[This is a review of Fear the Walking Dead season 1 episode 2. There will be SPOILERS.]
In Fear the Walking Dead, the apocalypse continues to creep along at a deliberate pace. And the result is a depiction of societal collapse that finds its potency in the comparably small but turbulent details of the characters' personal lives. Those details then magnify the growing chaos and help propagate the sense that everything is going to hell in a handbasket. Where the series makes its mark, however, is in striking a balance between the depth of its more intimate moments and the breadth of something like a major metropolitan area folding under the pressure of a building catastrophe.
Sometimes that balance hits a sour note, such as Kim Dickens' misadventures with a teenaged doomsday prepper in an almost-barren high school, or the agitating onscreen angst of Chris, who finds himself swept up in a protest after the police shoot (presumably) a zombified homeless man in the street. Although the seams are definitely showing in both scenes and they each go on for far too long, there is an interesting contrast between Tobias (a.k.a. the kid who just wants his knife back) and Chris. One wants to retreat from society, and the other (via an incident that is topical back here in the real world) wants desperately to be a part of the push to make the world a better place.
There's something deeply cynical in how the series pits the two against one another, and inevitably winds up siding with the former. The misanthropy is then amplified by the innate obnoxiousness of the character attempting to have his cries for social change heard amongst the din of the coming apocalypse. It is here the series demonstrates a distinct and dismal ethos, the development of which is fascinating (if not disheartening) to watch, especially as it runs concurrent to the show's central conceit.
The way he was introduced as the petulant offspring of one of the show's central protagonists, it seemed as though Chris was soon to be suffering from a terminal case of Howard Gordon syndrome – i.e., teenagers in otherwise adult dramas become incendiary plot devices of the worst kind; they create superficial problems because, by virtue of being on the cusp of adulthood, they are perpetually at odds with even the most nominal figures of authority. And considering how Chris was used in both the premiere and again in 'So Close, Yet So Far,' the symptoms of said syndrome were certainly easy to diagnose. But by running Chris' inadvertent endangerment of three characters (including himself) against Tobias' self-sufficient but society-shunning mentality, Fear the Walking Dead (perhaps also inadvertently) poses an interesting question about the kinds of sweeping change audiences prefer watching.
The pervasive sentiment of The Walking Dead series often seems to be: "Well the house is already on fire; we have to let it burn." And yet in the aforementioned moments of personal turbulence, the opposite seems to be (at least partially) true. So far, the two best things about the spinoff series are Frank Dillane's commitment to making his performance as an addict in the midst of the DTs as visually interesting as it can possibly be, and the pathos of Kim Dickens' response to her son's travails. For his part, Nick already partially resembles what the show is about to be filled with. His pronounced limp, combined with a decisively disheveled look that includes a brilliant Dad/golf enthusiast circa 1991 wardrobe gives the character a chance to stand out amongst the otherwise familiar archetypes populating the show. Nick's plight also gives his mother Madison the opportunity to make the sort of bad decision Chris does, but instead have it feel necessary.
Watching Nick go through potentially deadly withdrawals, while his mother goes on an opiate hunt in her school's contraband locker/pharmacopeia, makes for some compelling moments of self-discovery for them both. But what really sticks is how both characters are already barely holding on amidst the end of the world, and by shrinking the scope of their needs to "find some drugs; take some drugs," their survival suddenly becomes more manageable, even amidst the building calamity of the world around them.
Throughout the episode, Fear the Walking Dead opts to go small, even during its big moments. The protest stemming from the police shooting is framed mostly between towering buildings, and is shot using a series of close-ups. This is partially due to the fact that the series films in Vancouver instead of Los Angeles, so going wide in order to show the scale of the event is simply not possible. But the closeness, the fact that the director lets the camera get lost in the ensuing chaos, and the claustrophobic impression of the world becoming very crowded and fractious very quickly, works to the show's advantage, even when its decision to move production out of L.A. works against it.
The decision to go small works to varying degrees. Perhaps the most successful moment was when Alicia was walking down a suburban street and it suddenly dawned on her that she was completely alone. Some kids eventually break the tension of the moment, but it works to build terror in the same eerily effective way Nick and Alicia's constant surveillance of the neighborhood's collapse intimates the larger breakdown of Los Angeles and, presumably, the world.
The show is slow to make its way into the kind of world fans of the series (and zombie fiction in general) generally like to see. But at this point, the deliberateness of the pace shouldn't necessarily be mistaken for sluggishness. The series has thus far managed to make a series of small moments feel much bigger than perhaps they really are. Not everything is working on the same level, but the mindset of The Walking Dead universe is definitely clicking and raising some unexpectedly interesting questions in the process.
Fear the Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'The Dog' @9pm on AMC.
Photos: Justina Mintz/AMC