With its second and third episodes, AMC’s Walking Dead spin-off has established itself as a worthwhile show. While there are still some moments of Horror Movie Dumbness (Madison, please tell your daughter that there are sick people turning into monsters, shielding her at this point won’t help anything,) Fear the Walking Dead has had a more focused first half of its debut season than the original show managed, even with a weaker pilot episode.
Episode 2 sees Los Angeles begin to descend into a panic, as more and more people begin to fall victim to a rapidly spreading disease and police struggle to maintain order while keeping the public in the dark. Having had their first run in with a living dead, Madison (Kim Dickens) and Travis (Cliff Curtis) decide to take their children, the burned-out addict Nick (Frank Dillane, who continues to impress), and Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), who still hasn’t really grown into her own character) and flee the city to an unspecified place in “the desert.” Travis leaves to find his ex-wife, Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez), and their son Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie) so that both families can safely get out of the city together.
The core of the second episode focuses on a riot erupting in downtown LA, as police execute a homeless man who may or may not have been a zombie; we don’t see him prior to the shooting, and it’s left vague as to what actually happened. Was he infected, or was he just shambling as usual? Did he attack the cops first? Did they try to detain him prior to shooting? How much do they know? It’s a commentary on the current “shoot first, ask questions later, keep the public in the dark” police violence cropping up across America and as such establishes the show as something far more topical than the original Walking Dead. Both the police and the protesters rallying against the shooting have a partial misunderstanding about what’s going on, and no one tries to peacefully explain the situation to anyone. People have already begun forming alliances, and society is already poised to fall. Another woman (this one definitely a zombie) is shot at the rally, and chaos erupts.
The peaceful protest turns into madness as rioters take to the streets; police, meanwhile, start hoarding water and supplies from needy people outside of the center of conflict. Travis and Liza find Chris in the heart of the protest and together take shelter in a barber shop run by Daniel Salazar (Rubén Blades), an immigrant who left El Salvador due to political strife. His wife Griselda (Patricia Reyes Spíndola) and his daughter Ofelia (Mercedes Mason) convince Daniel to shelter Travis and company through the riot. In another series, these three would feel like zombie-fodder, but Daniel quickly establishes himself (more so in the third episode) as a potentially strong leader with a cool head who knows how to survive violent times.
While Travis braves the violence downtown, Madison breaks into the school she works at to steal some drugs for Nick, who’s suffering from violent withdrawals. There she finds and rescues resident super nerd Tobias (Lincoln A. Castellanos) and is forced to kill the recently turned corpse of her old boss. This scene is key to establishing major differences between Fear and the mainline Walking Dead; with the disease so new and the dead so fresh (in a manner of speaking), encounters are far deadlier, as there’s no decay setting in to make them weak and flimsy. While everyone in Walking Dead can knife a zombie in the head effortlessly, an attempt to do so here ends badly, and Madison is forced to use even more brutal means in order to escape. The monsters here feel more like the ones in 28 Days Later (albeit slower) than George Romero’s films, and it certainly ups the tension significantly.
Another detail I like is that while Nick’s addiction is obviously dangerous and drives a wedge between his family, he’s really not judged for it. At worst, he’s shown as someone sick, in need of time and treatment. It’s not a blunt “Don’t do drugs” message, but rather just an aspect of a human character that makes him fallible. It’s a stark contrast to the bizarre judgment of Bob in the original series, a recovering alcoholic who’s treated like garbage by the universe every time he even thinks about having a drink. In the season 4 premier of Walking Dead, Bob reaches for a bottle of wine while on a supply run, chooses not to take a drink, and puts down the bottle. The universe screws him anyway, causing the shelf to collapse and people around him to die. I’m a Bob fan, but scenes like that still just baffle me.
Episode 3 begins with Travis, Liza and Chris still hiding out with the Salazar family and Madison, Nick and Alicia sitting around safe in their home playing Monopoly. The class imagery splitting the two families here couldn’t be blunter, with the upper-middle class family playing pretend millionaires as the working class struggles for survival. Zombies as a symbol of the poor and the destitute is not a new idea, and Fear plays with the borders between race, class, and wealth. It’s not groundbreaking, but it sets the show apart from the action-adventure show the original series has become.
Eventually the two groups unite, and we’re given some nice scenes along the way: There’s an extremely well done shot of LA slowly losing power (both electric and social) as Travis drives both his family and the Salazars back to his home, and a haunting image of a burning hospital that we drive by as police execute infected patients. Episode 3 is much more strongly directed than #2, and these two scenes highlight that.
There’s another zombie run in and the family dog dies off-screen, a fact which, weirdly, doesn’t seem to bother Madison and the kids very much. It’s easy to see Madison as shutting down emotionally (she turns her back on a neighbor in danger at the end of episode 2) as a survival instinct, but I’d think Nick and Alica would care more. We learn more about Daniel, who has begun teaching Chris the basics of gun use (to Travis’s objections and Madison’s approval) and things are tense between Madison and Liza, but thankfully there’s no animosity or ridiculous drama, just a very human discomfort. Everyone feels real and believable, and though Ofelia Salazar is given few lines, her focus on keeping the group together and helping those in need against her father’s “only our family matters” mentality makes her more interesting than Alicia already.
This half of the season ends with the military moving in and taking control of the city, or at least the suburbs. Zombies are killed, people who have had contact with them are whisked away to a government black site somewhere, and it looks like things are getting under control. Obviously it won’t last, or else the show would be over, but here’s hoping that we get to see the military as an antagonist body of both good and bad people, with more moral ambiguity than the cartoon villains of the original series.