Fear The Walking Dead: Our reaction to the first two episodes

The walker apocalypse is about to begin, again, when Fear The Walking Dead premieres on AMC on Aug. 23. The prequel series to the network’s massively successful zombie show, based on Robert Kirkman’s Skybound comic, takes place before Rick Grimes wakes up to a desolated society. And this time, the biting starts in Los Angeles instead of Atlanta.

In the first episode (written by Kirkman and Dave Erickson, and directed by Adam Davidson) we meet Madison (Kim Dickens) and Travis (Cliff Curtis), two teachers living together and trying to raise their kids from previous marriages. But when Madison’s addict son Nick (Frank Dillane) gets hit by a car after witnessing something horrific, the questions begin to pile up about whether he had a drug-induced hallucination or whether the “flu” everyone is coming down with is part of something far bigger. Meanwhile, the second episode (written by Marco Ramirez, and directed again by Davidson) moves the action along faster. As more people become aware of the killer flu and rail against the authorities, L.A. starts to fall, and Travis seeks to rescue his ex and estranged son as Madison sets out on her own quest.

After watching the first two episodes, Editor-at-Large Aaron Sagers and Contributing Editor Tara Bennett joined together to discuss their early reactions to Fear The Walking Dead.

Aaron: Admittedly, I haven't been overly excited about this show. While I still consider myself a fan of The Walking Dead, the constant mayhem, inhumanity and ever-increasing insanity of the characters can be a bit like a repetitive zombie roadshow. But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Los Angeles is not Woodbury, Terminus or even Alexandria. Instead, the first episode presents a city that's alive, if a bit unobservant about a plague brewing right under its nose. Whereas the first episode of The Walking Dead was reminiscent of the first act of 28 Days Later, Fear the Walking Dead feels like the slower-burn opening of Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake. We are treated to signs of domestic life and normal dysfunction of a family coping with divorce, visitation rights, an addict child and an overachieving kid.

People have to go to work and kids have to go to school; it's refreshing to see this routine, and adds to the building intensity. Since we all know what's on the way, you can't help but keep an eye on the background for hints of walkers on the way, or pick up on the multiple callouts to science, chaos theory and the battle of man vs. nature. For the record, I’m still not crazy about the series name. The Walking Dead Rises, or The Walking Dead Begins seems more apt, especially after what I saw in the first ep.

Tara: My biggest concern when I heard the creators and producers were moving forward with a prequel was how can you sustain the concept when we, The Walking Dead audience, have six years of walker smarts and those facing the early days of the zombie apocalypse will be clueless. Done poorly, the real nightmare would be watching frustratingly stupid characters make bad decisions while we're metaphorically screaming at them to not open the door. Gratefully, Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson have put a lot of effort into crafting an ensemble of flawed, but not dumb characters. They might be oblivious about what's really happening, but in the first two episodes they're not making choices that have you rooting for their deaths. And that's a huge relief. It allowed me to appreciate the deliberate way that the writers and actors establish a scenario that feels like the world we inhabit, but there's something just "off" about it. Whether it's the illness keeping people home en masse, or the strange traffic accidents blocking characters from getting home, or the viral news stories that are making average citizens edgy, all of it unfolds credibly and subtly, which packs a nice punch. 

Aaron: Though I did think the second episode wasn’t as tight as the first. The infection crisis appears to be moving so fast that a full-blown apocalypse feels imminent, and L.A. is already about to crumble. I worry that means we’ll lose those nice character beats we were treated to in the premiere. I really like Cliff Curtis as the level-headed teacher/father Travis, but he quickly seems overpowered by Ruben Blades’ Daniel Salazar. So far that character has the skepticism of a fifth season member of Rick Grimes’ crew. Meanwhile, Kim Dickens as Madison faces harsh realities in both episodes, but  proves herself to be resilient. Still, I fear she’s on the same character path as Andrea in The Walking Dead -- and I came to really hate Andrea. I think maybe I just want this show to simmer a bit more, and give us more time with the characters before unleashing total hell. Although bonus points for creating a nerdy kid who automatically knows to expect, and how to prepare for, a zombie apocalypse.

Tara: Seconded on Tobias (Lincoln A. Castellanos), the paranoid high school student who has clearly been reading and watching the proper zombie preparation materials to win at post-apocalyptic life. I'm also a fan of Madison, and Dickens' portrayal of a mother who has seen way too many horrors dealing with her drug-addicted son, Nick (Frank Dillane), to just buckle and fold when really terrible things fall at her feet. And speaking of Nick, more unexpected kudos to the writers and Dillane for crafting a troubled addict you don't hate from the get-go. I've seen more than my fill of surly, drug-addicted teen characters on TV that dare you to feel any empathy for them. By opening the series with Nick under the influence seeing some things that make him, and us, question the potency of his current high, we get a clever introduction to the variety of reactions that the everyday characters  will have with the infected. And Nick is a screwup but he's trying to get to the bottom of what he thinks he's seen so just maybe he can get clean, a great motivator to keep the audience on his side.

As to the simmering hope, I think that's where the heavy expectations of a show from The Walking Dead world might hurt this prequel. It should be OK to not see a clear-cut walker in the entire first season of this show, but I don't think fans of the world have the patience to just let Fear the Walking Dead be a character piece with the eventual promise of walkers. We've been trained to expect some incredible makeup effects and transformations from The Walking Dead visual guru Greg Nicotero (who does restrained gruesome here), and you can't put the undead genie back in the bottle. So will this prequel catch up to the world Rick Grimes wakes up in too quickly, and then will it feel like we're watching the same emotional beats happen in L.A. with different faces?I certainly like this cast of characters so far, but once everything in civil society goes tits up, won't their survival horrors feel like we've been there, done that? I'm hoping the true originality of Fear will be watching how these average people become the Governors, Wolves and Hunters of the future.

Aaron: “The undead genie”: Now, that sounds like a great spinoff idea. I also like Dillane's portrayal of Nick as an addict who is sympathetic and trying to understand the horror he witnessed. I hope his character evolves realistically -- because he isn't going to kick his habit in a matter of hours -- while becoming more than just the druggie son. Likewise, I can appreciate Alycia Debnam-Carey's motivations to save her boyfriend, but look forward to her being more than a selfish high schooler pining over a boy.

To another point, we have indeed been trained to expect incredible effects and transformations from The Walking Dead, and the folks from Greg Nicotero’s KNB EFX still deliver on that point. I actually appreciate the amount of restraint they’ve thus far shown in not going too walker-y too fast. The “sexy zombie” Gloria looked human enough for others to be convinced she might just be sick, and not a reanimated corpse (although the one Madison encounters in the second episode appears a little more advanced in its zombie state). So here’s hoping the effects masters continue to hold back in their walker makeup while not losing the gorgeous gore.

Tara: Overall, I enjoyed wading into the prequel world of Fear the Walking Dead. The aesthetic variations, urban setting and fresh ensemble feel distinct and interesting. I wasn't blown away, but I didn't want that. I was just hoping to feel engaged and be drawn into wanting to watch how the world fell into disarray pre-The Walking Dead. Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson achieved that for me and managed to capture my curiosity enough to want to see how all this devolves into hell on earth.
Aaron: I also enjoyed these first two episodes, and I am looking forward to the next episode. I'm rooting for these characters, and want to see how they'll navigate this new urban setting with a lot more people, and a government still trying to maintain control. Give me hell on earth, but stoke those hellfires gradually. I want the show to take its time as Los Angeles burns and the walker population grows. Fear the Walking Dead will be missing out on potentially great storytelling if it gets to the level of the Grimes gang anytime soon. But, so far, this does feel like a fresh break from the at-times-overwhelming chaos of its sister show, and I am intrigued for more.

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