Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Fear the Walking Dead each week in a series of letters, just as they’ve done for The Walking Dead.
Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” is one of my favorite songs, and any episode of television that begins with that sad, dirge-like melody is okay by me. End of review.
Okay, not really—Reed alone isn’t enough to give away free praise. But my gut reaction after finishing “Not Fade Away” is that we’re starting to head in the proper direction, and that I feel positive about Fear the Walking Dead for the first time since the pilot. The last two episodes had so many false moments infesting the narrative that I admit to losing most of my hope. Last night, finally, we got back to what matters, and we may have found what works.
One thing we’ve talked about before in our Walking Dead reviews is how the dialogue isn’t always the strongest—the show has its highbrow moments, but we’re not dealing with the writing staff of The Sopranos here. I think the same can be said for FTWD, and what made this episode so great was the lack of over-explaining, which in turn diminished the groan-inducing moments.
The truth is that in either zombie show, the writers can’t go very far in dialogue-heavy scenes without running headfirst into a cliche. We saw it to some extent this week, with the stereotypically arrogant, dismissive lieutenant strutting around, threatening force, cursing at golf balls, and generally being an unrealistic douchebag. And we saw it with the way Travis dismissed Chris’ video by defaulting to a very standard horror trope—”I’m so insistent that everything is normal that I’m not even going to look at the very obvious evidence proving I’m wrong.”
By and large, though, there were fewer of those cliches to be found. Instead, the ominous atmosphere was built slowly, by unsettling degrees, until it had become a tangible organism. Actually, ‘rebuilt’ might be the better term, since this hour of TV was about recovering what had been lost after the pilot. There was something definitely menacing about both the army and the visiting doctor, even though both profess to having the best intentions. We know, in our guts, that they’re going to commit some kind of atrocity, and the best scene of the whole episode was Daniel’s mini-monologue touching on the motivations behind evil acts, and how it makes no difference whether they are driven by malice or fear—the bodies in the rivers of El Salvador, or the streets of Los Angeles, are just as dead.
That pervasive sense of dread builds to the climax, when the army takes not just Griselda, but also Nick, who has been outed as a dope fiend. The way they’re ripped out of their household has historical echoes in the terror from which the Salazars escaped—the people who are disappeared, and who will never return alive. Even Travis, alone on the roof and spotting gunfire in the window of the house he wanted so badly to ignore, is starting to get the point.
There were some poetic bookends, too, first by Chris and last by Alicia, that I never would have expected to work if you’d pitched the concept after last week’s episode. But they did work, and so did Madison’s anger at Nick, and later the anguish when she lost him. Hopefully, as we near the end of the short first season, the writers of FTWD will look at these moments and realize that they pack a punch, and that we don’t need artificial suspense driven by cliche in order to achieve emotional impact.
So, Josh, in what has been a very inconsistent show so far, the needle ticks upward—at least for me. What did you think?
I agree this was a much stronger episode than the previous two. One of the things that made The Walking Dead immediately interesting was how quickly other people became more of a threat than the walkers. And Fear the Walking Dead is beginning to do that on an institutional level. Yes, the lieutenant comes across as cartoonish, but he’s a soldier been given absolute power in his little suburban fiefdom with the world falling apart around him. When he knows the orders from above are going to be draconian, it’s not unrealistic that he’d start thinking of the citizens of Unit xxx as his prisoners and treating them as less than human.
But the real conflict comes from the differing ways the residents of Madison’s house react to the soldiers. Madison and Chris are immediately suspicious, where Travis sees them as saviors. Travis, of course, turns out to be very, very wrong, and we can only hope that realization is his turning point. Right now, it’s hard to imagine what Madison sees in him. He’s a clueless, patronizing father with terrible instincts. We see his flaws early in the episode during his encounter with the neighbor. “You tell them it’s going to be okay,” he says, believing his own lie. His neighbor can see that’s not true. One is ignorant, and the other can’t handle it. Neither is helping his family. Daniel, on the other hand, understands the extent of human depravity and is prepared for the worst.
But the main reason this episode held my attention is that the drama was conveyed with little exposition. Liza—faced with the difficult choice of staying with her son or actually putting all her nursing studies to use where they’re desperately needed—silently mouths her goodbye to Chris. Likewise, Chris needs no words to convey the feeling of abandonment from the parent he’s stood by and defended. We hadn’t really seen Alicia grieve the loss of her boyfriend until this episode, when she turns the faded drawing on her arm into a homemade tattoo. Madison finally loses it with Nick, then is wracked by guilt in the car before sinking even lower when they take Nick away. Even the final scene with Travis on the rooftop, watching helplessly as the person he didn’t want to believe existed is gunned down by the military, is wordless.
But you’re right about the best scene, and I want to see more interaction between Rúben Blades’ Daniel and Kim Dickens’ Madison. The two strongest actors (with the possible exception of Frank Dillane) play the show’s two strongest characters, and Daniel’s backstory continues to be gripping. The parallels between soldiers in El Salvador and American soldiers facing an army of dead illustrate what fear can do to both individuals and institutions—without excusing it. They’ve taken Daniel’s wife from him; they’ve taken Madison’s son; I want to see what these two are going to do about that.
I find it interesting that our favorite episode since the pilot featured exactly zero zombies. Is that part of what you liked about “Not Fade Away”? And what about Nick hiding under his neighbor’s bed stealing his morphine? I thought this was another good Nick episode, showing the depths of his desperation and also the remnants of wanting his mom to be proud. His reaction to Madison slapping him around was heartbreaking. Are we going to start signing off “Please don’t die, Nick Clark?
To pat myself on the back quickly, I said last week that I’m excited to see how Nick manages to keep getting high even in the midst of an apocalypse, because he seems like the kind of guy with a good deal of ingenuity when it comes to opiates. He didn’t disappoint last night—the image of him with a dreamy smile, lying beneath the old man’s bed as the morphine dripped into his toes, was fantastic. I mean, sure, he’s a disappointment to his family and community, and it got him kidnapped by the military, but by the peaceful expression on his face, I feel like it was 100 percent worth it. Or at least like, 52 percent worth it. (Also, why didn’t “Perfect Day” play in that scene too?)
How long do you think the writers can keep him fluctuating between blissful highs and awful withdrawals? I hope the answer is, “the entire time,” because I don’t even think I’d know what to do with a sober Nick.
Agreed completely on Madison and Daniel. We need to see them together more, and I think we’re going to fish our wish next week. With two episodes left this season, the main thrust of the action has become clear—the gang needs to get back together. This time, though, they have to overcome not just city riots and a schoolhouse raid, but the entire military establishment, or at least what’s left of it. And that milquetoast soap flake Travis will have to help.
Right now, I think Travis is my least favorite character, and it’s not just the writing. That lingering look of stoic concern that Cliff Curtis leans on like a crutch, combined with the condescending paternal gestures, really annoy me. I think I hated almost every character after last week, but I’m back on Alicia and Chris’ side, and while I don’t love Liza, she was less intolerable this week. Though I do have to say, this budding rivalry between Liza and Madison is something I very much don’t want to see—it makes Madison seem weirdly petty, and I can already see the annoying arc here, where the two women hate each other for a long time until something traumatic happens and they have to count on each other, and then they reach an uneasy truce, and then eventually they’re uber-loyal friends. Can we just skip that, FTWD? Please?
Anyway, since you asked, my list of “please don’t die” main characters looks like this, from least expendable to most expendable: Daniel, Nick, Madison, the one kid from the school who I pray is still around somewhere, Chris, Alicia, Ofelia, Griselda, Liza, Travis. Needless to say, I want zombies to eat the entire army.
Until next week, please don’t die, Daniel and Nick.
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