“It doesn’t matter how you die. You come back. We all come back.”
This week saw Fear the Walking Dead reach its first season finale, and (finally) show some action. And some zombies. You know, more than one at a time.
Even though it picked up the pace in the last couple of episodes, Fear has been a (presumably deliberate) slow burn. The zombie apocalypse, while all-pervading, hasn’t really been shown in any detail; instead, we’ve mostly seen people’s reaction to it, and the way it’s made society crumble. While it’s never been less than watchable, I suspect fans of the original Walking Dead will have been tuning in expecting to see zombies, and they’ve been in pretty short supply throughout.
It’s felt, in part, as though the show was lacking the budget of its parent. There were some very impressive shots of the dead LA this week, presumably CG-enhanced since the city is never that quiet. But it served to underline that we hadn’t actually seen that much of the city’s fall. After our gang escaped from the downtown riot, the show’s been focused on the sinister military rule of their deceptively safe haven back in the suburbs. All those shots of the deserted LA, and of our heroes driving through staggering zombies on the deserted freeway later in the ep, seemed to underline the missed opportunity to show us some real spectacle. After all, the end of the world is usually pretty spectacular.
That’s not to say the claustrophobic drama of suburban martial law has had nothing to offer. But most of the time it’s felt like we were on the fringes of the collapse of civilisation, hearing reports about it rather than actually seeing it. It may be an intentional approach rather than a budget limitation, but given the frequent spectacle of its parent show, I somehow doubt that.
Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman and Fear showrunner Dave Erickson were back on scripting duties this week, for the first time since the show’s pilot, and served up an ep more likely to satisfy fans of the parent show than their previous, glacially-paced effort. Perhaps for the first time since the series began, it matched the original’s deft blend of character drama and action, as our heroes left the fenced in suburb on a mission to rescue Nick, Liza and Griselda, while the drama gave us more insight into various of the characters.
So, as Daniel perhaps rashly used the handy two thousand zombies previously penned in that stadium as a rather overkill distraction, the mission into the military hospital complex gave the writers plenty of opportunity to show how the characters have developed, and still are developing. There was more examination of Daniel’s now-revealed past as torturer for the El Salvador junta, which his daughter Ofelia was not taking well. “I thought you were the victim,” she spat at her father; his riposte was perfect, “Would you rather I had been?”
Over at the hospital, Liza and Nick also got some good character moments while, ironically, breaking out just as their families came to rescue them. Nick was paired off with the shrewd Strand, who as I expected is obviously joining the regular cast, and got to see how ruthless his new… ‘associate’ can be: “Save yourself Nick, let others drop behind.” Liza, for her part, was paired with the increasingly despairing Dr Exner, now revealed as a hapless, overly trusting patsy for the military. As soon as she told the patients they were being airlifted to Edwards Air Force Base, you knew the lot of them were as good as dead. And when she finally realised, and resignedly told everyone who could to run, what was hanging conspicuously behind her but the Stars and Stripes. Cynical.
Exner’s character journey into despair was well played, as she eventually euthanized all the patients who couldn’t leave on their own before picking up the bolt gun to follow suit herself. She served as a neat counterpoint to the ruthless Strand, who stopped to pick up his diamond cufflinks from his unfortunate military bribe while the latter was being chowed down on by a zombie. “Kill me,” the soldier begged, to which Strand contemptuously responded, “it looks like you’re well on your way”. If any of the gang are well-suited to surviving this, it’s him.
Unlike, previously, Travis, the “Good Man” of the ep title, who had previously demonstrated himself to be almost awesomely ill-equipped to deal with the situation. The ep saw him finally seeming to realise that his old moral code was worse than useless. As he faced the consequence of his compassionate decision to release Cpl Adams, he plainly snapped, beating the man near to death. Worse was to follow later, when he had to put down his infected ex-wife. “Don’t let Travis do it, it’ll break him,” Liza urged Maddie; but Travis ended the ep a harder man than before, and probably more likely to survive. Kudos to Cliff Curtis for taking advantage of the chance to finally make the character interesting.
The ep had a nice sense of a world being left behind, as Maddie said goodbye to the kids’ height markers on the wall of their house, then drove past neighbours still blithely having dinner by candlelight, as though nothing more than a blackout had happened. It had a real sense of poignancy – though I did think it was a bit harsh of Daniel to leave the gate open when they left. The neighbourhood will be swarming with zombies in no time. Why not leave people a few more hours of their illusory safety?
The direction, by Stefan Schwartz who cut his teeth on the likes of Spooks and Luther, was assured and well-paced, building momentum from a slow start to the frenetic zombie assault on the hospital, then pausing for breath afterwards to allow the emotional impact to set in. As if the beds full of bloodied corpses weren’t reminiscent enough of the Holocaust, the piles of mostly burned corpses outside, abandoned bulldozers next to them, hammered that point home. Once again, the living had proved to be as much a threat as the dead.
Though the dead were a threat, finally appearing en masse as Daniel casually advised the sentries to save their ammunition – “you’re going to need it”. The set piece of their attack took up nearly half the ep and was well-choreographed and thrilling, but it did feel rather too little, too late. After all, the original show grabbed us with a horde in abandoned Atlanta in the very first episode.
So, we’ve reached the end of the season, had the requisite spectacle and prescribed death of a main character, with the seeds of plotlines to come being sown by Strand’s plan to hole up on his impressive-looking yacht. But while it’s been watchable and occasionally rather good, I’m still not sure of the actual need for a spinoff from The Walking Dead. Especially now that society has collapsed, making this essentially the same show, just with less advanced decomposition. Still, I suppose CSI has somehow managed to pull off numerous iterations of, basically, the same thing. Perhaps they should have just called it Walking Dead: Los Angeles.
Next week, the real thing is back, in the shape of Walking Dead’s sixth season, which I’m looking forward to immensely. I expect I’ll be back for season two of the spinoff, but without anything like the same enthusiasm.