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Fear the Walking Dead season 1, episode 2: The show moves as slowly as its zombies — and it works

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Political protests break out in the latest episode of Fear the Walking Dead, endangering everyone.
Political protests break out in the latest episode of Fear the Walking Dead, endangering everyone.
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This is the way the world ends — with a bang and a whimper.

Most stories of the apocalypse skip us quickly past the early stages, where the worst could have been averted. There's good reason for this. The really interesting stuff usually involves how the characters survive, or what happens when society begins to rebuild.

Because it's a TV show, though, Fear the Walking Dead is taking its time. In my early review of the season, I called this a "slow-pocalypse," and "So Close, Yet So Far," the show's second episode, underlines this approach.

The episode has its bigger sequences — especially a protest against police treatment of a homeless man (who was, presumably, a turned zombie) — but it's mostly a very quiet episode about people realizing the world is going to hell all around them.

Still, the signs of imminent collapse are many. Here are five ways to know the world is ending, courtesy of TV's slowest apocalypse.

1) Everybody around you starts completely falling apart

Nick on Fear the Walking Dead.

Nick (Frank Dillane) isn't handling his withdrawal well. Exactly what you'd hope for in a zombie apocalypse.

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The best stories set during the end of the world usually pair those events with compelling personal apocalypses — stories where the characters' lives are collapsing right as the world is. Has Fear crossed this bar yet? Not quite, despite the noble acting efforts of Kim Dickens and Frank Dillane, as a woman and her addict son who are grappling with his drug withdrawal. But it flirts with that quality, and in those moments, the show is at its best.

But this is still a good key to the show's approach. In one scene, Nick (the aforementioned son) accidentally prevents his sister, Alicia, from wandering off to her presumed demise because he starts seizing and vomiting and needs her to make sure he doesn't accidentally choke to death.

Similarly, this episode isolates Travis from the rest of the family, because he goes to pick up his son and ex, Chris and Liza, only to find out that Chris is at the aforementioned protest. When Travis and Liza go to get him, the situation spirals out of control into a riot (after the police gun down a turned zombie), and they're soon stuck inside a local barbershop, looking for a way to escape.

So many bad things in life are made that much worse by human beings having imperfect reactions to stressful situations. As Fear the Walking Dead suggests, that quality extends to the zombie apocalypse.

2) Your principal tries to eat you

Principal Art is a zombie!

Here's a helpful tip. It's principal, because your principal is your PAL. Unless he's a mindless, flesh-eating zombie, that is.

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Many of the complaints leveled against Fear's pilot involved the show's general lack of zombie carnage. Indeed, said pilot only depicted two zombies directly (with an additional example popping up via TV news footage), and there was very little of the gore that has marked The Walking Dead proper.

This approach works, however, because it allows the show to slowly scale up its carnage. When zombies pop up on Fear, they don't feel as routine as they've become on the parent series (something that show has actually exploited to good effect in later seasons). Instead, they feel like alien monsters, arrived from some other reality entirely. So much of apocalyptic storytelling is about disruption, and there are few things more disruptive than the neighbor across the way trying to eat people.

Or, put another way, maybe the best sequence in this episode involves Madison and Tobias coming across Principal Art, who ran into a zombie somewhere (seemingly in the school gym, which, okay) and turned. They barely fight him off, and the show's sense of the characters learning how to deal with all of this weirdness in real time only grows.

3) Everywhere starts to feel really empty

Alicia looks for her boyfriend on Fear the Walking Dead.

Normally busy urban streets become emptier and emptier.

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The opening shots of this episode involve Art (not yet dead) and Alicia entering places that should at least have some signs of human existence but don't right now. Art wanders the halls of the school, while Alicia goes to find her boyfriend in a quiet neighborhood that should still have some cars or kids on bikes or something.

The eerie silence punctuates how much things are changing. And, indeed, when skateboarders rattle past Alicia, they're surprisingly jarring. Things are crumbling, but not in a way that's obvious. Maybe nobody's around? Maybe not.

The abandoned public space is the most basic setting for any post-apocalyptic tale. But what Fear exploits is the amount of time it has to explore those spaces. It really luxuriates in those long, moody sequences when things aren't quite right but also aren't necessarily wrong. It helps build the tension (that will hopefully, eventually, have a payoff).

4) The government doesn't tell anybody anything

Protests break out on Fear the Walking Dead.

Protesters aren't too happy about the police force's treatment of zombies.

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This is another staple of the apocalyptic genre. And though Fear doesn't do much to contextualize why the government would keep from its citizens that the dead are returning to life, it sure depicts the gap between government actions and citizen response. (Presumably, the government is keeping quiet because of fear of mass panic. But since we know giant hordes of zombies are in these people's near future, mass panic seems a rather quaint fear.)

When the police shoot the zombie at the protest, it makes complete sense from their point of view. Why wouldn't they do this? But it also makes sense that the protestors spiral out of control at the sight of this. Without knowing that the person just killed wasn't a person, it seems like police violence has completely lost any sort of check on its brutality. And that, assuming this is our world, is an assumption that isn't hard to leap to.

There are all sorts of weird political leaps one could make from this scene — like the fact that the police are ultimately in the right to indiscriminately gun people down because they're zombies — but the most coherent one is the idea that when the government keeps secrets from its citizens, terrible things happen. Like the zombie apocalypse!

5) Nobody listens to each other, and people start losing their shit

Travis and Liza are stuck in a barbershop.

Travis and Liza hole up in a barbershop. Good luck getting back home, everyone.

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But we see this lack of communication on an interpersonal level as well. Everybody's trying to keep Alicia in the dark about the dead returning to life, while she won't listen to Nick because he's a drug addict who's been a burden on her life so far. Liza doesn't want to hear it from Travis, because of unspecified baggage, while Chris (annoyingly) decides to just head off to political protests without really telling anyone. The communication gap even extends to a literal language gap in some scenes, as some characters speak English and some speak Spanish.

One of the problems with zombie apocalypse stories is that it's inherently hard to believe that such shambling, slow-moving beasts could overrun the world so quickly, even if their bite creates more of their kind. Surely the military or someone would mobilize and easily handle the problem within a few days of its appearance? Right?

Fear, then, posits the outbreak of the zombie apocalypse as a kind of feedback loop we see often in human life — people don't talk to each other, assumptions are made, and everybody decides the worst-case scenario is happening. They operate from that position and only make things worse. I don't know how far Fear is going to pursue this idea (I haven't seen past this episode), but that's a nifty notion, if the show can pull it off. Zombies didn't cause the zombie apocalypse. People did.

Join me at noon Eastern for the week's culture chat. Leave your questions in comments!

Art the zombie on Fear the Walking Dead

Not looking so hot there, Principal Artie.

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It'll be great, as always, to see you. Ask about anything you like.

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