Fear the Walking Dead, AMC’s spinoff to ratings juggernaut The Walking Dead, will never answer our biggest questions about the zombie apocalypse. We’ll never know how the outbreak started, who’s to blame, or how to stop it. Robert Kirkman would toss Chris Hardwick into a pit of writhing walkers before he ever gave a straight answer about that.
We do already know how this whole thing plays out: all the world’s governments and militaries get wiped out, along with most of the civilian population. The world becomes a bleak, never-ending nightmare where everyone’s infected and only the strongest (or those with the coolest weapons/hair/eyepatches) survive.
So what does Fear the Walking Dead have to offer?
Sunday night’s pilot episode didn’t present a definitive answer for why this story needs to be told, but it did set the tone for what to expect over the next six weeks. Like The Walking Dead, Fear takes a micro approach to mankind’s doom by focusing on a single group of people and watching as they come to grips with the changing rules of their world.
Instead of a noble Georgia sheriff, we get two Los Angeles schoolteachers, Travis (Cliff Curtis) and Madison (Kim Dickens), and their blended family: Madison’s kids, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) and Nick (Frank Dillane, son of Stephen aka Stannis Baratheon), Travis’s son, Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie) and his ex-wife Liza (Orange Is the New Black’s Elizabeth Rodriguez).
In the episode’s opening scene—you can watch three minutes of it below—Nick is the first of the bunch to witness a zombie chowdown after he wakes up in an abandoned, bloodstained church and hears a distant scream. (In an apparent nod to The Walking Dead’s opening scene, the camera’s framing of Nick’s face in that first shot mirrors Rick rousing from a coma.) In keeping with Horror Movie Logic, Nick walks toward the sounds in this dark, clearly dangerous place until he creeps up behind his friend Gloria, only to find her busy ripping chunks off a guy’s face.
Of course, no one believes Nick after he escapes because he’s a drug addict, and no one ever believes drug addicts about anything. Family drama ensues: Madison’s kids hate Travis, Nick hates himself, Travis stays maddeningly chill about everything somehow.
But the question of societal influences dictating who we’re inclined to believe when things go wrong crops up again at school, where Madison pulls an endearingly awkward and paranoid teenager into her office after he sets off the school’s metal detectors. That teenager is the only soul in this entire damn episode who has any idea what’s going on—so of course, as with Nick, no one believes a word he has to say.
His name is Tobias. He’s chubby, he’s got acne on his face, and he has a history of getting picked on, so naturally Madison thinks he’s just some nerd who spends too much time on the Internet when he starts mumbling something about a “flu” and being “safer in numbers.” Tobias points out the extreme unlikeliness that reports of a killer flu in five states are unconnected, but Madison—whose role in this episode is largely to be the dog in the “This Is Fine” cartoon who sits and smiles complacently as his house burns to the ground—waves him off, assuring him that if there was a real problem, “the authorities would tell us!” Madison Clark is a true believer in the transparency of the U.S. government.
To her credit, Madison is too distracted by Nick’s annoyingly frequent disappearances to notice much of anything. A recurring snippet throughout the episode is Madison driving by a playground and glancing at it without really seeing anything—the first time, while she’s trying to get her daughter to take off her headphones inside the car, the playground is full of parents and children. The second time, as she and Travis are speeding off to the church to try to find Nick, it’s deserted except for a lone figure ominously shambling forward.
But moments of subtle eeriness like this get buried in moments of facepalm-obvious foreshadowing. Not once, but twice we revisit the church and have either Madison or Travis repeat the exact same line: “Something really bad happened here.” When Nick’s drug dealer tries double-crossing him, his idea of being sneaky is holding a loaded handgun at his side, where Nick clearly sees it. And in class, teachers lecture loudly about chaos theory and man versus nature and how Jack London was trying to teach us “TO NOT DIE.” To not die! GET IT? ’CAUSE ZOMBIES, GUYS.
And yet, the episode manages to resist the bait we wish it had gone for. In what version of America do we dismiss reports of a deadly flu spreading across five states? Our mainstream media went batshit crazy last year when a handful of people were quarantined with Ebola—isn’t that exactly the sort of thing ripe for skewering in a zombie drama? Similarly, the show adds zero commentary when a viral video goes around showing an unarmed (and undead) suspect being shot multiple times by police. Characters cry, “Look how they unload on him!” Then we’re ushered along to Alicia, who rolls her eyes at the whole thing and calls it fake.
Rather, Fear the Walking Dead seems content simply to use familiar signifiers in a new, undead context. When Nick accidentally kills his drug dealer, Travis assures him that “whatever happens, it was self-defense.” Stand your ground! In the second episode that AMC made available to critics (this isn’t a spoiler, but avert your eyes if you’re sensitive to any kind of advance information), we see anti-police brutality protesters shouting and wielding camera phones—as the “victim” suddenly lurches up and attacks again.
The special effects centerpiece of the episode comes when Travis and Madison encounter their first zombie—Nick’s dealer, Calvin—and try killing it by running it over with their truck. (No one in this universe has ever heard the word “zombie,” let alone instructions on how to kill one.) Watching Calvin slowly rise from the ground with his limbs at odd angles and bones jutting out of his flesh felt like the first true Walking Dead moment of the show. It was frightening and fascinating at the same time—a succinct distillation of why millions tune in for this stuff every week, including me.
By the end of the episode, an atmosphere of dread is only just starting to settle over Los Angeles. The handful of students not already “out with the flu” are dismissed from school. And in a gratifying moment, Tobias shoots Madison a gloomy, knowing look from the school bus. He knows what’s ahead and so do we—all we can do is hang in there and hope it’s worth sticking around.