Fear the Walking Dead: Season 1, Episode 3 – The Dog

“She’s not sick. She’s dead.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Fear the Walking Dead continues to get pacier in this third instalment, though there’s still a fair bit of the soap opera that pretty much dominated the pilot episode to the exclusion of most everything else. Like the second episode, this one follows the quasi-real time approach (with a significant gap in the middle) which is apparently going to be the show’s style – a nice way to extend a narrative that logically would be over pretty quickly otherwise.

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Jack LoGiudice’s script picked up pretty much where we left the last time, with Travis, his ex-wife and rebellious son barricaded in the barbershop downtown while Madison, Nick and Alicia waited impatiently back in the suburbs, ready to flee the city asap. Splitting up this extended family last time was a good idea, giving the chance to expand the narrative while also increasing the tension – would they make it back together again?

As it turned out, yes. But to give the writers their due, there was some creditable tension and excitement along the way. Travis’ crew found themselves in the thick of it as Los Angelenos did what they do best – riot. And Madison’s dysfunctional family found themselves having to cope with an increasingly undead amount of suburban neighbours.

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That last may well have pleased viewers who’ve been tuning in expecting this zombie show to have some actual zombies in it. From the first it’s been clear that Robert Kirkman’s intent was for this show to have a slow burn, the mounting collapse of society insidiously creeping in with people only noticing slowly if at all. The trouble with that approach is that the main appeal of a zombie show is, well, zombies. And they’ve been in pretty short supply so far.

By recent standards then, this ep had a virtual smorgasbord of them. The show has so far taken the approach of movies like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, showing an everyman spectator’s viewpoint; where we’ve seen zombies, it’s mostly been at a distance as cops tried to deal with them while Our Heroes fled for safety. With Travis’ group in the thick of the riot, that changed as they (and we) noticed the spectacle of an undead cop chowing relentlessly down on a screaming colleague. After all, if there’s anywhere a ferocious walking corpse might go unnoticed, it’s in the chaos of a riot.

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There was another distant glimpse as the gang drove past a hospital, giving us a bit more detail on those unanswered 911 calls in previous eps. The hospital was on fire, surrounded by cops frantically shooting at the shambling undead emerging from the main entrance. Makes sense – if you’re sick, hospital’s where you go. More people die there than anywhere else. It would be the worst place to be if the dead are returning to life and attacking the living.

But for getting up close and personal with the undead, it was those suburbs you had to see. That neighbour we saw dragging down and eating a little girl last week was still shambling around, and he turned out to be Madison’s friend Pete. Madison’s next door neighbour Susan popped up as a slavering carnivore, unable to reach through the fence to get at her erstwhile friends.

It’s still not the horde you get to see at the climax of the parent show’s very first ep, but that makes sense at this early stage of the Apocalypse. Plus, the increasing amount of the undead allows for some properly tense moments of jeopardy (though I’m unsure why those neighbours had constructed a baffling bamboo maze in their back garden). It also showed, explicitly, what I referred to last week – the zombies may be slow and dumb, but as far as their victims are concerned, they’re sick loved ones. That’s why you might take the ostensibly foolish approach of trying to hug them, and end up bitten.

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Our heroes this week finally seemed to be getting the message that these aren’t sick people waiting to be cured (shades of Hershel and his barn) but walking corpses which can only be dealt with by destruction. Helping with this realisation was the inclusion of the Salazar family, whose grim background in El Salvador gave them an advantage in terms of survival from the start. Daniel’s dismissal of their pampered suburban hosts – “good people are the first to die” – showed a pragmatic attitude that it took several seasons for Rick Grimes to reach.

Daniel it was too who took the initiative in using the purloined shotgun to blast doggy-eating Pete’s head off, in probably the first truly impressive bit of gore we’ve seen. It wasn’t just his coup de grace that impressed, but the previous failed attempt that left the ravenous ghoul with only half a face but still dangerous. It was a memorable visual moment – if only I hadn’t just watched an ep of Breaking Bad on Netflix that featured a very similar effect.

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Adam Davidson, on directing duties for the third ep in a row, coped well with the buildup of pace and tension since that lethargic pilot. The riot was convincingly done, with a nice sense of chaos; though I was sceptical that it would be quite so easy to drive out of. The scene at the hospital was a nice representation of the crumbling of order, as did that wobbling airliner struggling through the sky to its presumed doom. Meanwhile, the long shot of the city’s lights going out area by area nicely recalled a lower scale shot from the original Dawn of the Dead, in which the lights of a skyscraper ominously flickered off as the heroes fled Philadelphia in their helicopter.

And now the military have turned up, keeping our heroes in the city for a while longer. That’s probably a good thing from a story perspective, as hanging out in the desert is unlikely to provide much drama other than Nick going cold turkey and Travis’ two families bickering in a soap opera style. The possibility that the military are up to no good is another potential source of drama – despite Travis’ assertion that “the cavalry’s arrived”, I’d be far more likely to go along with Daniel’s assessment that “it’s already too late”. Certainly the disappearance of the unfortunate Patrick Tran, and those disturbing audits of who lives where, did not reassure.

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The show’s continuing to improve from its initial glacially-paced soap opera as the situation worsens, becoming more interesting each week. It’s still got a long way to go before it’s as compelling as its progenitor, but then even The Walking Dead had its ‘difficult’ second season stuck on that wretched farm with barely a zombie to be seen. The increasing number of characters is definitely helping, Rubén Blades a particular standout in dragging the show away from its dangerous similarity to Beverly Hills 90210. I’m still not sold on it reaching its predecessor’s cult status – but with a second season already confirmed, I’ll certainly keep watching.