Beyond Dramatic Irony: ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ and the Nature of the Prequel

What happens when we don't just know something the character doesn't, we actually know how their world will end?

AMC’s new series, Fear the Walking Dead is a prequel, meaning a good part of its allure relies on our knowledge of what awaits these characters. Early in the first episode, we find Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis) on his back beneath the kitchen sink, doing some minor plumbing work. His partner, Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), watches him work, teasing him by saying they should call an actual plumber. As Travis finishes up and checks the water flow, he says with satisfaction, “I think I just saved us 300 bucks.” In any other series, this sort of lighthearted banter might do nothing more than establish the couple’s relationship. Any viewer of The Walking Dead knows, however, that soon 300 dollars won’t actually mean anything, and the pipe he’s just repaired won’t work anyway. Indoor plumbing is part of a world that will soon simply cease to exist.

The precise term for such moments in drama is dramatic irony. These are points in a story where we as an audience know something the characters don’t. Dramatic irony is a standard plot device, and used well incredibly effective at creating tension (and not just in drama: the sitcom Three’s Company survived almost entirely on dramatic irony).

Fear makes more a pointed use of it later in the episode, when Madison confronts a young man at her school, Tobias (Lincoln A. Castellanos), who has tried to smuggle a knife past the front door metal detectors. Tobias insists that dark corners of the Internet are forecasting a massive plague, but Madison dismisses his fears as the product of typical online paranoia. We want desperately for Madison to believe him though, because we know what she doesn’t: the situation is worse than even Tobias realizes.

A more poignant, symbolic moment occurs later, when Travis – who is also a teacher – tries to get his English students interested in Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire”. The story centers on one man’s struggle to survive in a hostile wilderness, but particularly on his unwillingness to heed warnings about just how deadly that wilderness can be. At the end of Travis’s lesson, one jaded student wakes from his nap to say frankly, “I don’t care about building a fire.” What more must the fates do to warn us?

But as these examples suggest, the sort of irony at work in a show like Fear the Walking Dead seems an extreme version of the technique, a version that has become more and more common with the rise of the prequel – shows like Caprica, Gotham, and Bates Motel. In Bates Motel, we already know what Norman Bates will become, and our knowledge colors every moment of the plot as we watch him slowly get there. When Norman witnesses the death of his dog, his mother and brother offer sympathy for his loss; we know the significance of the loss, the role it will play in his growing psychosis. Such moments take dramatic irony to a completely other level, in part because they aren’t single moments in the plotline — rather they affect absolutely every aspect of this fictional world, present and future.

This technique — what I might call pervasive irony — occurs in another way in the film Titanic. We know from the opening credits how the story will end: there is no possibility the ship won’t wind up at the bottom of the ocean. That changes our entire experience of the story. We aren’t simply held in suspense as a character figures out what’s really happening; we know the entire horrible outcome in advance. As a result, we find ourselves in the odd position of hoping, irrationally, that somehow history will happen differently this time, that somehow things will work out: the lookout will spot the iceberg, the boat will turn in time, the engineers will find some way to stop the leak. The tension becomes more extreme in that we fight our own knowledge, wishing in vain to undo what is already done. (Quentin Tarantino seems to have uncovered some interesting potential in this kind of irony, offering up recent films — Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained — in which he satisfies that peculiar desire we feel to see history changed.)

Shakespeare toyed with the possibilities of pervasive irony 600 years ago in Romeo and Juliet. The story of these “star-crossed lovers” was well known in the Elizabethan era (other writers had tried their hand at writing it), and thus the audience for Shakespeare’s version would have known the story well and expected its tragic ending. In response to this situation, Shakespeare broke the rules of Elizabethan tragedy, moving the crisis moment – the moment from which things cannot be undone — from the third act to the very final scene. The result is that a theatergoer would be expecting things to go badly, but would find those expectations frustrated by the play’s relatively comic structure. The play holds out hope that, both against all odds and what the audience knows to be true, things will work out, only to dash those hopes utterly in the final seconds.

As in Romeo and Juliet, the most important moment of dramatic irony in Fear’s first episode has to both do with structure and our learned responses to dramatic irony. Certainly, the producers play up the tension arising from our knowledge of what will happen, but they also occasionally frustrate our expectations, to keep us off balance. Nowhere is this strategy more apparent than in the opening scene. Nick (Frank Dillane), Madison’s son, wakes in an abandoned church, with boarded windows, broken furniture, and belongings scattered everywhere. The place is filthy and disheveled in the way of many of the locations seen in The Walking Dead, and we assume we must be seeing a similar, post-apocalyptic setting. As the scene unfolds, Nick goes in search of “Gloria”, calling out for her and moving slowly, in a daze, through the church. He finds blood on the wall, and it seems obvious to those of us who know the world of The Walking Dead what must have happened. His panic, and ours, grows, as he follows the trail of blood only to find Gloria feasting on another corpse. She turns to face him and we know instantly she has turned. Nick apparently knows as well: he turns on his heel and runs for his life. We watch in slow motion as he flees the church, running with wild abandon from the walker behind him…

…until suddenly he is struck by a car. As he lies on the pavement, the camera pulls back to reveal not simply one car, but a vibrant Los Angeles street full of cars. It takes a moment – and that’s the beauty of what has happened – for us to realize that, while Nick has clearly had an encounter with a walker, it is only his first encounter. In this version of the series’ world, the walker crisis has not yet taken root. (In fact, the producers let us in on this fact before the premiere, through promotional material and sneak previews, adding yet one more level to our expectations.)

It’s too early to tell whether Fear the Walking Dead will find the same level of success as The Walking Dead. Those are big shoes to fill. Even a few episodes in, it’s unclear whether these characters will be worth rooting for (is there a Daryl in the group?), and whether their stories will be as compelling as those in the original. I’m not convinced a prequel can survive merely by overlaying everything with dramatic irony, no matter how intense that irony is; there’s an early sense in which Fear appears to be trying to survive in that way. Can watching other people learn the rules of this new world be as satisfying as it was to learn those rules for the first time ourselves? The show has proven, however, that it isn’t merely an attempt to capitalize on the success of The Walking Dead. The use of these different types of irony within the series is one of the ways in which the episodes’ structure offers the potential for real depth.

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