This review contains spoilers.
If you believe the US news, Mexico is a country struggling with a serious gang problem. Gangs run rampant in border towns, funnelling drugs across the border, dealing in serious weaponry, and generally being so dangerous that police are non-existent and the military only comes around when they’re in bullet-proof vehicles with serious weapons at their disposal. It’s kind of a problem in the real world, but in a situation like The Walking Dead, wouldn’t that be kind of a good thing? I mean, if the police, military, and local gang members are all armed to the teeth, surely the undead wouldn’t be much of a menace if they could stop shooting at one another long enough to shoot at the real threat? Or, perhaps, you simply cede control of Tijuana to the Sinaloa Cartel and let them deal with the problem, while the military retires to the border and takes serious bribes to let people into Mexico’s territorial waters?
This kind of power vacuum invites trouble, particularly when you’re a blood-soaked American junkie who doesn’t know the language or the customs or even how to avoid getting robbed and beaten by an emaciated girl protecting her brother. This is a world in which circumstances can change in a heartbeat. One week, the people huddling in a church are fine, with plenty of food and water. The next week, they’re dead, and Nick is sleeping next to a pair of mangled dead bodies.
Separated from his family by his own choice, the post-Olympic return of Fear The Walking Dead shows us just how Nick gets from the remains of the hacienda to a promised safe haven in the north. As he tells his benefactor, he’s wanting to go somewhere that people embrace the dead. While the others are going to search out family and friendship and safety, Nick is going to wander through the desert to join a death cult, assuming he doesn’t get gunned down by roving death squads.
It’s strange to watch this episode of Fear The Walking Dead, which isolates Nick from pretty much every other character we’ve been introduced to aside from one of the random workers from the Abigail compound. Indeed, for most of the episode, he’s wandering through the desert having the occasional flashback to his time in rehab, the meeting of his girlfriend (who we encounter in the first episode of the series), the death of his father, and various other personal struggles while avoiding getting shot by some gun-toting bandits, getting attacked by starving dogs—who later get eaten in a pretty awesome scene—and generally stumbling around bleeding.
It’s interesting the way writer Kate Barnow compares Nick’s situations, both in rehab and in the apocalypse. He has only the vaguest goal in mind: get north or score some drugs, depending on which part of the story we’re talking about. He’s a hopeless drifter in both worlds, at risk of death at every turn either from drugs or dogs or zombies or street hustlers. In both worlds, he finds a saviour, be it Strand or Luciana (Danay Garcia), the head of the gang who appears to be in charge of the safe zone Nick finds hidden in the middle of Tijuana.
Nick’s journey is appropriately epic, and he wanders through some beautiful landscapes and some great desert scenes when not trying to find himself in drug rehab. Nick is a survivor, and he’s clever, but he’s not quite adept at surviving in this environment, as we quickly discover when he drinks his first plastic bottle full of urine (ugh, gross).
Still, the pacing is pretty good, though this isn’t exactly the most exciting way to bring Fear The Walking Dead back from its summer abroad. It doesn’t drag, and there are interesting enough moments, like the Cujo attack and some very clever use of zombies—as well as a very dumb scene in which the armed Mexican gang just basically hangs around to get eaten for… reasons? Either way, Nick has finally found a little peace on earth, but this is The Walking Dead; peace is an illusion, and walls exist only to be toppled by antagonists.
Here’s hoping Nick is mentally strong enough to survive that terrible experience again.