Fear the Walking Dead Sees a Big Return By Going Small

[This is a review of Fear the Walking Dead season 1, episode 3. There will be SPOILERS.]


One thing Fear the Walking Dead has been successful with so far is the limited manner in which it has introduced the show's characters to the collapse of the world around them. Such a distinct lack of information is part and parcel to the catastrophe that is now, from what the audience already knows, thanks to this series' parent show, too far gone to stop. Not much time has passed in the world of the series, and yet, even though some sort of infrastructure or chain of command still exists, the situation has deteriorated dramatically without any real, definitive sense of how the powers that be are responding to the situation.

The series makes it clear that there has been a response, but what the characters are allowed to see suggests the response is as chaotic and disruptive as the events preceding it. The situations seen in the third episode, 'The Dog,' tend to be as fertile a breeding ground for questions as they are for creating more of the undead. Those questions primarily concern who knew what and when, and how did it all get so bad so fast? These are questions the audience will likely never know the answer to, because knowing takes away the element that makes these types of stories so frightening and entertaining in the first place.

By limiting how much the audience and characters know and what they can see, Director Adam Davidson delivers an effectively eerie and progressively terrifying atmosphere that utilizes the framework of an enormous event but goes small with it. But that doesn't just have to do with the relatively small (but growing) group of characters the series has chosen to follow; it has more to do with the way in which the show depicts what the characters are allowed to see and how they choose to take in the spectacle around them. In essence, Fear the Walking Dead is the failure of a complex mechanical device from the perspective of a few cogs and springs.

The episode's opening sequence is a perfect example of this. Travis, his ex-wife, and his son are given refuge in a barbershop, thanks to the generosity of Rubén Blades and his family. The characters are relatively safe in the physical sense, but their lack of knowledge about the condition of their immediate surroundings puts them at great risk. Davidson establishes this constraint by making the device ostensibly keeping them safe also responsible for restricting their information.

Time and again, we have seen characters peering out windows, through blinds or, in the case of Chris, through the slots in the metal shutters protecting Daniel Salazar's barbershop. While peering out, Chris makes eye contact with a walker. The infected person is strangely docile in the moment, but the effect it has on Chris and the audience is gripping for more than just the image of those red-ringed, lifeless eyes staring back at those watching. For a single instance, the dead have taken up the entirety of a character's (admittedly limited) field of vision, and the response, on Chris' part anyway, is one where confusion briefly trumps terror. This is a situation in which the individuals know they should be afraid, but they're unsure as to what, exactly, they're afraid of. And that, to a certain degree, makes the tension of the situation more palpable.

Because the story has limited what its characters can know to such an extreme degree, their learning curve is astonishingly steep. This makes for interesting choices in terms of how people like Travis, Madison, Daniel, and especially Nick process the information they are expected to learn from very quickly. One effective way to get this across is how Chris identifies the fire raging in the building next door to Daniel's barbershop by touching the walls and feeling the heat. The information he and the others need to survive has been reduced to a single channel in that instance, and that reduction of perception is one of the ways this show establishes just how dangerous the world it's creating actually is.

Kim Dickens in Fear the Walking Dead Season 1 Episode 3

Again, the first half of the episode offers several interesting glimpses at the large-scale cataclysm, but it prevents the characters from fully processing or understanding what they're seeing in a way that increases the tension of the moment. The ride back to Madison's house features two great sequences: one of the power grid failing around Los Angeles, and another as Travis' truck slowly drives past a hospital in complete disarray. The characters are only afforded a moment to process the gravity of seeing always-on services essentially being shut down, as their world continues to be turned upside down.

As with the previous two episodes, 'The Dog' contains sequences where characters are forced to make on-the-spot decisions that may or may not go against the type of person they think they are. It is during these moments that characters often open themselves up to judgment from on another and the audience. Daniel is particularly guilty of this, as he demonstrates zero compunction for killing those he perceives as a threat, and calling others who cannot bring themselves to kill so easily "weak."

And so, at its halfway point, Fear the Walking Dead not only has an interesting handle on how to limit its characters' understanding of the situation, but it also has an interesting handle on the limits of these characters' understanding of themselves. Right now, Daniel and Travis are on opposing sides, which may offer some non-zombie-related conflict for the series to utilize. But more interesting is where Madison fits in – somewhere in the middle – as evidenced by the way she contemplates killing her zombified neighbor.

The shift toward violence as a necessity is a predictable change in these characters, given the situation in which they find themselves. But even though the series is dealing with its own limitations, in terms of how many times a story like this can be told and still be compelling, it has found success in depicting an enormous event through a relatively narrow field of vision.


Fear the Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'Not Fade Away' @9pm on AMC.

Photos: Justina Mintz/AMC

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