Fear the Walking Dead
Season 2, Episode 11 - "Pablo and Jessica"
Kim Dickins, Frank Dillane, Colman Domingo
Regular airtime: Sundays, 8pm
US: 11 Sep 2016
Watching Fear the Walking Dead on the 15th anniversary of 9/11 offered a unique opportunity to reflect on the many ways in which that event changed things in America. Obviously, so many social and political aspects of our country are so radically different than they were before that day: I like to tell my students sometimes that if someone had suggested when I was a kid that we should all walk through machines at the airport that allowed some random stranger to see us naked before we could board a plane, there would’ve been riots in the streets.
Perhaps it isn’t appropriate, on such an anniversary, to think in pop culture terms. Maybe it cheapens the horror, the reality, of what occurred. Here I might make some complex arguments about Baudrillard and the postmodern notion that popular culture is the only reality we have, but I’ll take a simpler approach. If we truly believe in pop culture’s importance, as I think those of us who write and read about it do, then we believe that it’s a fundamental reflection of who we are as human beings, no less so than a play by Shakespeare, or a novel by Dickens, or a poem by Robert Frost. On that basis alone, I’d argue it’s not merely appropriate to talk about the relationship between 9/11 and popular culture, but necessary.
The Walking Dead franchise could never have developed in a pre-9/11 world. Yes, there were zombie movies, and post-apocalyptic movies back then, but they explored very different questions. A reflection more of the Cold War and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation that came with it, the zombie threat was purely existential in these films. The central conflict—can the human race survive?—might call into question humans’ obsession with science, their penchant to perpetually make war, or even their neglect of the environment, but the criticism was never much more complex. For the most part, for instance, no one ever stopped to consider the survivors’ underlying motives, their personal angst, or how their rotten childhoods might have shaped their responses to the zombie’s attack.
The Cold War, like the two world wars before it, seemed at least to offer clear distinctions between good and bad, right and wrong. No one needed to question the good guys’ motives, and the bad guys’ motives were easy: evil. The post-9/11 world, however, is also a post-waterboarding world, a world in which the lines between good and bad are far less distinct, if they exist at all. The zombies of The Walking Dead are frightening, without question, but so too are many of the humans, including the show’s “heroes”.
If distinctions between right and wrong are muddied in a show like this one, individual motives are brought into far sharper relief. Each character in The Walking Dead must deal with the crisis in his or her own specific way, a reminder not only that there are no clear good guys and bad guys, but that every “guy” offers his own unique psyche, faces down her demons—literal and otherwise—in her own particular way.
Fear the Walking Dead has almost dispensed with the walkers altogether, choosing to place the emphasis squarely on the personalities of the survivors. In any single episode, including the most recent, “Pablo and Jessica”, we’re reminded just how different all of those personalities are. Now firmly entrenched at the hotel, Madison (Kim Dickens), Victor (Colman Domingo), and Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Clark) are determined to clear the area of walkers, and there’s some anxiety that comes with their plans to herd the zombies all into the sea.
The more important plotline, however, involves not zombie but human conflict; specifically, another faction of survivors who also inhabit the hotel. This problem, though, is complicated by this second faction’s anger at Elena (Karen Bethzabe), who they can’t seem to forgive for what happened to their loved ones. Did Elena do what was necessary, or did she condemn the others to death? That question, and the various responses of the different characters to it, is overshadowed by Elena’s own feelings of guilt over the situation. Meanwhile, Victor’s reaction to all that has happened is to flee. He assures Madison and Alicia he’ll help them clear the building, but that then he needs to be alone. Ofelia (Mercedes Mason), who’s still missing, seemed to suggest in her last appearance that life in a world of walkers isn’t really worth living.
That’s only the individual reactions to the situations happening in one location. At the same time, Luciana (Danay Garcia), driven by her desire to find her lost family, and Nick (Frank Dillane), driven by his need to be separate and distinct from his family, find themselves drawn to one another. Given last week’s episode, “Do Not Disturb”, we must assume that somewhere out on the desert plains Travis (Cliff Curtis) and Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie) continue to struggle over the one’s unwillingness to adapt to violence and the other’s eagerness to embrace it.
I’ve talked about the way Fear the Walking Dead changes the title of this series, separates it out as having its own issues. In particular, it seems to place the emphasis more on how the fear we feels threatens our survival far more than the walkers themselves. Walkers, in fact, don’t seem all that dangerous. In this particular episode, we flash back on how Victor and Madison escape from being surrounded at the bar, but this escape doesn’t involve much in the way of violence or even ingenuity. (In fact, Fear the Walking Dead has left a kind of logical hole for its sister series by demonstrating that the easiest way to deal with zombies is simply to become one. We’ve seen this several times with Nick, but Madison and Victor seem to have few qualms about smearing walker blood on and making their escape. Which makes one wonder why this strategy hasn’t been used more frequently by Rick [Andrew Lincoln], Daryl [Norman Reedus] and the rest of the crew).
Later in the episode, Madison points out that it’s “the next group that finds this place” they should fear, not walkers (a recognition it took Rick quite a bit longer to make).
But then that’s an important perspective on 9/11, on terrorism in general. As the word implies, terrorism isn’t about the amount of actual damage inflicted on the enemy. It’s about the threat of damage and the random nature of the act, such that we must remain ever-vigilant, ever “fear”-ful. In that sense, Fear the Walking Dead may actually be the more insightful of the two shows, whether or not its ratings reflect that insight.