The premiere of Fear the Walking Dead is a filthy, rotten liar.
At every turn, it's trying to fool you into thinking, "Hey, look! There's the first zombie!" But outside of its opening three minutes — when we really do see a zombie named Gloria — the whole thing is an exercise in building dread out of not a whole hell of a lot.
To do that, the show has to play unfair, just a little bit. Sometimes the ways it does so are subtle and thrilling. Sometimes they're over-the-top and stupid. But throughout, the premiere is stringing you along, hoping that your desire to see zombies is so strong that you'll stick with the otherwise ordinary antics of its central family.
A lot of TV is about this, about waiting for the bad stuff to start happening. Fear the Walking Dead's pilot just foregrounds that to a degree that's slightly hilarious. But when it comes right down to it, the pilot mostly works because of all those tiny lies it tells you.
Here are 13 of them, as they occurred throughout the hour.
1) Nick runs away from a zombie — only to be hit by a car
To see why this works as a reversal, try to forget everything you know about this series and imagine first encountering this sequence on the page. You'd have a character waking up in an isolated, seemingly abandoned building, looking for his companion, only to come upon a zombie. That's not so far from something that might happen on the show's parent series, and, as many characters on that parent series do, he turns tail and runs.
Only to get hit by a car.
The point is this: If we didn't know that this series took place slightly before the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse (i.e., if we were reading this in the script), we might be just a little gobsmacked to realize that Los Angeles had yet to turn into zombie central. It's the rough story beat the pilot follows throughout — whatever you think would happen on the parent show, the opposite will happen here, for better or worse.
2) There's much speculation that the drugs Gloria took turned her
However, there's also the frequent suggestion that some sort of superbug is running rampant in other states. The implication is clear. Nobody is going to figure out just where this zombie pandemic came from in the time they have before civilization falls.
Fear the Walking Dead is more of a mood piece than its parent series, and that extends to any sort of traditionalist backstory. The zombies are here because the zombies are here. Explanation would only get in the way of that.
3) It sure seems like something's up with Nick's hospital roommate
The wheezing old man's rasping lungs prove just part of the episode's unsettling soundscape (about which more in a bit). The first time I saw this episode, I would have bet anything Nick was sharing his room with the next zombie to rise, especially since Nick was chained to a hospital bed and, thus, would prove the perfect zombie bait.
It's not to be, however. The constant wheeze is just there to unsettle us, not to add anything. This is another part of how this pilot works — by creating the opportunity for unease in otherwise ordinary situations, it keeps us thinking that maybe, maybe more zombies will be around the corner.
4) Travis (and eventually Madison) return to the scene of the crime
The various visits to the abandoned church are more experiments on the show's part to see just how much it can get away with building tension when literally nothing is happening. Gloria and her zombie compatriots have left the church far behind, but that doesn't mean the episode can't try to milk these scenes for all they're worth.
That said, however, they almost certainly don't work if you're not invested, on some level, in the question of whether Nick's family will believe him about the zombie menace in time to save their own skins. If you're not invested in that particular conflict, then this might all feel like a bunch of pointless padding.
5) Public spaces gradually empty out
The Fear the Walking Dead pilot takes place over a succession of days, over which time, the various public places the characters visit slowly empty of people. Take, for instance, the school where both Madison and Travis work, which is essentially devoid of people by the time the school board decides to call a half day late in the episode. Or look at that public park the characters drive by several times. The first day, it's thriving. By the last day, it's basically empty.
When this pilot works, it's because it plays up the chaos erupting in the background against the much more typical conflicts playing in the foreground. The problems of the central family start to seem at once much smaller in importance and much larger than they did when the hour began. Yes, it probably doesn't matter if Nick can kick his addiction in the short-term future, but the characters finding him before the zombie apocalypse breaks out is important.
6) "Can you build a fire?"
There's never been a show with a high school setting that couldn't use an English class discussion of a great work of literature to set up ironic commentary on the events at hand. Here it's Travis's class, and he's discussing the Jack London short story "To Build a Fire." His student protests that he doesn't need to know how to build a fire. He has a stove and heat! We see what you did there, show.
7) Is the principal a zombie?!
The cheapest scare in the episode belongs to this moment, when the music builds, and the camera zooms, and Madison seems unaware, and Principal Art sits and sits and sits, seemingly dead.
And, no, he's just listening in on various classes. Ugh. This is the very worst kind of deception.
8) The background noises build dread subtly
Here's a much better way of setting up the central lie of the story. Whether it's the constantly ringing phones at the hospital or the sirens wailing away in the distance in many scenes or that wheezing old man, the sounds of emergency and chaos erupting somewhere on the show's edges nicely add to whatever dread the episode is able to build.
You'll notice how many of these techniques I'm talking about have essentially nothing to do with the episode's main story, which is about the family trying to deal with Nick's latest mishaps. If that seems like a commentary on how that story fails to ignite, well, it very well might be.
9) Is that a zombie in the park?
This might be the episode's single most evocative image. It could be just a homeless person, or someone stoned out of his mind, or any other number of normal explanations. Or it could be something else.
10) Calvin isn't the upstanding young man he seems to be
Let's talk about the episode's most irritating element: Nick's friend Calvin, who seems like a nice and normal young man at first, then turns out to be Nick's dealer, then turns out to have murderous intentions for Nick, then turns out to continue the parent series' unfortunate habit of turning black men into frequent zombie chow. On The Walking Dead, that led to frequent memes and discussion of just why the series had such trouble with black male characters. On this show, it simply feels like nobody was paying attention.
But even setting that aside, turning Calvin into a drug dealer is disappointing on a number of levels, not least of which is the simple fact that by this point in the episode, essentially everything that's happened has had a reversal tied to it. That's fun for a bit, but it has a tendency to erode the audience's trust. This one, which occurs relatively late, feels like just another plot twist tossed on the pile.
But then you consider that the episode starts with three black, fairly important male characters, and by its end, Calvin has been zombified, while Matt (Alicia's boyfriend) has seemingly disappeared (never a good sign on a show like this). That leaves only the principal seemingly out of harm's way. Given the criticisms launched against the parent series, isn't this all a little weird?
11) Zombie traffic jams are the worst traffic jams
So much of this episode is spent with the characters just missing the handful of zombies populating the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Here's another case, where Travis and Madison, stuck in a traffic jam later revealed to be caused by a zombie (of course), simply decide to go around it, presumably to live another day.
Life is full of these sorts of near misses, moments when you just managed to avoid catastrophe because of some seemingly insignificant choice you made at the time. For Travis and Madison, this is one of those moments, and it also clues them in to the thought that something terrible is happening.
12) Nobody trusts Nick
It's an old trick, but it's still a good one. The episode's one reliable narrator is Nick, the one character who's had contact with the zombies, but also the one character everybody is quickest to write off, because of his drug-addled state of mind. Does he make a particularly good Cassandra? Not really, but he does know that he needs to run zombie Calvin down with a pickup truck when the moment comes.
All of which brings me to the episode's biggest reversal of all.
13) These characters don't know how to deal with zombies at all
After five seasons of The Walking Dead, it's easy to forget how in that show's pilot, Rick didn't know what to do about zombies either. He had to be educated by Morgan. This is not a world where the characters are genre-savvy, meaning it's not a world where the characters are familiar with zombie lore.
So it's tempting to think when Travis and Madison encounter zombie Calvin late in the episode, they'll know just what to do. Yet they make all of the wrong choices. They approach him. They talk to him. They try to ascertain how he's doing, before he starts trying to bite them. It's only Nick's quick thinking with the pickup that saves them.
One of the pleasures of Fear the Walking Dead, then, might be these characters figuring out how to deal with the zombie outbreak on their own, on the fly. You can see the show sprinkling bits of information to different characters — like how Alicia knows a shot to the head will kill a zombie — but since they're not yet comparing notes, they're not yet ready to truly deal with the monumental task ahead.
On the other hand, that's incredibly dangerous territory to spend time in. Any time the audience knows more than the characters, it can be a problem, as we wait for the characters to catch up to us. It's not necessarily the case that this will happen here, but the show has to be concerned about it all the same.
Either way, though, things are about to get very bad.
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