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Fear the Walking Dead, season 1, episode 4: How the show improves upon The Walking Dead

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This first season is stronger than that show's first season

Madison freaks out over something very, very bad.
Madison freaks out over something very, very bad.
AMC

The ratings for Fear the Walking Dead are slowly eroding. The number of viewers who tune in to watch the live broadcast of each new episode has gotten a little smaller with each week.

Contrast this with the first season of The Walking Dead, where the season's final two episodes actually posted viewership numbers slightly higher than the show's pilot. That was a show on its way to becoming a massive hit. This is a show that increasingly seems like, at best, a brand extension.

But here's the thing: I really, really like what Fear the Walking Dead is doing. I was a bit hesitant to declare that love in the first two episodes, but "The Dog" and now "Not Fade Away" have sold me on whatever this show's long-term goal is. Where other viewers see a slow-moving family drama with far too few zombies, I see ... well, I see all of those things, but I think they're good things.

At its worst, this show can be a bit of a slog, sure. But at its best, I think this is arguably a better show than The Walking Dead was in its first season (which had higher highs, sure, but also far lower lows), and for reasons that extend beyond its tremendous cast, which even the show's detractors will acknowledge blows the earlier program's first-season cast out of the water.

Let's take a look at some of them.

The slow build is being handled phenomenally well

Travis is finally watching for the end.

Travis watches for someone to signal him from a far-off apartment building.

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"Not Fade Away" is, ostensibly, an episode where not a lot happens. Now contained in a "safe zone" set up by the military, the central characters wile away a week plus a few days, slowly growing more and more discontented with how little information they have about the outside world. In the end, Travis makes a horrifying realization, as he watches machine-gun fire clear out an apartment building where Chris saw someone trying to signal for help earlier.

Now, if you're someone who primarily wanted to watch this show for zombie attacks, you might be feeling a little let down by an episode without a single, solitary zombie in it. But the show's slow, sinuous build has earned much of its power through suggestion and hints of calamity, rather than through directly depicting awful things happening. All of this is vital to understanding the characters' psychology going forward, and just why they might make decisions they do in the zombie apocalypse to come.

One of the key themes of the parent series has always been that the living characters are the real walking dead, living on borrowed time until something in their horrific world rises up and destroys them. That makes the title of this series a bit of a double entendre. Yes, fear the walking dead, but understand that the real walking dead to fear are the other human beings around you.

With a seeming military occupation setting in, the characters are beginning to grasp this. Meaghan Oppenheimer's script for this episode nicely weaves in the slowly building paranoia of the characters, completely justifying it at every turn. The show is headed toward where its parent series started out, but it's breaking down its characters' psychologies in completely different ways. That's fascinating.

The depiction of the apocalypse's outbreak is unlike few other things

Madison

Madison comes across a once deadly, now dead zombie on her sojourn into the larger city.

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With its rigid adherence to camerawork that holds on its characters' faces above all else, Fear the Walking Dead is crafting an incredibly intimate apocalypse, one where things are spiraling out of control, but it all seems secondary to the characters' interpersonal conflicts.

The most horrible thing that happens in this episode, from the characters' point of view, is that Nick is taken away from his family because of his addiction, headed to some sort of mysterious military medical facility. That's not a typical post-apocalyptic conflict. In a lot of stories like this, the characters would be trying to figure out how to survive. But for the most part, these characters know how to survive. They're simply trying to figure out a way to all survive together, and that's where things fall apart spectacularly.

Director Kari Skogland spends this episode putting the characters in tiny duos in the frame, then she begins sundering them in the episode's closing passages. Relationships that seemed strong are ripped apart, and the effect to these people is as devastating as any zombie bite.

If any of us are ever so unlucky as to live through the end of the world, the odds are that it will either be a quick flash or a slow crawl toward doom. And if it's the latter (as it is here), stability might reassert itself just long enough for us to worry about the same things we always have, namely all of the personal bullshit that would seem to pale in comparison to the collapse of civilization.

The characters actually have something to lose

Nick gets taken by the military.

Nick might annoy us, but Madison definitely loves him. Perhaps too much.

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The most consistent complaint I've heard from those who aren't enjoying the series is that they can't latch onto the characters as worth caring about or even worth watching. And that, of course, is a huge problem! All TV shows need to have engaging, interesting characters at their center, lest they be doomed.

Now, maybe this is just my peak Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis fandom speaking, but I really am invested in most of these characters in a way I very rarely was in the early going on The Walking Dead. And the induction of Liza into the aforementioned mysterious military medical project gave her even more intrigue, leaving me fascinated to see what's next for her. Even Chris, who's taken to giving monologues of doom atop local houses, has grown less grating to me.

What I think might be going on here is that the characters on Walking Dead were intentional ciphers for a while there, all the better for the audience to project itself into the zombie apocalypse. You weren't just right beside Rick Grimes as he realized the world had gone to hell; on some level, you were realizing the world had gone to hell.

Fear the Walking Dead, on the other hand, is trying the opposite approach. These characters are much more specific, with broadly drawn but much more detailed relationships than the characters had on the parent show. That removes the "you are in the zombie apocalypse!" element the first show had, but it really does give these characters something to lose, whether a son or a lover or (as with Travis at episode's end) a sense of innocence.

The show has found an easy way around its chief weakness

The military moves in.

The military has moved in, and things are getting, well, not better, but certainly different.

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In the early going, it was a little hard to cotton to the fact that the characters seemed to run toward every single zombie they saw, even though it was completely and totally believable. (They'd never seen such a thing before!) This made the characters seem stupider than they actually were, because the audience was so far ahead of them all of the time.

As of "Not Fade Away," that's no longer the case. The nine-day military occupation has wised the characters up to the dangers surrounding them, and they use terms like "the infected" in the way characters on the parent series might say "walkers." Madison might slip out into the unprotected wilds of the city, but she knows how big of a chance she's taking when she does.

Time jumps don't solve all problems, but smaller ones (like this one) can easily skip past the part where the characters are filled in on a bunch of knowledge that the audience already knows. Doing this is the chief reason "Not Fade Away" is the strongest episode of the series to date.

The series uses tragic tension beautifully

Curfew!

We know how this is going to turn out. The characters don't. That creates an interesting tension.

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Much of TV is built atop audience foreknowledge. After we've seen a few episodes of a show, we start to understand how its stories work, and there are lots and lots of shows built atop central dramatic ironies only the audience understands. (Consider, for instance, the way that Mad Men let the audience know in the early going that the characters it was following would seem pretty square by the end of the '60s.)

As a prequel, Fear the Walking Dead has struggled with this frequently in the early going, but in this episode, it starts to make the most of the fact that we know things are about to go to hell. The Walking Dead has always had problems telling longer-term stories in its universe, because we know for the show to keep going, the zombies have to overrun everyone's defenses sooner or later. It leaves the series feeling aimless at times, as if it's on a journey to nowhere.

Fear the Walking Dead, at least for now, is on a journey to somewhere that we already know. But because we know that place is the actual end of the world, the show is able to wring tension from that. Every decision the characters make could lead to the outbreak of the ultimate tragedy, and the show lets us twist in the wind in those moments.

Eventually, of course, the world will end, and the show just might turn into the parent series. That's always been the fear with this show. But by the end of "Not Fade Away," I found myself thinking that everything about this show could be just different enough that that might not really matter.

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