The time has come. Fear The Walking Dead has made its’ debut.
With the runaway success of the comic-book-inspired main television series, The Walking Dead has become a cultural phenomenon, but it has always had its open questions. How did this all begin? How did we fail so spectacularly to stop it from happening? What did the world look like while Rick Grimes slept?
Fear The Walking Dead seeks to answer all of those questions, and the series is off to a good start.
To begin, the show delivers a frighteningly accurate representation of the blasé approach with which most of humanity would treat the creeping doom of a nascent zombie apocalypse. We as an audience know where all of this is headed, and occupy a world beset with an abundance of apocalyptic pop-culture properties. Most everyone you know probably has at least a half-formed zombie apocalypse survival plan, or at least jokes about having one. Everyone knows you have to go for the headshot and everyone knows you double-tap for insurance. The characters within the world of the show lack that knowledge, and it shows. The early signs which are present in the opening segments of the pilot episode of Fear The Walking Dead are met with skepticism and dismissal. Mistakes are made at every step, mistakes which anyone with a passing familiarity of the zombie mythos would never make.
It is, in a strange way, sadly unsurprising. Outside of zombie fandom, most people laugh off stories like the bath-salt-using face-eater in Florida or the hack which led to the Montana Emergency Alert System issuing a warning about zombies attacking. This is how most everyone would react. We would look at footage of walkers moving forward through multiple gunshots on YouTube and laugh it off. We would ridicule the one guy who tried to warn us that it was all connected. The episode is a chilling reminder that, though we may all think we know what’s going on and how we’d react when the proverbial shit hits the fan, we have become largely immune to what we consider irrational fears. While these tropes might seem tired in another context, the foreknowledge of what is coming makes them compellingly tragic. As one scene early in the episode emphasizes, most of modern society lacks even the basic skills and instincts to survive ordinary privation and hardship, much less the horror which is headed towards the world of the series.
From an artistic standpoint, the pilot episode of Fear The Walking Dead benefits from terrific performances by its’ core cast of actors. Frank Dillane as Nick Clark is easily the standout as the heroin-addicted burnout son in the episode. The drug-addled character is a member of the sort of walking dead the audiences recognizes in the real world, and the decision to have him physicalize the symptoms of his drug use in a way which mirrors the now-familiar shamble of the walkers themselves is a brilliant one. He serves as the harbinger of the coming doom, showing us the shape of things to come even as he is the first character we see witness it in person. Surrounded by solid performances delivered by a cast of veteran actors, the group dynamic of the Clark family is what makes the show work. In order for the drama to have impact, the audience must care about the core cast, and all but Nick are depicted as tremendously likable and worthy of the audience’s investment in their well-being. We want all of these people to make it, even though we know going in that the odds of any of them doing so are slim to none. If we’ve learned anything from the last five years of The Walking Dead episodes, it’s that the more likable someone is, the less likely they are to survive.
From a pacing perspective, the episode does feel slow at times. It is possible, indeed likely, that the trudging pace is intended as a means of tormenting the audience. After all, with the knowledge of what is going to happen already there, every moment it is delayed adds to the sense of foreboding. In that respect, the episode succeeds terrifically.
As far as the technical elements of the show are concerned, the level of quality is consistent with what audiences have come to expect from AMC in general and the Walking Dead franchise in particular. Cinematographer Michael McDonough does a wonderful job in both framing the characters to maximize their individual abilities and create a creeping sense of tightening which lends itself to the feeling of impending doom. His choice of a largely yellow and gray color palette also does wonders for the show, as it evokes a feeling of autumnal decay, as we are witnessing the final days of humanity’s pre-zombie summer. He also peppers in some wonderful thematic elements into the episode, such as the crooked cross in the opening church scene, a not-so-subtle way of representing the twisted sort of resurrection the audience is about to witness. McDonough’s camerawork is ably complemented by Kathie Talbot’s eerie sound design, which echoes that of The Walking Dead without aping it entirely. The same rumbling tones are there, but somehow distant, as if warning of the slow-moving storm which is coming. If the pilot falters on any technical level, it is in the SFX department. By the very nature of its place in the timeline, Fear the Walking Dead has a ways to go before it can show the stunning make-up work which has become a hallmark of the main series. There has simply not been enough time for the rot to spread through the undead, though it is surely coming.
All in all, the first episode of Fear The Walking Dead is a solid one. It manages to set the stage for the larger story, adds elements to the established mythos, and features excellent technical and artistic work by its designers and cast. Though it feels slow, the story is still compelling and the character work makes the slow burn worth the wait. It should fine a home in the hearts of long-time series fans and those looking to wade into the zombie-infested waters of Robert Kirkman‘s franchise for the first time.