Fear the Walking Dead
Season 1, Episode 6 - "The Good Man"
Kim Dickens, Cliff Curtis, Ruben Blades
Regular airtime: Sundays, 9PM
US: 4 Oct 2015
Over the past week I toyed with the idea of writing my review of this week’s Fear the Walking Dead—the first season finale—before Sunday arrived. If you’ve been watching the first five episodes, you knew what was coming this week. Further more, last week’s foreshadowing symbols—the arena full of walkers pushing against chained doors, the weary soldiers beginning to question their mission, the literal key to escape in Strand’s (Colman Domingo) hand—left no doubt about how things would play out. Knowing what was coming, however, didn’t diminish the satisfaction of seeing it arrive. If anything, it heightened that satisfaction. Since we first saw Nick (Frank Dillane) run in panic from the drug den where he’d discovered his girlfriend munching on a human leg (“Pilot”), we’ve been waiting as things slowly boiled under the L.A. sun; waiting as nothing but mounting tension occurred; waiting for exactly the sort of explosion we get in “The Good Man”. Although I have often questioned whether the show’s careful, cautious pace might work against its success, the payoff in this episode and the sheer release it offered brought the entire season into focus.
That release was fairly spectacular. For all the absence of walkers in the previous episodes, in “The Good Man”, we are faced with an absolutely writhing sea of them, streaming through the L.A. streets and overwhelming the military. The action cuts quickly from one location and the next, underscoring the nature of the threat. The central characters, separated from one another for the past two episodes, finally have a mission: searching desperately to find one another before they too are overwhelmed by walkers. Even though this plot line has a certain archetypal familiarity, it nevertheless offers us Fear the Walking Dead’s first truly gripping story arc. The search itself takes place within a cramped, enclosed space, a veritable maze of hallways, with the dead closing in with every flicker of the fluorescent lights.
Yet for all the action of this episode, the show remains true to its larger central themes. In particular, it is the fear of the walkers that drives the action more than the walkers themselves. Even as the characters face the walkers, the bigger threat always comes from other humans. Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie) and Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), who are left in a basement parking garage to guard vehicles must deal not with walkers, but three soldiers who leer at Alicia, knock Chris unconscious, and drive off in the family’s SUV.
As before, the show takes pains to remind us that these fear-driven attitudes reflect our own real-world behaviors. Small references to the real world are everywhere. We recognize New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, not merely in the way the military abandon their posts or turn on the civilians, but in the locked arena or the bridge Travis (Cliff Curtis), Maddie (Kim Dickens), and Daniel (Ruben Blades) drive over as they escape town. In other points in the episode, there are references to 9/11, particularly when the camera pulls back to offer views of the wrecked Los Angeles skyline, with two burning skyscrapers in the center. The message is subtle but important: we as a country have a history of reacting poorly in the face of terror.
The episode stays true to this focus in one other sense as well—while the bulk of this episode deals with the main characters trying to escape the walkers, by episode’s end, we have returned to a sense of relative calm. Strand manages to get these two families to a place that seems safe, and promises that he can deliver more: a real escape. The location is a lush green with spectacular views of the ocean. We do pull back from this in the end and see the burning city in the background (as well as a heartbroken Travis, sunk into the sand), but then the camera rotates to focus on that ocean, stretching out endlessly, an image of freedom and hope rarely seen in predecessor The Walking Dead.
In the life of this series, things are still only just beginning. One thing is clear, though: a great deal of thought and planning have gone into this first season. Perhaps that isn’t surprising, given that the producers had a well-established narrative world to work with, one that has been explored in depth by both the graphic novel and The Walking Dead series. That history didn’t necessarily come with built-in security. To its credit, Fear the Walking Dead recognized its responsibility to separate itself out from the original, to say something new.
Based on how they have set things up in these first six episodes, what is it that Fear the Walking Dead wants to say? My guess is that these characters will spend less time on the run from walkers than on exploring how this new reality affects them, both as individuals and as a community. To some extent, we saw that sort of exploration in The Walking Dead, particularly in Season 2, in which the characters spent the majority of the season on Herschel’s (Scott Wilson) farm. The Walking Dead, though, preferred to push its characters to their physical limits; its main narrative concern was asking just how much a human being can endure. While Fear the Walking Dead does contain that narrative component, it promises to investigate the traumas done to the mind more than those done to the body.