The series premiere of Fear the Walking Dead last week smashed the record for best cable premiere ever, with more than 13 million people watching (albeit still shy of its parent property’s average viewership). With ratings like that, it’s safe to say we’re stuck with Fear whether we like it or not. And if last night’s episode is anything to go on, the ride won’t be so bad after all.
“So Close, Yet So Far” picks up where the pilot left off, with Travis, Madison, and Nick fleeing the scene after Calvin was murdered, resurrected, and re-deadened. The family make a plan to escape to the desert to wait out the storm and head to pick up Alicia from her boyfriend’s house. Their best-laid plans go predictably awry, as it turns out Alicia’s beau is dying from a zombie bite. For whatever reason, no one is interested in who bit him, if he’s turning, or, really, anything at all. Instead, they just go home. Travis and Madison make the first mistake in any horror movie: They split up.
Nick is suffering from heroin withdrawal, so Madison heads to the school to steal Oxy from the campus cops’ stash. There she runs into Tobias, who is busy raiding the caf for supplies. Newly turned Principal Artie attacks, and Madison uses a fire extinguisher to bludgeon him to his true death. After dumping the kid off to fend for himself, she goes back home. Meanwhile, Travis and his ex-wife set about trying to recover their belligerent son from an impromptu protest in Downtown LA after cops shoot two zombies. As the protests become riots, they are reluctantly taken in by the world’s grumpiest barber, and they all spend the night making awkward, uncomfortable small talk.
Most of the plot hinges on failed communications, whether through the gradual decline of reliable cell service, people being unwilling to listen to each other, or some being unable to tell the others the harsh truth. The device works at the moment, but after two episodes of it, it’s running out of steam. The writers need to find another way of keeping the characters in the dark, because at this point, all of the family drama hinges on them simply not talking to each other.
A bunch of stuff happens in the second ep, but actual advancement of the main arc is incremental. Which, to be fair, is expected. This season is presumably only going to cover the first week or two of hell breaking loose, and the very nature of the premise means a lot of preamble and less gory zombie attacks. But it isn’t helping matters when all of the action is literally taking place off-camera. Madison slams the door shut and closes the blinds to keep Nick and Alicia from seeing their neighbor eat his family alive. As for Travis, Chris, and Liza, they’re holed up in some random dude’s barbershop, a setup strikingly similar to Rick taking refuge with Morgan and his son in The Walking Dead pilot. So not only have we seen this before, we now have to watch it again while being denied the real action taking place in the riot outside. I don’t know if it’s a budget issue or the writers think they’re being suspenseful, but the result is an entire hour of building tension with no climax.
Where TWD had ongoing issues conveying geography and chronology, Fear is having similar issues with explaining the spread of the plague. Initially it looked like it was coming out of the underclass, but Matt, Artie, and the neighbors don’t seem like the kind of people to go wandering around homeless encampments, nor were any obviously infected people seen near them, and they still turned. Did the outcasts of society get it first or did it simply spread faster with their close quarters and segregation from mainstream society? While we’re on the subject, Dr. Jenner said the disease was already in the human body, but they don’t know how it got there or what triggered it. So far, it seems like the show is pushing the theory that the homeless are the carriers, or at least the group with the highest concentration of infected people, but it’s a bit of a cop-out to hint at a cause without giving the audience enough to speculate on. Same goes for all the coughing. If the underclass or the flu are red herrings—and I’m sure they are—then that needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later.
Lastly, characters. I’m more worried than ever that no one on either of Robert Kirkman’s shows have the faintest idea about character development. It took four and a half seasons to scrounge up an interesting population on TWD, and I’m not willing to give Fear the Walking Dead that much time. Chris and Alicia suffer from Annoying Teenager Syndrome where a young adult caught in a fraught drama ends up being the most obnoxious creature on the face of the earth. We all remember Carl’s inability to stay in the damn house, and Chris and Alicia have the potential to be just as irritating—that is, if the audience doesn’t eviscerate them first for being boring. The writers would be wise to course-correct as soon as possible or just kill them both off now and be done with them.
Even more unfortunate are the leads. Cliff Curtis and Kim Dickens are great actors, but between the lack of meaty roles for them to play off of and the total lack of chemistry together, they are powerfully uninteresting as a couple. Given how much time they’ve spent apart so far, it’s likely their relationship will remain a fairly moot point. I suspect much of this season will be devoted to the two of them struggling to reunite.
That’s not to say there weren’t some moments of brilliance. The jet flying overhead (again, reminiscent of Rick and the helicopter in TWD premiere) is ominous in and of itself. Are the passengers fleeing Los Angeles or bringing the disease with them? What happens when walkers make it on board and those planes fall from the heavens? Has the plague spread overseas, or did start there and make its way to American soil? And Madison growing increasingly terrified as she and Tobias listen to the walker (Artie) on the walkie talkie was especially chilling. Not to mention the cop Travis sees trying to calm a woman as he frantically stashes gallons of water in his cruiser. When the cops are preparing for the worst, you know it’s time to get the hell outta Dodge. Liza gets the chance to rise above the harridan ex stereotype by putting her nursing skills to good use as she does a quick study of the homeless man shot dead by the cops. The realization that something is terribly wrong knocks all the harping out of her, and common sense rushes in.
The premiere ep was a soggy episode of dull family melodrama sucking all the life out of what should be a fearful situation. Thankfully “So Close, Yet So Far” was the heart-pounding episode we so desperately craved. It was tense all the way through, a suspenseful foray into the world falling apart. Now, if the writers can figure out how to merge action with plot momentum and character development, we might have something.
- “I’m about to step into a world of shit.” *rolls eyes*
- “When civilization ends, it ends fast.”
- “I’ll be OK.”—Famous last words.
- Hey Alicia, stop walking in the middle of the street. There are sidewalks for a reason.
- The fakeouts—the principal doing something intense only to reveal it’s innocuous, the overly portentous dialogue, etc.—is really starting to get on my nerves. OK, we get it, there’s an impending zombie apocalypse. You don’t have to be so obvious about it.
- Cops keep drugs in high schools? Is that a thing now?
- Wait, how did the principal get turned if he is the only zombie in the school?
- Also, knock it off with co-opting #BlackLivesMatter while stripping it of its racial focus. We are not your plot device, AMC. And equating a movement bent on eradicating systemic racism to a violent riot is at best offensive, at worst despicable and harmful.
- Speaking of African Americans, Fear has killed off three Black men in two episodes. Not great, Bob.
Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.