Fear the Walking Dead
Season 2, Episode 10 - "Do Not Disturb"
Kim Dickens, Cliff Curtis, Frank Dillane, Colman Domingo, Alycia Debnam-Carey
Regular airtime: Sundays, 8pm
US: 4 Sep 2016
As a young man, studying the “great” works of literature, I convinced myself that some writers were simply geniuses, that they operated on some other level the rest of us would never be able to reach, that they were gifted, or inspired by God, or however you want to think about where a facility with language comes from. Perhaps I’ve become less idealistic as I’ve grown older, but I think the truth about writing may be somewhat more prosaic that I once believed. All writers have their strengths and their weaknesses, and the ones who succeed are the ones who recognize their talents and minimize their deficits. Stephen King isn’t great on high concept, but he’s a great imaginer and a great teller of tales. On the other hand, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past has a concept so magnificent it sustains mountains of pure airy description, which is a good thing, since it’s very short on plot.
Fear the Walking Dead definitely has some storytelling assets. Caught between two audiences, however, it doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with them.
As I’ve suggested here on several occasions, Fear the Walking Dead offers some fascinating structural moments. For example, this week’s episode, “Do Not Disturb”, creates interesting parallels between mother and daughter (Madison [Kim Dickens] and Alicia [Alycia Debnam-Carey]) and father and son (Travis [Cliff Curtis] and Chris [Frank Dillane]). Travis and Chris travel the road together, but seem to grow further apart as they go. In many ways, the danger they face serves to fracture their relationship. Madison and Alicia, on the other hand, spend the episode separated by several hotel floors full of walkers, but in their case, danger ends up bringing them closer together.
The other thing that might be said in Fear the Walking Dead’s favor is that it’s always thinking. The show asks big existential questions of us: What’s the nature of life and death? How should society be organized? What truly drives us as human beings? In this week’s episode, we meet Elena Reyes (Karen Bethzabe), a hotel manager who’s continued to run her hotel—after a fashion—since the crisis began. As we’ve seen with other characters in The Walking Dead universe (Father Gabriel Stokes [Seth Gilliam], for instance), she’s haunted by her past actions. When the father of the bride at a wedding reception turned suddenly, she made the choice to lock most of the guests in the ballroom, sentencing them to death. Her feelings of guilt are exacerbated by the fact that the wedding’s survivors blame her for the death of their loved ones. Yet in all likelihood, none of them would have survived if she hadn’t made the choice she did.
Meanwhile, Chris’s bloodlust, which has been building since the beginning of the series, reaches a critical moment, and his father is faced with the implications of this bloodlust and how to deal with it. Travis’s decision to leave the rest of his family behind after the compound exploded rested on his belief that he could guide his son and somehow protect him from himself. But when they meet up with another group, a group who celebrates Chris’s prowess as a killer, it’s clear Chris isn’t going to change. Instead his behavior only escalates. By the end of the episode, Travis seems finally to have realized he may not be able to fix his son, but we’re left with the question of what a parent should do in such a situation.
Where Fear the Walking Dead stumbles is in simple dialogue; particularly the sort of dialogue necessary to establish characters. Last week, we watched Strand (Colman Domingo) and Madison drink themselves into stupors. The result—finding themselves surrounded by a horde of walkers—was reasonably interesting. Their conversation itself, though, went nowhere. This week, the same is true with Chris and Travis. We feel the sense of unease that builds as Travis urges a reluctant Chris to isolate himself in order to protect others. In their back and forth with one another, however, there’s really nothing much of interest: How’s your foot? Fine. Want to learn how to drive? Sure. Remember that time we went camping? That was fun. It’s as though this father and son don’t really know each other at all. Perhaps that’s the point, but it doesn’t exactly make for riveting television.
In fact, in an episode like “Grotesque”, we gained insight into Nick from the lack of dialogue. While some viewers derided the relative lack of action in that episode, there was something poetic in the way Nick struggled against the landscape, finding solace in the walkers and learning to survive. In that poetry was a kind of meaning, whether or not it came across in words.
The trouble is, Fear the Walking Dead has backed itself into a corner to some extent. On the one hand, it has, from the beginning, set itself apart from its sister show by focusing on humans rather than walkers, even if that means playing down the excitement that comes with constant danger. But that’s left it struggling to find an audience. There are fans out there for complex television, as the success of Hannibal and Mr. Robot demonstrate. Unfortunately, Fear the Walking Dead‘s pedigree means it draws most of its viewers from The Walking Dead. For the most part, those viewers have abandoned Fear the Walking Dead because it wants to be thoughtful.
On the other hand, if you decide to minimize action in favor of sustained character development, you’d better make sure you give your characters something interesting to say. Those of us who appreciate the show for what it is won’t stick around if dialogue becomes nothing more than a bridge from one action sequence to the next. I’m a fan of The Walking Dead, and I’m a fan of the very different statement Fear the Walking Dead set out to make. Frankly, I’d be happy if the show decided to head in either direction. What troubles me at the moment is that it seems to be caught somewhere in the middle.