[This is a review of Fear the Walking Dead season 1, episode 4. There will be SPOILERS.]
In its early going, Fear the Walking Dead hasn't been too terribly interested in zombies. Sure, there have been a handful of encounters with "the infected" – which, so far, seems to be the colloquial term for the undead in this corner of The Walking Dead universe – but for the most part, the apocalypse has largely transpired just outside the main cast of characters' field of vision. And like it was with last week's 'The Dog,' those same characters start out hooded from the realities of their situation, but slowly come to understand the conceit that is at the center of both this and its parent show: It is not the dead people need to fear; it's the living.
By now that line has become a bit tired in both its predictability and its repetitiveness, but the way in which it works here – and corresponds specifically with the show's title – actually makes for a compelling observation about, if nothing else, the specific story being told here.
If there were such a thing as a coming-of-age-moment in a zombie narrative, it would happen in 'Not Fade Away.' But instead of focusing on the flesh-eating element, without whom the show wouldn't have a reason to exist, the episode choses a much subtler route: focusing on the aforementioned danger the living pose, as humanity huddles together before being blinked out of existence. But the episode gets this point across in ways that are at times overt and at others understated, and there's certain mileage to be gained from both.
One of the first things worth pointing out is how 'Not Fade Away' completely eschews an appearance by a zombie. The episode is free of zombies, and yet because the show understands how to build tension – either because of what it has constructed in its limited run, or, as is more likely the case, because of the knowledge the audience already has thanks to its parent show – there doesn't need to be a zombie sighting or attack in order for their presence to be felt. In fact, doing so would have significantly diluted the effect of the episode's final shot.
That shot, of course, is of Travis, staring off at the apartment building Chris had been fixated on the entire episode, convinced it contained survivors the military had either overlooked or willfully ignored. As the skyline darkens with the setting sun, the flashes of machine gun fire register remarkably bright. Bearing witness to what is possibly the killing of still-living humans, Travis finds himself irreversibly pulled into the violent world his optimism (and perhaps naiveté in the goodness and reliability of authority) had quarantined him from. The moment is made all the more significant by Travis' coming to this understanding of his new reality from a so-called 'safe zone.'
It is interesting that the writer – Meaghan Oppenheimer, in this case – chose to have this coming-of-age occur during a time when there was a reason for the characters to be optimistic. For all outward appearances, the people in the community were safe. It has been nine days since the outbreak, and still they were safe enough the episode could start off with Nick lounging in the pool like he's Ben Braddock with a morphine drip, while Travis safely jogs through the neighborhood. All of this is set to Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day,' which is admittedly a little on the nose, but again, 'Not Fade Away' makes equal use of its overt and more restrained elements.
There is a lull in the coming of the end of the world, but not necessarily a lull in the danger the situation poses to the survivors. As the series has shown visually time and time again, usually by having its characters peek through blinds in windows or slats in metal doors, the people at the heart of the story are getting an incredibly limited view of the bigger picture; their information has been restricted from day one, and now that the military is occupying their neighborhood, the already limited information coming in is being filtered even further.
This is where the usual Walking Dead binary comes into play, and it works and doesn't work in almost equal measure. The military is, ostensibly, keeping Travis and his blended family safe. And yet, as evidenced by Jamie McShane's Lt. Moyers, the people with the power and the responsibility are possibly the last people on the planet who should have either. What makes the burgeoning conflict interesting is that the characters come to a similar realization at around the same time, but because the series has taken the time to draw Travis, Madison, Daniel, Nick, etc., as characters first, their response resonates on different levels.
In a sense, Daniel has been waiting for the military presence to devolve into what it does at the episode's end. He's distrustful of authority and explains his reasoning why to Madison in a way that seemingly has the two of them on the same page. Madison (who, along with Nick is the series' most interesting character so far) demonstrates her skepticism by leaving the confines of the 'safe zone' and coming away with a terrible sort of enlightenment. For whatever reason, Nick has been aware the nature of things from the get-go, and while his backslide into addiction isn't surprising, it does allow the narrative to move forward, making the character both a victim and the monster hiding under the bed. That forward progression could find the series plunging deeper into familiar territory, but it also might open the story up to a deeper exploration of the characters and how their individual wants – wants that go beyond survival – could help drive the narrative into interesting places.
On the surface, 'Not Fade Away' is a slower episode (of an admittedly slow series), but there is intrigue happening below the surface and certainly on the character level. It's (mercifully) not as conspicuous an hour of television as it could have been, or audiences are used to with this sort of splatter fare. But in the atypical way Fear the Walking Dead has approached the pending apocalypse, by narrowing the scope and putting the focus on one character at a time, something interesting and different has risen from what is otherwise typical zombie fare.
Fear the Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'Cobalt' @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below: