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 under a 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.”
This lighthearted banter might do nothing more than establish the couple’s relationship in any other series. Any viewer of The Walking Dead knows, however, that here in Fear the Walking Dead, too, $300 holds no value nor meaning. The pipe he’s just repaired won’t work for long, anyway. Indoor plumbing is part of a world that will soon cease to exist.
The term for such moments in drama is dramatic irony. These are points in a story where we, as an audience, know something about their story that the characters don’t. Dramatic irony is a standard plot device and when used well, it’s incredibly effective at creating tension. (And not just in drama: the sitcom Three’s Company survived almost entirely on dramatic irony.)
Fear the Walking Dead makes more pointed use of dramatic irony 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 internet paranoia. We desperately want 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 – 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, particularly on his unwillingness to heed warnings about just how deadly that wilderness can be. At the end of Travis’ 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?
As these examples suggest, the sort of irony at work in Fear the Walking Dead seems an extreme version of the technique, yet it has become more common with the rise of the prequel, as seen in 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, and the role it will play in his growing psychosis. Such moments take dramatic – rather they affect absolutely every aspect of this fictional world.
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 sink like a stone to the bottom of the ocean. That knowledge changes our experience of the story. We aren’t simply held in suspense as a character figures out what’s happening; we know the entire horrible outcome in advance.
As a result, we find ourselves in the odd position of hoping, irrationally, that somehow the inevitable outcome will be different 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 that leak… Despite knowing the story already, the tension we feel increases as we fight our 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 the ending to be better than we know it.)
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 it), and thus the audience for Shakespeare’s version would have known the story well and expected its tragic ending. Instead, Shakespeare broke the rules of Elizabethan tragedy, moving the crisis moment from which things cannot be undone from the third act to the 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’s storytelling method 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 in the final moments.
As in Romeo and Juliet, the most important moment of dramatic irony in Fear the Walking Dead’s first episode is 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 occasionally frustrate our expectations to keep us off balance. This strategy is apparent in the opening scene of the first episode.
Nick (Frank Dillane), Madison’s son, wakes in an abandoned church with boarded windows, broken furniture, and scattered belongings. 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 searches for Gloria, calling out for her and moving slowly, in a daze, through the church. He sees 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, grow as he follows the trail of blood that leads him to find Gloria feasting on another corpse. She turns to face him, and we know she is now the undead. Nick also knows: 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 staggering figure walking behind him.
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 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. (The producers let us in on this fact before the premiere through promotional material and sneak previews, adding another 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 zombie shoes to fill. Even a few episodes in, it’s unclear whether Fear the Walking Dead‘s 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 Walking Dead. I’m not convinced a prequel can survive merely by overlaying everything about the story with dramatic irony, no matter how intense that irony is; there’s an early sense in which Fear the Walking Dead appears to be trying to survive in that way.
Can watching other people learn the rules of this new world be as satisfying as learning those rules for the first time ourselves? In its first episode, Fear the Walking Dead has proven that it isn’t merely an attempt to capitalize on the success of The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead series’ use of irony – dramatic or pervasive – shows how the episodes’ structure teases the potential for a thought-provoking zombie show.