Editor’s Note: Naturally, there are spoilers in this review. If you haven’t watched the episode, check out our spoiler-free review!
Poor Gloria, am I right? As I said in my spoiler-free review a couple weeks ago, I was very surprised by how quickly the walkers came on this show. I expected it to be a much more drawn-out affair, which it eventually is at the episode’s lowest point (the middle section). But things get going pretty quickly, a bit of misdirection that leads one to think that this baby’s starting in media res, and that we’re going to get some flashbacks of normal life along the away. Instead, showrunner Dave Erickson plays it quite masterfully in that opening scene, showing us a walker, Nick running for his life, a car accident, and then…sunny Los Angeles on the eve of the apocalypse. It’s well done.
I’ve already thrown all the praise at Frank Dillane’s Nick, so I won’t harp on about his performance again here. All I’m going to say that he really makes this first episode. Every scene he’s in is the most interesting, whether he’s shooting up or trying to escape a hospital or limping down the strees of LA, very much like a zombie himself. Yes, a lot of the episode and the plight of the other characters revolve around Nick. He gets a great b-story involving his drug dealer, who is also a friend (although not much of one), that delivers a nice bit of action in the end. The episode sorely needed it at that point.
My only concern is that Nick’s trials seem to come and go pretty quickly. I wish there had been another episode or two between him and the drug dealer, Nick desperately trying to get his fix in the midst of the zombie takeover. But I’m guessing we’ll get to see him go cold turkey instead. I don’t think we’ve seen that before on a zombie anything. I’m pretty excited.
Elsewhere, we get a lot of normal and family dynamics. Madison and Travis, who’s moved in with his girlfriend, are dating. They also work together at a school. Obviously, the motherly Madison is a guidance counselor and the good-natured Travis is an English teacher who loves teaching Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” Because symbolism. A bit heavy-handed for my taste, but this a zombie show, so I mean…
“London is teaching us how not to die,” is a pretty nice quote, though. Irony is all over the place in this episode, a bit of a cheat in this show’s corner since we know exactly where things are headed. After all, this show takes place in the three weeks that Rick Grimes (you do know him?) is in a coma in The Walking Dead. The episode pulls off little moments and teases, as if to pump up the crowd for what’s coming, but I think these might come a little too often. But again, this is a zombie show.
The urban environment, as I said in the spoiler-free review, really does help keep things on the eerie side. While this first episode isn’t really the horror fest you might expect (did you expect that?), there are plenty of creepy details in the background. For one thing, the homeless crawler in the playground is spectacular, his face covered in darkness, as he hobbles over the grass. I expect zombie children any minute now. But then you have the kids missing from school, a concern that really hit me on the head, because I never realized how easy it is to lose track of people in a city. It makes perfect sense, yet I had never thought about it before: how much more effectively the virus could creep up on people in a city than in the country. No wonder Atlanta went to absolute shit so quickly.
I really dug the scene with Madison and Tobias, who I think will show up again for that knife once shit hits the fan. There’s a sense that the general populace in LA don’t know what’s going on in the poorer neighborhoods of the city. But Tobias senses all the symptoms through both his surroundings and the tales of walking dead on the internet.
By the way, I liked that they used a little social media in the episode. The classic “zombie rises from the gurney scene” is one of my favorites, although I think I’ve only ever seen it in George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, which is a pretty terrible movie overall but its use of viral video is pretty great. Media and the zombie apocalpyse (representative of social anxiety and unrest) have always been a part of each other since Night of the Living Dead‘s turbulent radio reports, Dawn of the Dead‘s TV news chaos, Day of the Dead‘s “The Dead Walk” newspaper headline, and so on. Yeah, Romero is the man.
The point is that the episode does media well, adding to the eeriness of the episode with weather and traffic forecasts on the radio and assumed “mockumentary” walker sightings. I just wish they’d done more of that. I’m hoping to see way more news reports as time goes on. We should at least see this by the third or fourth episode:
(A younger Ken Foree says a version of the same line in the original Dawn of the Dead, but I think I’m on a zombie-inspired tangent now.)
My only real complaint with the episode its very slow middle portion, which doesn’t really benefit from extended run time of the premiere. There’s too much time spent establishing these character’s lives before the apocalypse. While it’s nice to see a dysfunctional family come together in the middle of an emergency, I think the episode could have spared us the grueling details. Too much time is spent at Nick’s hospital bedside. The hospital only gets as interesting as the potential zombie in the neighboring bed (a cool little tease as well). The episode could have used a little more trimming of its fat. An hour would have done this episode more than enough justice.
But again, we get to those last thirty minutes, which don’t really belong to the zombie genre at all for the most part. Here we see Erickson and Robert Kirkman, the writers of the episode, do a bit of crime writing. It’s a well-done turn of events to have drug dealing Calvin become the main antagonist of the episode amidst the oncoming outbreak. It reminded me that this universe is way more about humanity than it ever was about the zombies. It’s the classic theme of the zombie genre: humans are way more dangerous than the monsters creeping outside. Calvin is a much more tame example then, say, the Governor, but he’s just as effective. And we get to see Nick be crafty again.
Overall, Fear the Walking Dead is off to an intriguing start. I’m excited to see where the show goes and if it can deliver on its initial conceit. Remember that there aren’t any gunslingers on this cast. None of these characters really know how to defend themselves. That should be front and center in this spinoff.
Don’t forget to listen to the second episode of our weekly Walking Dead podcast, Den of Geek Presents No Room in Hell: