The long, strange, and dangerous trip to the apocalypse we know and love begins.
“What the hell is happening?”
“I have no idea.”
Those two lines are how the premiere of Fear the Walking Dead concludes, and they would be almost comical if the characters saying them hadn’t just been through such an ordeal. They ring out as a clear statement from Robert Kirkman—in one way, it signifies the knowledge gap between the characters and the audience, who is aware in broad strokes of the terror to come.
Yet, in another way, it’s also a promise from Kirkman—we may think we know what will happen, but what we think we know and what we will come to learn may be two completely divergent ideas.
In many ways, Fear the Walking Dead’s debut is purposefully a polar opposite to The Waking Dead’s pilot. (Don’t fear—I won’t be spending this entire recap comparing the two pilots, or necessarily even the two shows. But both because TWD’s pilot is one of my favorites of the last few years and because I think there are some clear choices meant to reflect how different this show will be, I think it’s worth touching on.)
The Walking Dead began as Rick’s isolated story in a quiet, disconnected space. We experienced the world at the same moment Rick saw it for the first time. Everyone stood on even footing (well, except for those who read the comic books, which I’ve avoided over the years to experience the show as a standalone entity).
But in Fear, there’s an imbalance. Presumably the audience knows, whether they’ve watched every episode of The Walking Dead or simply heard their friends talk about it, that the zombie apocalypse is coming. The protagonists of Fear, however, have no idea what to expect. And so Kirkman, co-writer Dave Erickson, and director Adam Davidson have to make the show feel fresh, surprising the viewers while not treating the pre-conceived notions or knowledge they may have as absolute junk.
Fear also sets itself apart by focusing on a family. A divided one yes, but a family bonded together by love and blood, not by circumstance.
There’s Madison (Kim Dickens), the matriarch of the group, a high school guidance counselor and mother to Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), who attends her high school, and Nick (Frank Dillane), her estranged drug-addicted son. Madison is currently seeing Travis (Cliff Curtis), an English teacher at school and divorced husband of Liza Ortiz (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and father of Christopher (Lorenzo James Henrie). Travis is still trying to be a good father to Chris, but he’s clearly head over heels in love with Madison.
Madison’s family is forced to come together when Nick reappears, now in the hospital after being hit by a car. From him is born the family’s involvement with the looming worldwide nightmare. Awaking from a doping session in a church-turned-addict’s-home, Nick finds his girlfriend Gloria gone, but he hears noises nearby. He goes to investigate, only to find dead bodies, blood, and not a single living soul… except for Gloria. At least, she’s living as far as Nick knows, but we realize what’s happened to her as she turns to face him, having just finished chowing down on another addict’s face.
She stands up before him, blocking out the sun from Nick’s view, a knife sticking out of her side, but Nick knows something is wrong even if he doesn’t know what that something is. He flees for his life, only to almost see its end when a car runs into him. A crowd rushes to his rescue as the heart of downtown Los Angeles rests steeped in fog in the distance.
Travis and Madison drag Alicia along with them to the hospital, where Madison kicks the cops questioning him out. Nick is initially as tight-lipped with them as he is with the police, deflecting most of their questions. They’re not getting anywhere, but Madison is at least happy to actually know where her son is. Travis decides to stay with him, however, while Madison heads off to school with Alicia (it’s college application day, not that college will matter…).
NEXT: Can Travis and Madison really believe Nick’s story?
There, Madison tries to help a bullied student who smuggled a knife into school. He brought it in for protection, of course. He’s heard of the viruses, the outbreaks in multiple states, fulfilling the quintessential doomsaying kid who no adult would believe unless he were biting into their flesh at the same time. She keeps the knife, sends him off, and thinks all is fine with the world.
But of course, all is not fine, and Travis is about to begin understanding that. He and Nick may not be close, but his mom’s boyfriend is just about the only person willing to hear him out. Travis lets Nick talk through the trauma, reliving what he saw in the church, coming to the conclusion that it wasn’t a drug-fueled hallucination. That leaves only two possibilities—either it was real, or Nick has gone insane.
Neither is a particularly appealing conclusion, but Travis goes to the church to determine the truth. During his investigation, he finds blood, guts, viscera—everything Nick told the cops about, minus a face-munching girlfriend. He does run into someone, presumably another addict, who appears via jump scare while shouting about not wanting to be killed. But whatever he’s running from (and Travis assumes there’s certainly something he’s afraid of), is nowhere in sight.
Travis returns to the hospital the following morning to find Madison asleep next to her son. Nick is still restrained to the bed, so Alicia helps feed him while Travis and Madison step out. Alicia receives the characterization short shrift in the pilot. Here, she and Nick talk about their dichotomy—she’s perfect, he’s a screw-up. She’s going to college, has a boyfriend, Matt, and appears to keep herself out of dope dens.
Unfortunately, she’s also currently filling the cliched, somewhat, distant teenager role, who uses the “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results” idiom to describe her brother. (Really, the definition of insanity is TV and movie writers using that idea over and over and OVER expecting it to finally sound meaningful.)
Though whether Nick’s psych evaluation determines he’s sane, the family never finds out, as Nick escapes the hospital once Travis, Madison, and Alicia head off to school. There, Travis is busy teaching about man vs. nature in a ham-fisted, obvious moral allegory for viewers. (ASIDE: Hopefully that’s not the only allegory that can be pulled from Fear the Walking Dead, as Fear will have to do more than that to stand apart from other zombie stories, let alone the one it’s derived from. END OF ASIDE) And Madison approaches the principal’s office, where he’s sitting in a chair, hunched over and unmoving. Kirkman and Erickson put the audience’s knowledge to good use, with the expectation being that the principal’s a zombie, only for him to be alive and well.
Madison has no reason to be scared in the moment, and while it may be a bit exploitative, the moment works well in toying with the viewer. The same goes for Alicia’s boyfriend Matt. Though the two agree to meet after school (after a rooftop rendezvous of the school that jump-started my acrophobia), she waits for him by the beach, but he’s not responding to her texts. Although the show might want us to presume he’s been turned into a walker, it wouldn’t be shocking for him to turn up in perfect health in the next episode.
Of more immediate concern is Nick. After a kindly nurse unties one of his arms so he can use a bedpan with relative comfort, he has enough freedom to untie his other arm and break out. He does just that after the doctors and nurses rush his dying roommate out and leave him alone.
He steals some clothes and escapes, though honestly he had a much cushier position cooped up in the hospital .At least there he had a bed, a bathroom, and food. On the outside, he fends for himself, buying a burner phone and making calls to just about anyone who might be willing to help him out. Except for Madison, of course.
NEXT: A deadly showdown
That lack of communication only makes Madison’s day more hectic as she and Travis return to the hospital after school. Nick’s nowhere in sight, and the only advice they’re given is to call the police. Madison doesn’t want to, and so she and Travis go out in search of Nick. (“Take me back to where it all started,” she says to Travis in perhaps the episode’s most weighted line.) They try old friends, like a man named Calvin, and the church where Nick was staying, but they come up empty-handed. At the very least, Madison has now seen the damage done to the place Nick called home, though suspiciously there isn’t a body, alive or otherwise, in sight.
Their day only becomes more trying when they return home from their fruitless search. While out on the highway, traffic grinds to a halt as helicopters loom overhead and police lights spin in the distance. They have no idea what’s wrong, but gunshots cut through the night.
The two of them discover what caused the hold-up on the road the night before. Leaked footage shows cops and first responders on the scene being attacked by the people they’re presumably there to save. The “victims” seem to be biting at those trying to help them, chasing and clawing after them despite a chest full of bullets. The footage has caused such panic and unrest that the school is closing on a half-day. Madison sends Alicia home while she and Travis head out to find Nick as their relatively peaceful society is clearly unraveling around them.
Speaking of Nick, he’s met up with Calvin, who is actually Nick’s dealer. He wants to keep Nick safe, he tells him, but really, he wants to shut up someone who could blow his undercover operation. He takes Nick out to the Los Angeles River aqueducts, where he plans to shoot Nick dead. But Nick notices the pistol and attempts to wrestle it away from Calvin, killing him in the process. So Nick flees and calls the only person who believes him—Travis. But Travis brings along Madison despite Nick’s wishes, and the trio go to the site of Cal’s death only to find there’s no body.
Assuming Nick really has been hallucinating this whole time, they leave the scene only to encounter a shambling body in their exit tunnel. They stop the car, recognizing it may actually be Calvin. Madison and Travis step out of the car with Nick yelling at them to stay back—he knows what’s happened to his onetime friend, as it happened to Gloria, too.
He’s proven right as Cal tries to attack and bite Madison, but Nick comes to the rescue by ramming the undead Cal with the car not once, but twice, as he won’t seem to stay down. But finally, they seem to put an end to whatever the thing was that attacked them, and they ask that fateful, if not obvious question.
“What the hell is happening?”
Los Angeles looms closer to them now than it ever has before, after appearing obscured through the fog during the rest of the episode. Now the heart of the city, its population, and the inevitable destruction of both, is closer to them than ever before as they finally come face to face with the horrors that will befall them.
And that’s a wrap on Fear the Walking Dead’s premiere! What did you think of the family, how the show toyed with what the audience knows versus what the characters do, and the pace? The premiere is a slow build, steeped in some disappointing cliches, but it seems to be taking some specific steps to stand on its own, even though the pilot gives into its awareness of the audience’s walker knowledge (which could either be fun or frustrating depending on your position). Let me know if you’ll be tuning back in next week or waiting for the main show to return instead.