The premiere of Fear the Walking Dead, AMC’s new spin-off from their hit zombie apocalypse series, dives headfirst into the carnage. It begins with a young, shirtless Johnny Depp type (Nick Clark, played impeccably by Frank Dillane) waking up alone in an old church turned drug den. He searches for his missing bedmate, following a trail of blood and viscera like breadcrumbs until he discovers her reanimated body, which had likely died from an overdose during the night, munching on the torso of a dead man. Nick bursts terrified from the church, running for his life right into the middle of the street where he is promptly struck by a car. It’s an intense three minutes of footage, so compelling that AMC released it online weeks before the premiere), but none of it compares to the striking image of the camera panning up from the accident scene to show a bustling Los Angeles going about its daily business, completely unaware that the end of the world is at its doorstep.
That natural anxiety created by the fact that the viewer knows way more than the characters about what is to come is the show’s strongest card, and the first episode plays it often, especially with the troubled Nick. Of course the first witness to the rise of the walking dead would be a heroin addict, an unreliable narrator of sorts, who desperately tries to explain what he saw to his exhausted mother, Madison (Kim Dickens), and his perpetually annoyed younger sister, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), while he is handcuffed to a hospital bed. Having dealt with his drug problems for years, Nick’s family is rightfully unconvinced by his ramblings, but luckily his mom’s boyfriend, Travis (played by Cliff Curtis who has more than earned a leading man role), is eager to be helpful and make up for his failings with his own son.
Travis becomes the guy you want to root for because he’s the most reasonable character in the show (or at least in the first episode). He takes the drug-addled story with a grain of salt, but still goes out of his way to investigate and corroborate Nick’s claims. Later, when he connects the dots between these random acts of violent cannibalism and a mysterious illness that’s going around, Travis says out loud, “we have to get away from people,” to which my household gave raucous applause. We’re barely one episode in, and already someone already “gets it” and decides to gather his family and get somewhere secluded to wait this thing out.
Unfortunately, this is where the plot stumbles. After witnessing a particularly gruesome zombie hit and run, Travis and Madison decide together that they need to skip town—and then they break the huddle and run in opposite directions, Travis to fetch his son and ex-wife, and Madison to get drugs from the high school where she and Travis work to ease Nick out of his withdrawal. They leave Nick, who is kind of dying, under the care of Alicia, whom they neglect (or flat our refuse) to tell what the hell is going on, even after she sees her boyfriend with a high fever and a nasty bite on his shoulder. Now the couple is separated and stuck on opposite sides of a city about to explode with panic, and I fear that the entire conflict for the rest of the season will be simply watching their odd decision-making as they attempt to reunite with one another.
I tried to not let my views on The Walking Dead influence my reaction to Fear, but when the first episodes start making some of the same mistakes as early seasons of its older sister show, it’s difficult not to draw comparisons, especially when there’s crossover between writers and production teams. The most glaring example of my frustration is a character, usually a woman, making illogical or downright dumb choices to create drama (see: Lori managing to flip a car on an empty road because Rick was missing for all of five hours in TWD season 2). Unfortunately, Madison seems to be taking on that role, as she spends the majority of her screen time not believing what is happening around her and having to have men, even young men, explain everything.
One of those young men is Tobias, a student who tries to sneak a knife into school to protect himself from what he assumes is the end of the world. Granted, Tobias is actually pretty interesting, even prophetic, but it left me feeling a little cold watching him walk around the school gathering supplies and practically holding Madison’s hand while explaining to her exactly what was happening, despite the fact that she had already seen it, and advising her on what to do next. It’s even further frustrating to watch her ignore his advice almost immediately when the two come face to face with walking proof of the plague. I know not all characters in this universe can be Michonne, but I was really hoping for some women with agency who could Figure Shit Out. Of course, the comparison is inherently unfair because TWD has had five seasons to develop its characters, who are now so tantalizing that the new promos are nothing but the actors standing still in a dark room.
Time will tell if Madison can gird her loins and lead, but in the meantime I’m not actively rooting against her thanks to Kim Dickens’ hardened but emotional performance. In fact, most of the actors are pretty strong, and this feels like a series that was thoughtfully cast. Frank Dillane (who you may recognize as the young Tom Riddle in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) as Nick manages to be the most endearing character despite constantly making bad choices. Cliff Curtis gives Travis that everyman quality but keeps him from feeling heroic, which is clever considering every hero-type in The Walking Dead tends to violently fail at one point or another.
Despite my nitpicking with the characters, Fear the Walking Dead succeeds with its slow burn approach to the apocalypse as the chaos unfolds one chapter at a time. The most frightening moments are the seemingly ordinary ones that just feel slightly amiss, like an empty playground that was full of children only yesterday, or a traffic accident with far too many police vehicles around it. Tobias warned Madison that when society falls, it falls fast, but I hope the show continues to show the apocalypse sidling up to society unnoticed, because as Nick demonstrates, sometimes the most terrifying thing isn’t that the world is ending—it’s that no one believes you when you tell them.
Fear the Walking Dead airs Sunday nights on AMC.