All three episodes of Fear the Walking Dead so far — including "The Dog," the latest to air — have been directed by the same man, Adam Davidson. And while the show doesn't have a hugely distinctive visual style like, say, Hannibal or Mr. Robot, it's definitely adhering to a consistent, mostly coherent aesthetic.
The show the series seems most reminiscent of, honestly, is Battlestar Galactica, to the degree that once you start looking for it, this series can seem a little derivative. But that was a terrific, visually audacious show. If you're going to take something, take from the best.
Let's take a look at how "The Dog" explains Fear's visual ideas.
The center of this show: close-ups
At the heart of Fear the Walking Dead is an intimate apocalypse. It's a show that aims to tell the story of the collapse of civilization from the perspectives of as small a group as possible.
There are no scenes of gigantic zombie hordes here just yet, because there aren't any gigantic zombie hordes. There are just a few, scattered here and there, and the characters mostly come across them one at a time. Thus, the show aims to be a kind of character-driven apocalyptic tale.
The direction and cinematography back this up. Where The Walking Dead is perhaps best known for those wide shots of lots and lots of zombies ...
Fear the Walking Dead is largely keeping the apocalypse in the background. It holds on the faces of the people who are forced to look at it as everything falls apart around them.
Close-ups usually have the effect of forcing us into a character's headspace. Because we've evolved specifically to try to read facial expressions, close-ups directly ping these parts of our brains. We watch an actor's face and try to figure out what's going on in the character's head, and that creates an empathetic bridge between us and them.
Consider, for instance, the sequence in this episode where Davidson cuts between Madison, her zombified neighbor (stuck behind a fence), and Travis. Travis believes the zombies are just sick and could be cured at some point. Madison is pretty sure her son's hypothesis (the zombies are actually dead and too far gone to be helped) is right, but she hasn't yet fully committed to it.
Davidson plays this scene mostly on the faces of the characters, whether calculating...
...open and pleading...
...or completely gone, because they're zombies.
When he cuts away, it's usually to establish the geography of the encounter (Madison and her neighbor on opposite sides of the same fence, just enough of a hole in it for the neighbor to see her and grasp for her), or it's to set up that Madison has come up with a solution to this problem. She's just not sure if she's ready to use it.
Ultimately, Madison doesn't bash in her neighbor zombie's head with a hammer — and she almost dooms her neighbor's husband when he returns home from a business trip and is nearly devoured by his wife. (He's saved by the timely arrival of the cavalry, in the form of the US military.) This could end up being a key moment for Madison — when she realizes that even if it's possible to cure zombies, there's no good way to keep others safe when they're around. Thus, they should be removed.
At the center of Fear the Walking Dead, then, isn't the collapse of civilization, or even the zombies who are taking over. At the center are the psychological shifts that occur in the heads of the people who have to live through this. The parent series has always been at its best when it focuses on the trauma the characters have lived through. Fear is trying to foreground this.
The show also smartly uses point-of-view shots
Sometimes, you just want to see civilization fall. Fear the Walking Dead understands this and is only too happy to oblige. Watch the power grid go out across Los Angeles!
What's key about this is that it's shown from the viewpoint of Travis and Chris, traveling in Travis's truck back to the house he shares with Madison. Fear sometimes cheats at this, but it really does try to portray the end of the world on a wide scale directly from the point of view of characters who happen to be there to see it. This, again, has the subconscious effect of building empathy between viewers and what's on the screen.
Take, for instance, when Travis and others burst out of the barbershop near the episode's beginning. A zombified police officer is gnawing on one of his former partners in the middle of the street, but the scene is shown to us in a way that suggests the characters are watching this happen, taking it in, and trying to make sense of it.
The zombie apocalypse has a way of rearranging your priorities. Though Travis continues trying to reach out to the zombies around him and nearly dies for his troubles...
...his son is much more eager to learn how to wield firearms.
Travis says he "hates guns," and I suppose you could be tempted to read this all as some sort of treatise on how guns are necessary, if you really wanted to. But because the story takes place in a world where there are literal zombies, it's hard to apply current political debates to the situation at hand.
What's more important, again, is the rift between father and son. Travis really does seem to have some sort of optimism for the future, but everybody around him is pretty sure the world is ending.
And, of course, they're right.
How this is like Battlestar Galactica
Battlestar Galactica, of course, was another series that forced its characters to jumble their political priorities. President Laura Roslin, for instance, was essentially forced to ban abortion, despite being in favor of abortion rights, because the human race had been so decimated by the robotic Cylons that every human who could possibly be born needed to be born.
Obviously, neither that show nor this one really thought these sorts of logical extremes would apply to most viewers' lives. But they asked viewers to consider what it would take for them to abandon a long-held moral position, which is an infinitely more interesting question to consider.
But the similarities between the shows don't stop there. What's another show that primarily used close-ups and point-of-view shots to have its desired emotional effect? You guessed it: Battlestar Galactica.
None of this is to say that either series uses exclusively close-ups and point-of-view shots. Both use mid-shots and wide shots to solid effect, especially when they need to depict, say, an action sequence.
But both shows place you right in the characters' faces, all the better for you to watch them make their way through some new, haunted world they don't yet fully understand. Battlestar gradually pulled back from its characters over the course of the series, as they grew emotionally numbed to what had happened to them (though it memorably got right back up close when they were going through something earth-shattering). That might happen on Fear, too. We just don't know yet.
But for now, this is a show where the end of the world is happening on the periphery of these people's lives. They're concerned about it, and they're worried about it in the abstract, but they're mostly wondering how they're going to survive. Thus, it's only right that the zombies are used not as the main course but as a very, very light seasoning.
Join me at noon Eastern for the weekly culture chat. Leave me questions in comments.
And this week, I have a question for you: Which pop cultural event happening before the end of the year are you most excited for? Me, I can't wait to see the new Todd Haynes movie Carol, which has received rapturous reviews everywhere it's played.
I'll see you then!