[This is a review of Fear the Walking Dead season 2, episode 8. There will be SPOILERS.]
Like its older, more popular sibling, Fear the Walking Dead is good at beginnings and not so good at endings. That might explain why the breaks are written into both shows at the halfway mark: it's a chance to gather up all the detritus of the past seven or eight episodes and put it aside for a moment, to give the semblance of starting anew even though that's not really what's going on. More importantly, though, it gives both shows a chance to prove themselves to the audience all over again, to put their best foot forward so viewers can relish the possibilities. It's not always the case, but season and midseason premieres of both The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead (given that the latter has only had one so far) generally see the show try and take a chance with a different approach to the same old story, just to mix it up a little. And that's certainly the case with the season 2 midseason premiere, 'Grotesque.'
Coming to the midseason mark earlier this year, Fear the Walking Dead had run aground creatively. After a brief hint toward a high-seas adventure became unmoored in the same "it's the living you need to worry about" kill-or-be-killed narrative both shows keep coming back to, Fear stalled out as the survivors found refuge only to see it undone by ideological differences and a convenient case of dementia with a side of righteous homicidal rage. Formulaic as it was, the typical end point of a sanctuary being lost was offered an interesting wrinkle in that, instead of seeing the entire group band together and head off in search of another temporary haven, it saw the show's primary cast willingly divided and going their separate ways.
The "willingly divided" part is what makes the second half of the season more promising than one might expect. Whereas the first season made good but short use of its claustrophobic setting, as the outbreak spread across Los Angeles and (presumably) the rest of the world, season 2 couldn't quite muster the same simmering tension. Perhaps that was due to the fact that, despite the cramped confines of the Abigail – which are still more spacious than most two-bedroom apartments – the story's setting was undone by the endless horizon outside. The countless storytelling possibilities this presented made it difficult to get the characters on the same page, thereby opening the door for this franchise's worst enemy: petty bickering and internal squabbles as substitutes for actual drama and conflict. It became so bad that, by the time episode 7 rolled around, it was a relief to see Travis chase after the inexplicably unstable Chris and for Nick to go new age-y on his family as a way to cope with his ongoing addiction troubles.
Less time together means less chance of paltry arguments taking center stage. And in the case of 'Grotesque,' it means less need for unnecessary dialogue, leading to a seemingly more meditative hour of television that puts the spotlight on one of the show's most interesting performers and the character the writers seem most interested in developing. Since the series began, Nick has exerted a certain gravitational pull that went far beyond his addiction backstory. He was the first of the core group to encounter a zombie and was the first to recognize the truth of the situation. The character was helped along greatly by Frank Dillane's terrific but sometimes-strange performance, where it seemed like he was insisting on positioning the character in the blurred space between the living and the undead. It worked, inasmuch as it positioned Nick to become something other than another hunter-killer character with a loner streak. Although he's not quite as soulful as the show probably wants him to be, he's also not a flat-out stupid as some of his actions suggest he might be. Basically, Nick is what happens when the writers get the bright idea to take the characters from Gerry and put them in the zombie apocalypse.
Maybe it's Nick's nearly silent, dreamy walkabout though the Mexican desert that makes the comparison shine through, but more so than ever before it seems the series wants underline the incongruity of Nick's character with the type of show he's in. It's interesting to see Fear the Walking Dead work to reconcile these two elements, mostly be offer a few pre-outbreak flashbacks that try to connect the dots between Nick's addiction and his home life. The episodes makes subtle reference to Nick's father perhaps suffering from depression, which calls into question the cause of the automobile accident that took his life. If the show had more time and could focus a greater amount of the season's story on Nick's journey there might be something as thought provoking as the hour hints at, but as it is, 'Grotesque' only scratches the surface of what's possible with this character.
Well directed by Daniel Sackheim, who has done good work on series such as Game of Thrones, The Americans, The Bridge, and The Leftovers, 'Grotesque' is ultimately undone by the familiarity of its key dramatic beats. Nick sets off alone across the desert in search of… something and is beset upon by people both fearful and fearsome that serve as the same routine plot devices seen in almost every episode. Nick falls asleep and is attacked by a baseball bat-wielding woman trying to protect her child. Nick walks along a seemingly deserted highway until he is fired upon by a group of gun-toting idiots who could be any number of gun-toting idiots this franchise has presented to audiences over the years. If your eyes didn't roll when the nameless meatheads fell victim to a horde of zombies because they didn't have the sense to run instead of reloading their weapons, then welcome to The Walking Dead, hopefully your first ever episode was a good experience.
Almost everyone Nick runs into here is a type, not a character and it starts to become a drag after a while, especially as the point of the episode becomes increasingly elusive. This is most evident when Nick unwittingly crosses paths with Luciana (Danay Garcia) and Francisco (Alfredo Herrera), who are so immediately identifiable as stock Walking Dead characters you would not be blamed if you weren't sure whether or not this was the first time you've seen these characters or if they've been a part of the show all along. The only defining characteristic between them is that, even though it's still early days of the zombie apocalypse, Luciana spends the majority of her time onscreen walking around like she's about to lead an assault on Thunderdome. Thankfully, veteran character actor Paul Calderon (Out of Sight, Boardwalk Empire) shows up as a kindly doctor who literally opens the door on the next stage of Nick's journey, offering some hope that his character will play a significant part in the narrative moving forward.
Despite its faults, 'Grotesque' offers enough reasons to be optimistic about the second half of Fear the Walking Dead season 2. The potential for split character narratives to be a boon for the series is evident here, even as the hour slips into routine pitfalls that have marked the franchise for years. Like Nick, the series seems in search of answers that will open up the road ahead. It needs to take more chances, but if the show continues along this path, it seems as good a place as any to find what it's looking for.
Fear the Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'Los Muertos' @9pm on AMC.
Photos: Richard Foreman/AMC