The Terror Has Settled in, in 'Fear the Walking Dead'

by Matthew Fay

11 January 2016

In The Walking Dead, it’s all about picking up the pieces. In Fear the Walking Dead, it’s trying to hold them together.
 
cover art

Fear the Walking Dead: Season 1

(AMC)
US DVD: 1 Dec 2015

Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing AMC’s The Walking Dead spinoff, Fear the Walking Dead, lies in justifying its own existence. As a series that, upon announcement, was more perplexing to viewers than hotly anticipated, the show has had the task of not only meeting the very high standards set by The Walking Dead, but also telling a story that has been told countless other times in other media: the collapse of society amidst the onset of a zombie apocalypse. While Fear the Walking Dead doesn’t successfully sell itself as an essential part of the Walking Dead story, the first season of the show is still thrilling and dramatically engaging in its own right, and shouldn’t be a disappointment to fans.

The six episodes of Season 1 center around the story of three families living in Los Angeles: the Clarks, the Manawas, and Salazars. The single mother of the Clarks, Madison (Kim Dickens) is dating the father of the Manawas, Travis (Cliff Curtis). As the two attempt to move in together, they struggle to uphold and please their now-blended family, including Madison’s children, Alicia and Nick, and Travis’ son, Chris. In addition to typical household troubles like Alicia’s free-spirited distance from Madison and Chris’ estrangement with Travis following his divorce, Madison has to face the turmoil of her son, Nick, being a heroin addict, which has kept him away from home.

As the zombie outbreak occurs and the city falls into chaos, the Manawas encounter the Salazars, a mother, father and grown daughter, when they take shelter in the family’s barbershop. As all three families try to keep together and survive, including enduring the military occupation of Madison’s neighborhood, they’re forced to confront and learn of each other’s darker natures, and discover what they are willing to do to survive and protect one another.

Fear the Walking Dead’s inherently unique aspect is its context and setting: a world like our own, but just on the brink of collapse. As commented in one of the DVD’s special features, one of the appeals of watching Fear the Walking Dead is knowing more than the characters do about what is to come. Unlike The Walking Dead, in Fear the Walking Dead there’s still a world to lose, and little do the characters know that there’s an impending loss of modern life before a return to the dark ages. With the arrival of the walkers comes a whole new threat to humanity, and hence a whole new kind of fear. 

Fear the Walking Dead examines several themes already explored in its parent series, such as what constitutes morality in a post-apocalyptic, dog eats dog world, and the conflict of loyalty versus morality. If one’s primarily loyalty is to one’s family, is any action needed to protect them justified, even if it includes harming or disregarding others? Like The Walking Dead, the family unit here is blended, not based on blood alone, and therefore an example of family as a personal designation of value in others. In a Walking Dead world, however, a greater family means a greater fear of loss. The greater the fear, the greater the chaos.

The show’s message regarding fear is a familiar one to The Walking Dead viewers, but explored effectively in this new series. The message comes to a head when the father of the Salazar family, Daniel, reveals his own dark, violent history to Madison. He gives her his own view on the human capacity for cruelty:

“My father told me not to have hatred in my heart. He said that men do these things not because of evil. They do evil because of fear. At that moment, I realized my father is a fool for believing there is a difference.”

Even as a loving father, Daniel recognizes, and even embraces, his own capacity for fear, and hence, for evil.”

The show’s other thematic emphasis is less the onset of death as it is in the loss of life, both literally and figuratively. This theme is famously embodied in Rick’s “We Are the Walking Dead” speech from Season 5 of The Walking Dead, conveying an ambiguity as to what constitutes “living”. Fear the Walking Dead demonstrates scenes of terror interspersed with moments of reflection and tranquility, as the characters embrace the lives they’re not even aware they’re about to lose. For example, scenes between Alicia and her boyfriend, Matt, are some of the show’s more poignant, touching moments. Before long, however, the two are torn apart by the unfolding terror.

A scene in the first episode shows Travis at his job as an English teacher, speaking with his students about the story “To Build a Fire”, by Jack London. In the story, a man traveling the Yukon trail in subzero temperatures attempts to survive the frigid cold as he tries meeting up with his group. However, despite his best efforts, he gradually succumbs to the cold and freezes to death.

“London tells us how not to die,” Travis says to his students, explaining the story as one of survival. For an English teacher, however, Travis’ syntax is a little confused. This may very well be purposeful, as the show’s focus is not only on how to not die, but also how not to die. In other words, what is a proper life, and a proper end to said life? How does one continue to find either in a world where survival is the primary goal? Is simply surviving from day to day truly living? If so, where does one find meaning, if one even can?

This dilemma is effectively deconstructed in Nick’s final comments on the world as they now know it, comparing it to his regular experiences as a drug addict. The parallels between the drug-addled Nick and the walkers are oftentimes less-than subtle, but create an interesting example of the human capacity for self-destruction and “zombification” even before the outbreak. Nick, as a drug addict, is effectively separated from life.

In the season’s last episode, Madison speaks to Nick about their plans moving forward, and how she has no idea where they’re going next.

“I never knew where I was going,” Nick responds. “It’s like I’ve been living this a long time, and now everyone is catching up with me.”

Nick’s life has for a long time been one of daily survival, with no structure to speak of save for moving forward and seeking his next hit. As a kind of “walking dead” himself, Nick now watches the rest of the world follow suit.

Given its strengths, however, the show does have faults, largely in pace and some characterization. Reactions from the main cast to the walkers and oncoming apocalypse are at times strangely subdued, and an underwhelming response to walking dead people. Additionally, within the show’s first six episodes, there are already Alexandria-size groups of walkers roaming the streets, making the show feel like it’s trying too hard to catch up with the present status of The Walking Dead.

Further, for a series seemingly focusing on the collapse of society, most of the episodes are more focused on a plot detailing incarceration by the military. While the theme of human vs. human conflict has always been a staple of the series, the show might have been more interesting had it given the characters more time to acclimate to the impending terror of collapsing society, and therefore exploring their growing fear before throwing in this kind of plot. 

At present, certain characters, such as Travis and Madison, don’t seem to demonstrate the level of fear one would expect, and therefore don’t always come across as particularly genuine. Perhaps with the upcoming second season, as the reality of the situation dawns on them, we will see a more sincere anxiety and crisis from these two leads.

The DVD’s Special Features are not anything particularly special, and appear to be mostly just collected behind-the-scenes videos from television broadcasts of the show. Consisting of two videos called “A Look at the Series” and “Inside the Characters of Fear the Walking Dead”, both features are only a few minutes long, and even overlap in terms of some of the footage, begging the question of why they’re separate in the first place. Additionally, aside from one or two interesting comments, neither video provides anything particularly new or that couldn’t be surmised from the show itself.

The first season of Fear the Walking Dead doesn’t come across as particularly vital to the Walking Dead saga, but it is, for the most part, a well-crafted and even gripping look at the Pre-Apocalypse. Hopefully with Season 2, the show will focus on utilizing its own voice and strengths instead of repeating those of The Walking Dead. In The Walking Dead, it’s all about picking up the pieces. In Fear the Walking Dead, it’s trying to hold them together.

Fear the Walking Dead: Season 1

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