This Fear the Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
Fear the Walking Dead Season 2 Episode 8
I’m just going to cut to the chase here and say that “Grotesque” is not only one of season two’s best episodes, it’s also one of Fear the Walking Dead’s best episodes overall. Most of the credit for this is due to Frank Dillane’s Nick, on whose shoulders “Grotesque” squarely rests. Dillane’s up to the task, delivering a performance that ranges from gleeful to terrified to grateful—all in the span of an hour. And if you’re not a Nick fan, hopefully this episode will change your mind. Plus, points to the writers for giving us something The Walking Dead‘s season six finale did not—seeing a main character actually getting clubbed repeatedly with a baseball bat. But more on that in a bit.
In the meantime, “Grotesque” delivers the same Nick we’ve known since almost the very beginning—a free spirit who is oddly at home in the apocalypse. Here, he’s all smiles as he plays with a child who’s about to embark on a search for his father. One criticism leveled against TWD is how unrelentingly bleak and gloomy the show is. It’s a valid criticism, though given the subject matter, what else would you really expect? But FTWD has somehow avoided falling into that abyss of unending despair—and Nick has a lot to do with that. We know he’s lived a tough life, skirting an existence between life and death. And yet, in this grave new world, Nick manages to find brief moments of happiness—whether it’s dribbling a basketball down a deserted street or playing soldier with the children of a crazed survivalist.
In this latter half of the season, Nick seems to be doing all right for himself, despite being split up from his family. He’s used to this sort of day-by-day existence, a quality Strand saw in him early on last season. This may be Fear the Walking Dead, but Nick knows no such fear. He treats the dead with curiosity and respect, rather than with revulsion. Indeed, he even finishes off a bottle of water he finds in the car of someone who has already turned. I don’t care how thirsty you are—you don’t drink that water! And yes, I realize he smears himself quite liberally in zombie blood and viscera, but that’s a topical application. This early on, no one really knows how the virus is transmitted. Drinking a victim’s leftover water seems incredibly foolish, even for someone with Nick’s checkered past with drug abuse. This isn’t me being judgmental—this is me being a germaphobe. Sure, cardio and seatbelts are important in the zombie apocalypse, but I imagine washing one’s hands is pretty damn important, too (but don’t quote me on that).
The Walking Dead universe has its own set of tropes, and one of them is “fear the living”—which is just another way of stating one of storytelling’s core conflicts, “man versus man.” Nick’s first run-in with these gun-toting bandits is short-lived, which is for the best as we’ve seen plenty of these confrontations play out already, with predictable results. What’s far more interesting is seeing how the “man versus nature” conflict plays out for Nick later in the episode. We already know he’s a survivor, albeit in a more urban setting—stealing clothes and sleeping in the shadow of underpasses to get by. But out in the wild, Nick is no Daryl Dixon. Not yet, at least, but this is a good thing. Grappling with a cactus to find even a little bit of nourishment demonstrates Nick’s ongoing resourcefulness. On the other hand, drinking his own urine shows his mounting desperation.
In one of my few quibbles with the episode, Nick falls asleep out in the middle of an open field. This seems especially foolish, given how vulnerable a derelict building proved to be. Not only did he taste the wrong end of a bat a few times, he was quickly separated from whatever supplies he had up to that point. And now his carelessness causes this episode to go to the dogs—literally. A few interesting things happen here. First, one of the dogs mauls Nick’s leg, proving itself to be more dangerous to him than any zombie he’s encountered thus far. Second, Nick seems to relish how both dogs fall prey to a horde of zombies that conveniently shambles to the rescue. Third, Nick is drawn to the dogs’ bloody remains like a scavenger drawn to fresh carrion.
Nick is far from rock-bottom however. He’s dehydrated and fatigued, his gait heavy and shambling. In other words, he’s become more and more like his undead traveling companions. Which is just as well, given he and the undead horde run into those same outlaws from earlier in the episode. This is where Nick truly comes into his own, fearlessly marching into a hail of bullets as cadavers fall all around him. It’s a great scene, even though I don’t see how anyone with the outlaws’ advantage could possibly fall prey to slow-moving zombies. I understand that shows like FTWD live and die by their blood and gore, but gratuitous deaths like these are almost laughable. Even so, as Nick watches the zombies tear apart their prey, he almost seems to…lean in…as if he wants to join in the carnage. Is this delirium on his part or sympathy for his undead brethren? I suppose we may never know.
Luckily for Nick, his journey to Tijuana is a successful one. Not only does he receive medical care (and some tough love), he becomes part of a community of like-minded people who view the undead not as monsters, but with curiosity and respect. This is no Terminus, this is home, for now. “Grotesque” succeeds, too, not just because it functions as a standalone story, but because it demonstrates how allowing characters to be themselves can only benefit the show—and viewers—in the long run.
Some closing thoughts:
It was great to see a callback to the very first episode by introducing us to Nick’s friend Gloria. This is the same Gloria who was FTWD’s very first zombie. She was Nick’s friend before that. Through her gently prodding, we learn the truth about Nick’s father, that he was physically present in his family’s life but was otherwise an absentee parent. We also learn that his dad died in a car accident, which explains why Nick seems drawn to father figures like Strand.
Don’t forget to listen to Den of Geek’s Walking Dead podcast, No Room in Hell: