Fear the Walking Dead: Season 1, Episode 2 – So Close, Yet So Far

“When civilisation ends, it ends fast.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Civilisation may be ending fast, but there was still fairly little plot advancement in this second ep of AMC’s cash cow spinoff Fear the Walking Dead. And yet, despite that fact, this was a much tauter, pacier instalment than the pilot, due in no small part to being told almost entirely in real time. Like 24, but with zombies.

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Not many zombies though – at least not yet. As seemed obvious last week, Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson have planned this prequel as a slow burn, highlighting the rising unease as society starts to gradually crumble. Those little details continue to mount up; a cop, filling the trunk of his cruiser with water supplies, a neighbour packing to leave, but with an insistent hacking cough, the power flickering on and off. And the high school where Travis and Madison work, its empty halls echoing with faraway moans.

The ep picked up pretty much exactly where the pilot left off (though there was a brief cold open in which Alicia looked in on her mysteriously incommunicado boyfriend). I must say, the dazed expressions worn by our heroes at the end of last week seemed a little underplayed, given that they were watching the still flopping corpse of a man who’d been shot then run over twice, and wouldn’t stop twitching. I’d have a bit more of a reaction than looking like I’d been hit by a fish.

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This week, though, they were more believably in full panic mode, racing that antique pickup, heedless of junctions, back home to evacuate to the desert. Madison and Travis are intelligent people – they can tell that, whatever is going on, Los Angeles might not be the best place to try and weather it out.

So, off into the desert for the rest of the season? Thankfully, no, as that would likely be dull, and lacking in the spectacle of the big city setting. Instead, Marco Ramirez’s script usefully split the characters up as they prepared to leave, giving us the potential for more plot. Travis went haring off to collect his ex-wife and rebellious son, while Madison hightailed it to the school’s “crime locker” to get drugs to aid in Nick’s withdrawal from heroin. Back home, Alicia, tasked with looking after the sweating, vomiting Nick, was dead set on getting back to her feverish boyfriend.

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I know, I know – it’s the sort of stupidity that inevitably gets people killed in horror movies, when they should stay together for protection. But what would be the fun in that? There wouldn’t be much of a story to tell; and besides, I suspect that in reality, it would be hard to think clearly when you’ve just encountered a highly aggressive dead man walking around trying to eat you.

One of the things that can be interesting about prequels is that you (the viewer) know more about what’s going on than the characters in the story do. So, we already know that these are dead people, they are coming back to life, and they do want to eat the living. This makes us more keenly aware of the jeopardy than the people onscreen, who have yet to work out whether this is a disease or how it’s transmitted – they could see Alicia’s boyfriend Matt had been bitten, but Cal the dealer wasn’t, he was shot. We know, of course, that everybody’s infected – anyone who dies, however they die, is coming back, and coming back hungry.

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A rather odd point I saw raised in coverage of last week’s episode was that none of the characters must have ever seen a zombie film, since they didn’t know what was going on or what to do. Well, of course they haven’t – I’d always taken it as a given that, in the world depicted in zombie films, there were no zombie films.

That’s easier to imagine than people not knowing what a vampire is – they spring from centuries of folklore, while the flesh eating risen corpse is a comparatively recent invention. I’d always assumed that zombie stories take place in a world where George Romero never made Night of the Living Dead in 1968. There are a few notable exceptions – 1985’s jet black comedy Return of the Living Dead asserts that Night was actually based on true events (and got them wrong), while Syfy’s jauntier Z Nation posits the interesting idea that society’s current obsession with zombies somehow called them into being. Generally, though, if the characters in zombie movies had actually seen zombie movies, they’d be pretty short as everyone would know exactly how to deal with them.

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Fortunately they don’t, as we saw this week when Madison tried vainly to get through to her obviously undead boss at the high school. After all, these aren’t yet the rotting horrors so familiar from the original series; apart from the moaning and the shambling, they could easily be taken for normal people. Right up until they try to eat you, as we saw in that scene.

That’s also key to how these uncoordinated, shambling, slow creatures can bring about the end of civilisation – we can’t tell them from living people, sometimes people we care about. Which is why yet another apparent random shooting by the LAPD (whose reputation in this area is none too good already) sparked off the riot that was the ep’s other main plot thread.

As might have been expected, Travis will certainly not “be right back”, as his mission to collect his son and ex-wife ended with him caught in a police cordon and hiding in a barber shop from the rampaging locals. This also gave the opportunity to expand the character roster, as we met the shop’s proprietors, the Salazar family. Chief among them is patriarch Daniel, a welcome appearance by Panamian actor/musician (and one time Minister of Tourism) Rubén Blades.

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Perhaps as a Brit, it took me a little while to realise quite how ethnically diverse this cast is. In fact, I count only three white main actors in it – Kim Dickens, Frank Dillane and Alycia Debnam-Carey. In a city like LA, that’s definitely realistic, and a better start than the parent show, which seems to only allow one African-American male at a time. At least the later ones were better served with actual dialogue than T-Dog.

Adam Davidson, back on directing duties for a second week, did a very good job of keeping the flavour of LA despite the fact that the show is now shot in Vancouver. Obviously second unit establishing shots helped, but even the smaller scale street scenes looked convincing, especially with the sunny weather – I wonder if the cast still did some location shooting there?

Davidson also has a good knack of building suspense, leading up to shock moments that are often misdirections. Last week, I thought there were rather too many attempts to mislead the audience that the character was about to encounter a zombie, only for it to turn out to be a living person; this week that was balanced out by the fact that there were more actual zombies to be seen. He’s also directing next week’s episode, so that’s in a safe pair of hands.

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So, after a very deliberately paced pilot, the show definitely picked up a bit this week, though if it’s hordes of zombies you’re after, you’ll probably have to wait a while. It’s well enough done, but I still question the need to try and “complement” the original series (well, money, obviously). It doesn’t help that The Strain is doing virtually the same plot with more assurance and a gutload more horror; even Madison’s fire extinguisher head-pulping this week was kept discreetly off-camera, seemingly indicating that this is a much more bloodless show than its predecessor. Still, it’s early days, and if the show keeps to this near real-time format, it could get very interesting as it progresses.

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