place in that hazy period at the start of the zombie crisis where people don’t know whether the zombie virus is incurable, pervasive or what. Tonight, it felt like we blew past the agonizing introductory phase of the show’s drama and went right to the same action stock-plot that many zombie movies adopt. Which is underwhelming since it feels like Erickson and Kirkman, who co-wrote tonight’s episode, wanted to give viewers relief from the one thing Fear the Walking Dead specializes in: the agony of not knowing.
So, yes, while it was nice to see Travis take matters into his own hands by episode’s end, it was also kind of anticlimactic since you only get to see Travis act after he and his group escape their neighborhood and rendezvous with Nick and Liza. By that point, it seemed like the episode saved its biggest emotional payload for last. Which is a shame, since there are a couple of unresolved and effectively provocative dangling questions left over before then, like what Ophelia thinks about Daniel now that she knows he was a torturer and not a victim.
Still, the relatively traditional zombie narrative doesn’t really suit Fear the Walking Dead because its creators don’t do action filmmaking well. Makeup wizard Greg Nicotero earns his keep tonight, as he always does in The Walking Dead. But apart from an inevitable altercation with Reynolds, there wasn’t much to the long trek away from home. The action scenes were okay, but nothing you haven’t seen before. There wasn’t much urgency to the scenes preceding tonight’s big finale with Liza, which is when Kirkman and Ericsson’s strengths and weaknesses become more apparent.
After selflessly volunteering to help others, Liza reveals that she’s been bitten. She asks Madison not to make Travis kill her because that would “break him.” But wait, back up: Isn’t it striking that characters are now more willing to believe that an infection is a death sentence? Travis has been in denial about pretty much everything after the zombie crisis sets in, so it’s especially surprising that he doesn’t put up more of a fight once he discovers that Liza has been bitten. She explains to him that, based on everything she’s seen, there is no cure for zombie-itis, and anyone who is infected will contract zombie fever. So Travis has a canned choice: Kill his ex-wife, or let her suffer.
It’s not much of a choice, but at least it’s Travis’s call to make. Erickson and Kirkman double down on heavy-handed symbolism, but at least they are consistent about it. After all, this is the same episode where Nick selfishly compares drug addiction with the zombie apocalypse: “I’ve been living this for a long time, and everyone’s catching up with me.” So it’s not that surprising that Travis can only start to build his new family’s future by putting down the symbol of his old family. Chris has already essentially been assimilated into Travis’s family, albeit reluctantly. But as soon as Liza left to volunteer with the National Guard’s nursing unit, it became clear that something had to be done about her. She wasn’t part of the group anymore, she didn’t fit — she’s the past that Travis won’t let go of.
So it’s no wonder that Travis feels like the sky is falling on him after he kills Liza. The problem here isn’t that he’s acting as if killing his ex is a world-ending moment. For Travis, that might as well be true. What rankles here is that Travis allows himself to be convinced so quickly. This is a guy who’s spent the last couple episodes agonizing over everything. He’s changed since the show started, so at this point, it’s not that far-fetched to think he could theoretically be ready to pull the trigger so quickly. But Travis’s transformation from a knock-kneed beta-male to a man of action is dissatisfying because it simultaneously seems too fast and not fast enough. If we saw Travis agonizing over a decision that most people would not be able to logically accept, that would make Liza’s demise feel like a major moment.
Still, in that moment, you can see more clearly what Fear the Walking Dead should focus on in season two: quelling the urge to speed up for the sake of speeding up. This is a show that should luxuriate in drama like the one in “The Dog.” That drawn-out episode was easily the show’s best to date. Erickson and Kirkman should embrace the show’s slowness, and make every decision feel like a convincingly major moment. The show is at its best when it ambles from one moment to the next, not when it sprints between broad beats. One can only hope that Erickson and Kirkman make like tortoises, and slow season two down so that it stands apart from all the other zombie stories we’ve already seen before.