Fear the Walking Dead: Season 2, Episode 8 - "Grotesque"

Fear the Walking Dead draws its focus to Nick, who wanders the Mexican desert and finds his only comfort among walkers.

Fear the Walking Dead

Airtime: Sundays, 8pm
Cast: Kim Dickens, Frank Dillane
Subtitle: Season 2, Episode 8 - "Grotesque"
Network: AMC
Air Date: 2016-08-21

When Fear the Walking Dead left off last May, the fellowship had, for the first time, broken into pieces. Indeed, we were left wondering whether some members -- crusty Daniel Salazar (Ruben Blades), for example -- had survived the Mexican compound's literal and figurative explosion. Madison (Kim Dickens), Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), Ofelia (Mercedes Mason), and Strand (Colman Domingo) were headed for the yacht in a pickup truck; Travis (Cliff Curtis) went a different direction, choosing to track down his troubled son, Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie); Nick (Frank Dillane), haunted by all he’d seen, wandered off among a pack of walkers, telling his mother, "We destroy everything".

It's with Nick that we picked up again this past Sunday, in an episode entitled "Grotesque". Fear the Walking Dead's sister show, The Walking Dead, has made an art form of stand-alone, "short story" episodes: season two's "Chupacabra"; last season's "Here's Not Here"; the entire "Terminus" half season. (It's also no coincidence that we find Nick in flashbacks reading one of the first short story cycles ever written, Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio"). Like the flashback trope that's become prominent in shows like Lost and Orange is the New Black, these episodes provide deep insight into single characters, both their backgrounds and their motivations.

If "Grotesque" is any indication, this half season of Fear the Walking Dead may utilize a similar structure. Many fans of The Walking Dead have struggled to find a handhold with Fear the Walking Dead and for them, this approach isn't likely to help. For those who can separate the two shows from one another, and who can appreciate a show that thrives on slowly developing, meditative scenes rather than adrenaline-fueled action, this structure promises greater insight into the world Kirkman and company have created.

In that sense, beginning with Nick is a brilliant choice. He offers us a perspective on the walkers unlike any we’ve previously encountered. Nick's a junkie, and that fact not only shapes his character but provides the most important prism through which to view the entire series. Nick, after all, was the focal point of episode one; he's the only character we see before the opening credits, and it's the frozen image of him running desperately down an Los Angeles street that becomes the first tableaux of the series.

In those opening scenes, he wakes disoriented in a gutted chapel, stumbling about in search of the girl who had passed out beside him the night before. With no experience of walkers or the disease that creates them, his first encounter with them leaves him with a double vision: the nightmares of a thousand drug trips fused with a new sort of madness. In this sense, he's always had a sort of affinity with the walkers, the single character who sees life through their eyes. At the same time, he offers us a way of thinking about the walkers not as a plague that has come upon society, but as a reflection of our own failings.

From the beginning of this universe, zombies (as they often do in films and series) offered us a vision of death and life in one, a fact even the names of the two series suggests. In the original, we've come to understand that the survivors, too, are a kind of "walking dead", and when we place the two groups in relation to one another, we gain interesting perspectives on what it means to be alive and what constitutes "living". Nick, however, offers us something entirely new: neither a "dead" human, nor a human living surrounded by death, but something like a human-zombie hybrid.

He's drawn to the walkers as no one else is. Even Celia (Marlene Forte), who seemed to believe in their transcendence, never smeared blood on herself and walked among them. In "Grotesque", Nick's "zombie" behaviors are even more exaggerated. Not only is he smeared in walker blood, virtually indistinguishable from them, but he’s made to walk as they do. Early in the episode, he struggles with the terrain, giving him a stiff, inhuman gait; later, a scared young girl beats his legs with a baseball bat; finally, he's savagely bitten just below the knee by a pack of wild dogs. Hobbling along with the rest of the walkers, he falls into their habits as well, pausing to feed on a dog carcass they've left behind.

We’ve been asked before, at least on occasion, to sympathize with walkers. When loved ones turn, for instance -- Sophia (Madison Lintz), Deanna (Tovah Feldshuh) -- we can't help but cringe when they must be put down. Nick's experience, however, is something else entirely. His time among the walkers makes him far more sympathetic to them. He’s among them, for instance, when a ruthless group of highwaymen attack them for sport. Later, he experiences firsthand what it means to be utterly abandoned when he’s left to die of thirst on an empty road. Something is being said here about the nature of humans: it's almost the walkers who possess the redeeming qualities. Yes, they're bloodthirsty, but at least they aren't driven by malice.

As always, the message here ties back into the name of the series; this show is about the actions fear inspires in humans as opposed to any real dangers from walkers. Even the scenery draws our attention to this shift. The woods of Georgia make the walkers a constant threat that can emerge from behind any tree or around any bend. In contrast, Nick walks through the desert in relative safety from walkers. He can see them coming from any distance. The dangers he faces are those brought about by nature and humans (and human-manipulated nature).

Perhaps more importantly, the episode sets Nick up as a kind of messianic figure (see the gutted chapel, above). That desert background sets up parallels to John the Baptist, and Jesus himself, wandering a wasteland, facing extreme temperatures and deprivations, and only living when God or nature, if you prefer, chooses his fate. Twice Nick faces death, and twice he's spared, not through any act of his own, but through almost miraculous, God-like interventions.

This reading is complicated in the end when Nick finally finds some semblance of civilization that apparently welcome him in. Nevertheless, I can't help but think of him after this episode as "King of the Walkers", and I'll be curious to see how the producers decide to pursue this provocative theme.


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