[SPOILER ALERT: If you missed the premiere of Fear the Walking Dead then you may want to avoid this as it features some spoilers]
It's an old story. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl score drugs together. Boy wakes up to find that girl is now a zombie (sorry..."Walker") and is eating the face of another junkie in the pews of an abandoned church.
We've all heard it.
This past Sunday (August 23, 2015 if you're reading this significantly in the future) was the premier of AMC's new horror drama Fear the Walking Dead. If you're reading this then it's safe to assume you know, but just in case you don't, that Fear is a prequel "companion series" to AMC's other juggernaut success, The Walking Dead, based on the Image comic book series by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard.
Fear the Walking Dead comes to you from producers David Alpert, Gale Anne Hurd, Greg Nicotero and Robert Kirkman (among others) and, as noted above, is a companion series to the original. I'm sticking with the use of the term "companion series" (as oppose to "spin-off") because a spin-off typically takes a character from the original series to have their own storyline and adventures set in the same universe. What Fear the Walking Dead is doing is using completely different characters in a completely different setting and telling a story that predates the events of the original series. It's enforcing the storyline that The Walking Dead follows. It's a companion.
The new series is set in Los Angeles (versus the original series' Atlanta and now Virginia settings) and tells what happened (at least as far as LA is concerned) when the Walker Outbreak started. Given everything we've seen on The Walking Dead and how people have come to terms with the new way of the world, watching the initial confusion and chaos is definitely an interesting twist that is worth watching.
When I first heard that a new Walking Dead series was going to air set in Los Angeles, I was initially worried that it would be more of a gimmick to tell new stories and that we'd get a procedural spin-off in the form of The Walking Dead: LA. I'm glad that they found a completely different story to tell that can still have its own level of intrigue different from that of the original series.
The episode starts with Nick Clark (played by Frank Dillane) waking up from a heroin bender in an abandoned church that he would later refer to as "junkie communion." Confused as to where his friend Gloria has gone, Frank journeys into the church and soon starts to encounter dead bodies that have had their throats ripped out. He then stumbles across Gloria, whom he tries to grab hold of to get her to come with him, only to find that Gloria is now a Walker (though he does't yet make that connection) who is feasting on the face of another junkie.
It should also be noted that Gloria has a knife in her heart, though that is not really touched on. Just a nice little flourish for the audience, who obviously already knows what is going on.
Nick then does what anyone who was recently on drugs and not sure what is going on would do...he freaks the hell out and runs from the church as fast as he possibly can. This then leads us to Nick running into traffic and being hit by a car, which pans out to reveal we are in pre-apocalypse Los Angeles and the show now starts it's unravelling of the story.
The Characters and the new (or rather "old") story
We are next introduced to Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis), his girlfriend Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) and her daughter, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey). They are Nick's family and it's quickly made clear that Nick has been missing for a while on his little drug adventure. They get the phone call that he's been in the traffic accident but they were expecting it to be a call from the morgue that he'd been found with the needle still in his vein.
The family goes to him at the hospital and learn about the rants and ravings he had been going on about of the girl in the church that was eating people. This is quickly dismissed by all as the effects of the drugs because clearly that's just an insane notion. Again, this is all set before there have really been any significant altercations with the undead so the reactions that people are having are very realistic as to how one would actually react to such a story. It may not come with the driving intensity that The Walking Dead's first episode had but it's definitely an interesting point of view to examine.
After all, what would you say to someone who had just come off a heroin binge and said he saw a girl eating someone?
As the show progresses we find that Travis is an English teacher at the high school and Madison is the school's guidance councilor. In the typical manner of the show and its writers, Travis gives a lesson about Jack London's "To Build a Fire" and the means to survive when nature has it in for you – the battle to survive and the ominous conclusion that "nature always wins."
We also get introduced to our first character to have even the slightest clue as to what is going on in the form of high school teenager Tobias (played by newcomer Lincoln A. Castellanos). He shows up to school with a knife in his pocket (not an unusual occurrence in LA as the school has metal detectors). What sets him apart from the average street punk, though, is that he has the knife to protect himself from the growing, ominous threat he's been reading about on the Internet. Specifically, the occurrences in five states of people getting sick and then killing other people. Now, to be fair, he doesn't know what is going on. He just seems to be the only one who acknowledges that we need to be prepared.
One of the things this episode was lacking was any (even the smallest) connection to the original series. Tobias and his web searching, I thought, would have been a great way to toss in an Easter Egg for the point in which the show is set. He could have been looking at a report of a situation in Atlanta and off to the side of the screen would have been a related story about Deputy Sheriff Rick Grimes being hospitalized.
I think that's something that the fans would have greatly enjoyed and appreciated, though it would have brought the pacing of the episode down a little. And unfortunately, a lack of immediate action was the one thing this episode did have working against it.
The need for world building and story setup with Fear is understandable. But there is a period of adjustment one must endure when coming off the intensity of The Walking Dead and their constant threat of Walkers, Governors and Cannibals.
As the episode progresses we're introduced to a variety of other characters including Alicia's artist boyfriend Matt (Maestro Harrell), Nick's drug dealer Calvin (Keith Powers) and Travis' son Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie). Alicia and Matt make a plan to meet up at the beach for a night together but Matt never shows. Alicia is then not able to get into contact with him for the rest of the episode. This, of course, leads the audience to assume he has been killed but since the episode never actually reveals that I'd expect to see him pop up in the future after having seen and endured some crazy shit.
Nick escapes the hospital to meet up with Calvin, hoping to find out that what he saw in the church was the result of his heroin that he bought having been laced with LSD. Calvin – whom is very secretive about being the neighborhood drug dealer – sees Nick as being a huge tweaked out liability and takes him to an out of the way reservoir to kill him. Nick catches on, though, and gets the upper hand – killing him first.
With Calvin lying dead under a bridge, Nick calls Travis for help. Accompanied by Madison, Travis shows up and Nick tells them what happened. But when they return to the scene of the incident, Calvin is now gone. Confused and assuming it's the result of the drugs or a possible psychotic break, Travis and Madison try to get Nick out of there. But that's when the characters involved are brought face to face with Walker Calvin.
The episode comes to its climactic end as Nick saves his mother and Travis by running Walker Calvin over with the truck a few times and slinging his body back towards the reservoir. Failing to destroy the brain, though, the main characters get their first sense that something is horribly wrong as the mangled corpse starts moving again.
Though, understandably, it started off much slower than any episode of The Walking Dead, Fear did a great job establishing its core characters and the setting that everything still seems perfectly normal to them. I'd expect that in coming episodes that is very quickly going to change. It relied a little too much on audience understanding and put in a few too many thematic scenes of "potential walkers" but that is forgivable for a pilot episode.
The preview for next week's episode seems to promise us a lot of panic and chaos, which I think is going to be the driving force of what makes Fear the Walking Dead stand out. It's not about surviving in a world ravaged by the undead. It's about the panic of society suddenly breaking down when it doesn't comprehend what it is going on. Personally, I look forward to seeing what unfolds over the course of the next several weeks.
Fear the Walking Dead airs on AMC, Sundays at 9PM and The Walking Dead returns for season six on October 11.