Fear the Walking Dead
Season 2, Episode 1 - "Monster"
Kim Dickens, Cliff Curtis
Regular airtime: Sundays, 8pm
US: 10 Apr 2016
For a show trying to remain alive on the AMC schedule, Fear the Walking Dead doesn’t seem to have much sense of urgency. Despite the enormous critical and popular success of The Walking Dead, a second season of Fear the Walking Dead was never a sure thing. In fact, I suspect only its relationship to the original series managed to get it renewed at all. Even leaving the pressing importance of ratings aside, though, we might’ve expected something more from the first episode of a second season. Quite frankly, we might’ve expected more from a mid-season episode.
The first episode, “Monster”, focuses on the aftermath of Liza’s (Elizabeth Rodriguez) death and the survivors’ escape to the sea via Strand’s (Colman Domingo) yacht. There’s some interest watching how the various characters respond to these events, particularly Liza’s death. Her son Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie) is in the midst of an emotional tempest, angry and brooding, furious with his father for having actually pulled the trigger, resentful of Madison (Kim Dickens) who tries to convince him to man up, and, curiously, bonding with Daniel Salazar (Ruben Blades)—who lost his wife to the plague—over a bit of deep-sea fishing.
There are other matters to deal with as well. For example, we spend a bit more time fleshing out the individual characters in this group, and key relationships seem to be developing. In addition to Chris and Daniel, the relationship between Strand and Nick (Frank Dillane) grows both deeper and more peculiar.
More interesting, though, is the way Madison is more and more fascinated by Strand. On the one hand, she seems wary of his behavior, worried over his apparent unwillingness to sleep and his tendency to paranoia. On the other, she seems oddly drawn to his point-of-view, unwilling, as other are, to entirely dismiss that paranoia as unfounded. This puts her in a unique position to mediate between Strand and the rest of the group, and offers up fertile possibilities for how political alliances might shake out as the series continues.
All of this and we learn that walkers are at least as dangerous in the water as they are on land.
The problem is none of this material really adds up to a compelling episode, let alone a season premiere. I suppose there is an argument to be made that the Fear the Walking Dead needs to re-establish these characters. After a short first season, and conscious that they are trying to attract new viewers, the producers may have felt it necessary to start anew, moving more slowly to give those new viewers time to catch up. However, in an age where it’s fairly easy to track down the handful of episodes you might’ve missed, and with AMC having re-played the entire first season over the last few weeks, it’s hard to justify this strategy.
More importantly, the character development we’re offered just isn’t all that compelling. It certainly doesn’t add anything new to what we were given in the first season. So, for example, we return to the somewhat intriguing relationship between Strand and Nick, one Nick struggles to understand. But we’ve heard Strand’s explanation, that he values Nick because of his history as a junkie, before:
Strand: How many times should you have died?
Nick: I don’t know. Every time I used.
Strand: Were you afraid? That’s fearlessness. That’s focus.
In last season’s finale, “The Good Man”, Strand uses Nick’s past to similar advantage: “Picture you’re somewhere else with a needle in your arm.” Later in the same episode, he comments on the need for “new” thinking: “The only way to survive a mad world is to embrace the madness.” We get it—post-apocalypse drug addicts have skills; let’s get on with using them.
Along these lines, the central theme of this new episode has to do with learning to be ruthless in this new world, which in plot terms involves a growing struggle for power between Strand and Travis (Cliff Curtis). In a balancing act typical of The Walking Dead series, this involves two separate events that push us in two separate directions. The first of these is an encounter with a raft full of desperate survivors who plead with Strand to allow them on board, only to be turned away. Here the show seems to suggest we sympathize with Travis, who longs to hold on to his humanity, his “good”-ness, and help all comers. Meanwhile, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Clark) makes radio contact with another desperate group on another sinking boat, and promises to bring help. By the end of the episode, we learn that reaching out in this way has actually put the yacht in jeopardy, a signal that Strand was right all along.
Here again, the problem with this plot line has to do with the fact that we’ve seen it play out before, in this case not on Fear the Walking Dead but rather on the original series. If we have any familiarity with the previous series—and let’s face it, why would we be watching otherwise—we know all too well the dangers to be found in helping strangers. As a result of this knowledge, we don’t sympathize with Travis as we should, don’t feel the anxiety over his refusal to help others. We don’t fear Strand’s madness, seeing in it instead a mirror of Rick’s (Andrew Lincoln) paranoia and cautiousness.
I wrote last season that the title of this show reveals its chief difference from the original; this is a show less about battling walkers than about how fear drives humans to radical changes of behavior. Last season, that fear was most prominently symbolized by the military, whose fear led them to impose a martial law that predictably devolved into dictatorship. I was intrigued by that thematic approach, which is to say that I don’t think Fear the Walking Dead needs to reinvent itself as an action show.
Yet, the lack of action creates a high bar for the show, even leaving aside all the comparisons that it inevitably inspires to The Walking Dead. Focusing on personalities, relationships, and emotions means producing gripping conflicts between riveting characters delivering intense dialogue with blistering performances. To date, Fear the Walking Dead hasn’t managed to rise to that level, and after this episode I’m left wondering if they even aspire to it.