Fear the Walking Dead: Pilot

Fear the Walking Dead

Although the comic books failed to grab me, I loved the first season of The Walking Dead. In its constituent parts, it had all the ingredients for my must-watch list: zombies, found families, road trips through the post-civilization American South, emotional devastation. What’s not to love? But by the time the second season rolled around, I was out. Despite the promising start, it was too much gore for too little emotional payoff.  But when AMC announced they were spinning off a prequel of sorts: Fear the Walking Dead, which would begin on the west coast at roughly the same time as Rick Grimes’ accident and show us the spread of the virus and the end of the world as we know it? If I didn’t have cable already, I would have signed up for it then and there.

Fear the Walking Dead‘s super-sized premiere delivered on exactly that initial pitch, but I wonder how successful it will be at maintaining any level of suspense as events unfold. It has only six episodes this season to convince us to keep tuning in to its rendition of the hoariest of civilization collapse stories — and one that we already know ends in a whole lot of whimpers.

The episode begins with a young man, who we’ll later learn is named Nick Clark (Frank Dillane), waking up on a pallet in what appears to be an abandoned church that’s been repurposed as a shooting gallery. The shooting-up-drugs kind! Nick mumbles something, and staggers through the building, down stairs, around corners. He calls out for Gloria, and finally seems to wake up when he hears screaming. When he reaches the main floor, Nick discovers a dead man who’s missing half his throat and about three pints of blood, along with Gloria, who’s been stabbed with something very large but hasn’t given up on her dream of making a meal of another guy’s face.

Nick, understandably, runs from the church and into the street, where he’s hit by a car and left to roll around as passersby and concerned citizens crouch over him and call for an ambulance, instead of panicking and pulling out shotguns and crossbows. So, we’re definitely still living in the world, but Nick might not be for long.

We shift locations to a bright and clean family home, where more people are starting their day, in slightly less doomed but still television-chaotic fashion. Let’s not pretend we didn’t all obsessively pore over cast listings weeks ago. We know this family comprises our core main characters: Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), mother of Nick and Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), and Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis). They banter about nothing, and everyone goes tense and worried when the phone rings. With good reason, too. This is the call telling them their prodigal junkie Nick is in the hospital, where they head next.

Madison, Alicia and Travis in tow, storms through the hospital like she’s done this a time or seven. She’s disgusted that the hospital has already called the police, which makes me wonder if she retained anything at all from the last seven times they did this. In his hospital bed, Nick ineptly tries to walk back his previous claims of blood and mayhem, and channels Johnny Depp at the height of his late-80s greasy glamour. He’s also a little too interested in the elderly patient in the next bed for that guy to be anything but a future zombie.

After a painfully realistic family squabble (Nick resents the new almost-stepdad! Alicia resents her wastrel brother’s screwups!), Travis steps outside to take a call from his ex-wife and his son, with whom he argues about custodial visitations and the frustrations of building a big happy Brady Bunch 2.0. Next, he argues with Madison about who will go to work (they’re both teachers in the same school, although Madison confusingly sounds like she has some authority in the hospital) and who will babysit Nick, who is literally tied to the bed behind him. It’s a lot of interpersonal info, given very fast, and it took me a couple of rewinds to get everything straight. But for all that, it’s also a nice mix of irritation and sentimentality without going overboard on the sap or the schmaltz.

It’s not clear who wins that final argument, as Madison drives off to school with Alicia (who is clearly at the end of her patience for everyone in the family), and Travis settles in to watch Nick start detoxing, which should be a fun afternoon.

At school, Madison lingers with her boss next to the metal detectors, until a teenager named Tobias (Lincoln Castellanos) triggers the alarm. Madison slips some pocket change into Tobias’s hoodie, then strong-arms him into an office where she forces him to give up the knife in his other pocket. Tobias, who is clearly the smartest and most observant human being in the entire episode, tells Madison he needs the weapon, because the world is falling apart and none of them are going to make it out alive. He’s a lot subtler about it, though, which is his first mistake. Madison channels every well-meaning but ultimately condescending and wrong white savior protagonist to tell Tobias that if something were really wrong, the government would warn everyone. Tobias gives her and us the second of what I hope will be many glorious, full-power, face-first side-eyes. Keep fighting that good fight, Tobias.

Elsewhere on campus, Alicia finds her boyfriend, Matt (Maestro Harrell), who you may remember as the adorable and weird Malik on Suburgatory, but here is slightly less interesting than a dead frog. He’s an artist; she’s smart; they’re extremely boring. The end.

Back at the hospital, Nick wakes up from a nightmare or withdrawal symptoms. Travis, peering over his very step-fatherly reading glasses, seems like he might be open to listening to Nick’s story, but he definitely isn’t giving in to Nick’s pleas to undo the restraints. After very little prodding, Nick tells what he saw in the church, after which Travis has the worst idea of all time. He jumps in his pickup and rolls over to the Holy Heroin Church after dark, where he breaks in to see if he can find out what Nick saw.

Waiting inside is the last unzombified junkie in all of skid row, who shrieks some “we’re all going to die” nonsense at Travis then runs away. Next, Travis discovers a blood-streaked piano, then blood on smeared on walls and stairs. He even seems to touch one of the puddles, because what you should absolutely do inside a shooting gallery is touch bodily fluids. But Travis’s streak of terrible decisions isn’t over yet, because next he yells to see if anyone else is in the church, because this show hates me and wants me to have a heart attack before they even hint at the first headshot. As if he hasn’t already seen enough to believe Nick’s story, Travis then trips on something and lands in a puddle of guts and blood and finally — finally — decides to get out.

And apparently goes straight to the hospital, where he trades places with Madison and Alicia, who takes a minute to tell her brother she isn’t as given up on him as she pretends. Nick promises Travis that he’ll get clean — again, always.

High above the stadium at school, Alicia and Matt have another mostly pointless scene of boring teen romance. He draws a sloppy graffiti heart on her arm with a Sharpie. They make plans to meet up at the beach after school and hook up at his house, but don’t worry: Matt won’t be seen again in this episode. So, don’t get too attached is my advice! This (and every) franchise has a poor track record of keeping black characters a) alive; b) involved in the main plots.

Time to slow the breakneck pace a bit (#jokes) with a pit stop in Travis’s English class, where he coaxes a student into a textual analysis of The Call of the Wild, that doubles as a clunky metaphor for the show: man vs nature, tenacity vs futility, caring vs apathy, “nature always wins.” Madison, watching from the doorway, beams pure love rays at her fiance, which is exactly what I would do in a similar situation, even if Travis weren’t played by Cliff Curtis. Madison also shares a moment with her boss, for the pure and simple reason of tricking us into thinking that he’s slumped over dead in an office in the middle of hundreds of unsuspecting kids. It’s a cheap gag, which I always appreciate, and completely effective.

In the hospital, Nick meets the world’s most naive nurse, who despite her apparent experience as a trained professional working around drug addicts, unties one of his hands so he can use the bedpan better. Luckily for Nick, the nurse is further distracted by the suddenness with which ol’ Captain Obviously-About-To-Be-A-Zombie in the next bed crashes, which throws the whole room into chaos as they wheel him off to certain death and resurrection. Taking advantage of the distraction, Nick unties his other hand, locks the door, steals the old guy’s clothes, and escapes. We have brief glimpses of other patients in the hospital, some who look slightly more doomed than others, and then Nick’s outside, wandering the streets of LA.

After the Bad Decision Twins, Madison and Travis, discover that Nick’s broken out of the hospital, they break into the Holy Heroin Church again, where they argue about the lack of bodies (“They couldn’t just get up and walk away!”) and find Nick’s things, including a copy of Winesburg, Ohio, which I am taking as a personal shout-out. Inside the book they find his works: some now-empty foil packets and a capped syringe. As they have probably done the last seven times, Madison breaks down and Travis consoles her. When they finally leave the shooting gallery without being murdered and eaten by zombies, a helicopter passes overhead, offscreen. Neither of them look up.

We meet one of Nick’s friends, Calvin, when Travis and Madison arrive at his house to ask if he’s heard from Nick. He says he hasn’t. Meanwhile, Nick wanders around town some more, and calls someone to say he needs help. Alicia waits at the beach for Matt, to whom she texts “you better be dead,” which I am sure she will not regret in any way, shape, or form at any point in the future.

On their way home, Madison and Travis make plans for how to get Nick into rehab, and get stuck in traffic. They ignore a police order to remain in their vehicle and try to find out what’s happening ahead of them. When shots ring out, lots and lots of shots, they jump back in the truck and speed away.

At school the next day, there are more kids missing than have shown up. Madison and Travis gather with their coworkers to watch video footage of a dead guy attacking paramedics and cops. One of the other teachers runs through the standard litany of not-zombie rationalizations: he wasn’t really dead, just dazed; he was on something like super PCP; it’s airborne toxins; something. Anything. The cops shoot the dead guy multiple times, and he keeps coming. Nothing stops him, except a headshot. School is dismissed and the students are herded toward their buses, instead of being sheltered in place in the one location we know is safe so far. Madison and Travis finally decide to call the cops about Nick, who is wandering the city again and calling whoever it is who won’t call him back.

“Always listen to Tobias!” I yell from my couch, as Tobias throws a nuclear-powered I told you side-eye at Madison from his seat on the bus before it rumbles away. God bless you and keep you, Tobias.

Nick shuffles into a diner, where Calvin is waiting for him. After Nick reassures Calvin that he didn’t tell anyone who his dealer is (surprise! it’s Calvin!), Nick tries to score so he can get high and wipe the Holy Heroin Church massacre out of his head. Calvin relents, and they drive down to the LA River, where they don’t get involved in any drag races, more’s the pity. Instead, Calvin pulls a gun. Nick, of course, despite being two or three days into withdrawals, not only manages to see the gun but, somehow, gets the gun away from Cal enough to shoot him. Which makes total sense when you think about how Nick is a weedy junkie, who got hit by a car at the top of the episode and has been living outside for days, and Cal is a healthy, young, athletic-looking man. Oh, but like Matt, Calvin is also black, so you know how this ends before it begins, right?

Nick runs. When he gets away from the river, he calls Travis and Madison and tells them where he is. Oh, and that he shot Calvin. Nick transforms into the disembodied floating head of Johnny Depp for the ride back to the river, where Calvin’s body has disappeared. After a brief freakout, Nick tries another in his impressive catalog of Johnny Depp impressions, and Cal’s shambling, blood-soaked body appears behind the truck. Both Travis and Madison get out to help him, but Calvin growls and shambles and attacks. (It looks like he bites Madison on the arm, but we don’t see if she’s been injured.) Nick, who is clearly the smartest person in the family even after years of heroin abuse, runs over Calvin with the truck. Twice.

And Calvin keeps coming.

  • For most of the first scene, I thought maybe AMC was lying about the pre-apocalypse setting, but the Holy Heroin Church looks like every Hollywood art director’s idea of skid row. Sure, there are torn window shades and graffiti tags on every wall, but the plaster walls are still intact. I bet the copper pipes are still in there, even. No self-disrespecting junkie would leave money on the table like that!
  • The next surefire megahit spinoff: Tobias vs the Walking Dead? Go for it, AMC!
  • Throughout the episode, sirens and helicopters and other noises of active and impending danger are audible throughout the city and the characters almost never react to it. Fantastic, if not exactly subtle, bit of world-building.
  • Not sure yet if the virus and transmission make sense — some people seem to get sick like it’s a respiratory illness; some are presumably infected when bitten; Calvin shows no signs of a bite or illness, gets shot in the chest, and is zombified. Hopefully, unlike its sister show, Fear the Walking Dead will give us real answers.
  • Another great world-building tactic is the way you can never quite tell if the difference between what’s happening on the streets of LA. That ominous shambling figure in the park: normal weird or zombie weird? We just don’t know!
  • I’ve seen complaints that the premiere was too slow and boring, but not enough time is ever spent on the actual build-up to the end of the world, if you ask me. More oblivious people rushing headlong into impending doom, fewer blood-gargling monsters!

Photo Courtesy of AMC

About Lisa Shininger

Lisa Shininger spends way too much time thinking about fictional characters but, somehow, it's never enough. She co-hosts Bossy Britches, and yells about pop culture at lisashininger.com and on Twitter @ohseafarer.