As the first season of the spin-off series Fear the Walking Dead ends and the sixth season of the original series begins, I look back at the last two episodes and feel disappointment at squandered potential. Fear’s premise was a solid one; it differentiated itself from the original series by moving from post-apocalyptic rural Georgia to pre-outbreak Los Angeles, right as the zombie plague begins to take hold. The first three episodes delivered some solid atmosphere, some nice scenery, and the good old-fashioned family melodrama that I’ve enjoyed in both series.
Things fell apart in the fourth episode, and I’m not talking about society. The tense, nervous energy of the first half of the season is gone, wiped away in a “nine days later” time skip during which all of LA dies off. That includes most of the undead, too; we see almost no zombies wandering around. Very few cars or property damage is on display, too. The fourth and fifth episodes of Fear, in which our main families are locked in the relative safety of a military-cordoned cul-de-sac, feels less like a paranoid zombie plague setting and more like a post-Rapture one. In what I presume was a budgetary decision at AMC, Fear the Walking Dead shows us the most sanitary apocalypse I’ve ever seen.
Episode five, Cobalt, shows a military on the verge of a breakdown. Or rather, tells us about it. We’re told that the troops are exhausted from fighting the zombie hordes, but we never see a single threat to the fenced-in area these episodes are set in. No zombie ever approaches the fences, no soldiers are lost on runs up to this point, and the big hole hero-mom Madison cuts in the fence at the end of the third episode never comes back to bite anyone. We’re repeatedly told how bad things are getting, but are never shown any sign that this is so.
Early in episode five, El Salvadorian refugee Daniel Salazar takes one of the army men hostage and demands answers. What’s the military really after here? Is it all a ruse? What aren’t they telling us? There’s some gross torture, some good backstory for Daniel who remains the most interesting and most morally gray character on the show, and eventually Army Guy lets it slip that the military is doing so badly that they’re planning on cutting the city loose and fleeing somewhere else. Of course, we’re never shown any sign that things are this bad.
Hero-dad Travis, meanwhile, convinces Lieutenant Moyers to taken him with the army convoy to a field hospital to find the members of his party who have been taken away; Nick, suffering from drug withdrawal, Griselda Salazar, suffering from a busted leg, and his ex-wife Liza, who’s left to work as a nurse. Before they can get there, the crew gets word of zombies hiding in a building off the path and everyone goes in there and presumably dies off screen, aside from Travis, who stays in the truck, and two other army dudes, who drive him home and scurry away. Moyers, after having been built up as the first real antagonist figure, dies in an action scene we listen to but don’t see. I understand the purpose, but monetary and thematically, of keeping the show’s point of view with Travis and his family, but this is an utterly boring way to get rid of a major character.
Meanwhile, Madison’s daughter Alicia and Travis’s son Chris alternate between playing Rich People Dress Up, trashing some neighbors’ house, and getting a little flirty. It’s an awkward, slightly uncomfortable scene, but it’s effective. Don’t make flirty eyes with your maybe soon to be step-siblings, kids!
The rest of the fifth episode, and most of the sixth, focuses on the field hospital, where Liza works with Dr. Exner to treat wounded soldiers and sick civilians. I was happy to find that in spite of initial apprehension, there’s no dark secret behind Exner; she’s just a pragmatic doctor in a bad situation, doing her best to treat as many patients as possible. There’s a weird dichotomy going on here, though. While the medical parts of the hospital are legit, civilians with any possible indication of sickness or distress are placed in a hastily-made prison camp. It’s hard to accept that the reasonable, decent doctors we see wouldn’t massively object to this.
Within the prison camp, we find Nick, still barfing from withdrawal, and meet Strand, a sharply dressed smooth-talker who speaks like an old-fashioned flim-flam man and decides Nick may be useful in helping plan an escape. Strand’s outlandish, theatrical speeches are tonally quite different from anyone else in the show, and he’s refreshing. His conman attitude makes him hard to trust, but he’s a lot of fun to watch, so come what may, I hope he sticks around. This leads into the sixth episode, The Good Man.
By episode six, the military has up and left and everyone in the cul-de-sac has to fend for themselves. Of course, there aren’t any zombies in sight, so nothing really changes. Madison, Travis, and Daniel form a plan; everyone’s going to get together, go to the field hospital, find their missing family members, and flee the city. Travis, being the titular Good Man, frees Daniel’s torture victim army man without the others knowing, which comes back to haunt him later.
The plan, rather foolishly, involves freeing a group of two-thousand zombies that are sitting locked up in a sports stadium and guiding them to the National Guard base so all the army guys can be distracted while our family heroes sneak into the hospital to take back their people. It works, but at the cost of turning a zombie-free zone into a bloodbath and getting a ton of soldiers, doctors, and patients killed. Madison and Daniel are both explicitly selfish characters, focused on the family at all costs at the expense of the innocent, so it’s thematically appropriate. It’s not a GOOD plan, but that’s who these people are. Travis goes along with it because he doesn’t have anything better to try.
The finale focuses on much larger scale action and chaos than the rest of the series and is the first time the walking dead pose an actual threat. It’s decently tense, and the haunted house atmosphere of the dead hospital is nice and spooky. Unlike the fourth and fifth episodes, we actually get to see what’s going on, and it works! We’re finally given shots of blocked roads, hordes of zombies, and a city in ruins, after only being told it was happening and seeing contrary evidence in the previous two episodes.
I don’t know how much of this falls on studio meddling and how much it falls on the directors (1-3 are by Adam Davidson, 4-5 by Kari Skogland, and 6 by Stefan Schwartz) but there’s much more impressive material in this episode. It’s also the first one since the pilot to be written by series creators Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson, and the finale and the pilot are the high points of the series.
In all of the violence, our crew makes it out more or less ok, and only one person is bitten (unfortunately, it’s someone I actually liked and wanted to see more of.) Strand smooth-talks his way into the family dynamic and takes them all to his mansion on the coast, where we discover he has a yacht sitting out at sea as a shining beacon of hope. Presumably, if there’s a second season it won’t just be about everyone chilling happily on the boat to ride out the plague. It’s a bittersweet ending, and Travis has to violate his ethics and make a horrible decision to save someone he loves from becoming a monster. It’s well done, but our good guy lead cracking after seeing a loved one die feels a little too much like Rick Grimes territory already.
I enjoyed Fear the Walking Dead overall, but it doesn’t reach the heights of the original series. Though to be fair, it never reaches its lowest points, either. It’s a solid opener, with a great pilot followed by two decent episodes, but the botched middle really bothers me. They contain horrible examples of “tell, don’t show” storytelling and really don’t use the city of Los Angeles as a character at all; the sprawl, the density, the population, none of it really matters. The show could be set almost anywhere and nothing would really change. The finale’s a big step up and does its best to recapture the more frantic feel of the first couple episodes, but I hope the next season can provide a more consistent quality of storytelling and film-making.