The Ardent Eccentric: A Love Letter to Fear the Walking Dead

Sunday night was the premiere of Fear the Walking Dead.

Fear the Walking Dead, in case you have been living under a rock for 4 months, or are just not that into zombies, is the story of the beginnings of the zombie apocalypse that is the basis of the series The Walking Dead.  On Fear, we see how it all started and how it unfolds through the eyes of the Clark family: mother Madison, son Nick and daughter Alicia, as well as Madison’s boyfriend, Travis Manawa.

Spoiler alert – a brief summary follows to give all the commentary I have some context (and there are some events I’m leaving out as they hinted towards the coming apocalypse but aren’t really important for summary purposes).  If you don’t want to be spoiled, now would be the time to run away like a tweaked out teenager in a blouse:

Nick running

The show opens with 19 year old Nick awakening in a church that is currently being used as a drug den.  His lady friend, Gloria, is not next to him in their bed, so Nick goes looking for her.  He comes across, however, some dead guys and then Gloria eating someone’s face.  Justifiably terrified, Nick races away from the church barefoot (and possibly in Gloria’s shirt and a pair of jeans) and runs into traffic, getting hit by an oncoming car.

Madison, a guidance counselor and Nick’s mother, and Travis, her boyfriend and fellow educator at the local high school, are playing kissy face in the kitchen before school when they receive the call that Nick is in the hospital.  Madison, Travis, and Nick’s sister, Alicia, all make their way to the hospital.

Upon their arrival, Madison shoos away the police questioning Nick and assesses why her son is in restraints.  Nick does not tell his mother much, and she heads to the high school with Alicia while Travis offers to stay with Nick.

Later that day, Nick awakens from a nightmare with Travis still at his side.  He tells Travis about what he saw at the church, and how he believes he’s going crazy.  Travis goes to the church that evening and discovers body parts and blood staining the floor and walls.

The next day, Nick manages to convince a nurse to remove one of his restraints to use the bathroom.  He takes advantage of the fact that the medical staff are distracted by his coding hospital roommate, and steals the dying old man’s clothes, making his escape from the hospital.

Nick is desperately trying to get in touch with his dealer, while Madison and Travis begin looking for Nick.  They visit the church again, as well as Nick’s friend Calvin.  They are unaware that Calvin is also Nick’s dealer, and Calvin finally returns Nick’s calls and meets him at a local restaurant.

Nick, who is pretty messed up at point, mentally and physically, tries to make sense of what he saw by asking Calvin if the drugs he sold him were laced with a hallucinogenic. Calvin realizes that if word gets out his supply is potentially bad, business will suffer. Under the pretense of caring for Nick, Calvin takes him to an empty parking structure to kill him.

However, Nick sees the gun and realizes at the last minute what is happening.  After a brief struggle, he accidentally shoots Calvin in the stomach during their struggle for the gun.  Finally accepting that he is perhaps in over his head, Nick calls Travis for help.

When Travis and Madison arrive, Nick tries to show them where he left Calvin’s body, but the body is gone.  Now Nick really thinks he’s gone off the deep end.

The three go to leave only to see Calvin standing before them.  Travis and Madison approach him to offer help, but Calvin tries to bite Travis.  Still in the truck and seeing that they are in imminent danger, Nick runs over Calvin, and does it a second time when Calvin again stands up.  He finally incapacitates Calvin to the point of his body being broken, but Calvin is still “alive” staring up at them from the concrete.


Now, although it had the highest ratings in cable history for a series premiere, the show has been lambasted for slow pacing, stilted dialogue, and unrealistic characters and situations.

But I’m going to say nay to that assessment.  I thought it was great, and it is one of the only series that I will be going back to watch the premiere again in anticipation of next week, and to catch all of the nuances and symbolism I missed upon my first viewing.

Admittedly, The Walking Dead has never been known for its subtlety; it tends to bring down the sledgehammer of symbolism.  I was concerned that this would happen on Fear, but I was pleasantly surprised.  There was still some lack of subtlety, however: Nick’s shuffled zombie like gait upon running from the hospital and looking for a fix was balanced with the “beat-us-over-the-head-with-it” comment from Madison about Travis’ relationship with Nick, and with his biological son, Chris: “you know, you can’t fix your relationship with your son by enabling mine.”

For those that said that writing for teenage characters is too difficult, and that the writers didn’t do it well, I wonder whether or not these commenters actually interact with teenagers on a regular basis.  Alicia, the daughter of Madison and brother to Nick was not “too snotty;” she was a teenage girl stuck between being the good child who doesn’t disappoint her mother, the sister who worries that her big brother will never get better, and the daughter de facto to her mother’s boyfriend, who while she probably enjoys seeing her mother happy, resents the intrusion into her life.  Her sarcastic comments to her boyfriend about the state of her brother’s health and her desire to get out of that situation upon graduation only demonstrate the amount of hurt and pain that lie beneath the surface.

And Nick? I can’t totally speak to the behavior of a heroin addict (in terms of his physical being and potential withdrawal), because my experiences have only been with people using much less debilitating drugs, but his philosophical, disillusioned thoughts that he may be crazy were spot on for an 19 year old, drug user or not.  His defeatist attitude about the whole situation spoke volumes about how long the addiction has been a problem, and how long he expects it to be a problem.  Frank Dillane, the actor who played Nick, brought an innocence to the character in Nick’s most emotional moments; I think often times we forget that “age is just a number” doesn’t just apply to adults; an 19 year old can often still lack mental and emotional maturity, even though we allow them to make very adult decisions for themselves.

We also don’t really know what the Clarks’ experiences were prior to the events happening around them.  I did read in an article after the premiere that Nick and Alicia’s father died when Nick was 13, and things went downhill from there for him.  Regrettably, this wasn’t in the premiere-if it had been, I think it would have provided a little more insight as to why Nick is the way he is.  But what were their experiences prior to the death of the patriarch of that family? Madison is a guidance counselor; her behavior throughout the episode suggests that she is an overly supportive parent – to the point of causing some of that delay in maturity on Nick’s part.

Despite the fact that some of dialogue was a little off (Madison: “Something bad happened here!” as she visits the church her son was running from.  Yes, Madison, clearly – the entrails on the floor might have tipped you off), I feel that the writers did an excellent job in giving these actors enough to work with to subtly start to show us the layers of their characters.

I am also interested in seeing the family dynamic between Travis and his ex-wife and son Liza and Chris developed further.  Liza and Travis seem to get along well enough to co-parent, while Chris is moody and defiant, refusing to spend time with his father.  I suspect the Clark’s blended family will get a little more blended when shit starts to get bad, and I’m curious about how that will play out.

I have to speak to the title as well.  Again, it was criticized in comments across the web for being unoriginal.  But here’s my question – who constitutes the “walking dead?” Is it those who have already died and turned? Are we all the Walking Dead since the virus that causes people to turn is inherit in all of us? And if we are all the Walking Dead, is it fear of others and their potential to do good or bad by their fellow members of society? Is it fear of oneself and who we will become in the growing apocalypse?

I mean, seriously, Nick, an 19 year old drug addict, fought off and killed a guy.  Accidentally of course, but HE KILLED A GUY.  And it was a guy he relied on and felt close to given the nature of their drug dealer-buyer relationship.  And then Nick had to run him over with a car several times in an attempt to get him to stop advancing on him and his family, confronting behavior that doesn’t make sense to them in this fictional universe.  This is going to go one of two ways for Nick: this kid’s psyche is just going to get further and further broken as the apocalypse progresses, and his addiction (not zombies) will eventually kill him; or this will be his moment of recognizing that things have gone too far because of his addiction and he will come back stronger and ready to face the external demons (the infected, as the walkers are called) that surround him and his family.

So I say to all the complainers – give it a chance.  Fear the Walking Dead is different from its parent show, and in the best ways possible.  It is tense and engaging in a way that The Walking Dead no longer is for me.  As a parent, I was keyed up just watching Nick waking up in that church, and I wanted to hug my own teenager when Nick collapsed to the ground in shock that Calvin’s body was gone and Madison could only hold him in her arms.   I don’t feel the same sense of character development in The Walking Dead anymore as in Fear.  Put it this way – if there was no zombie apocalypse, and this band of people just came together to accomplish a goal, I would be more interested in seeing how the Clark family makes out then how Rick and company fare. Those who are not yet engaged with these characters, I am suggesting forgetting about the zombie apocalypse at the moment – do you want to see what happens with Nick’s addiction?  Are you curious as to whether or not Alicia can eventually accept her family structure? Are you wondering if Madison and Travis may stop being super self-centered at some point, although they honestly believe they are supporting their kids?  If so, then give it a little time and the benefit of the doubt.  If not, still give it some time – The Walking Dead, while it had an abundance of gruesome moments to start out, lacked character development for quite a while.  Fear, on the other hand, gives us that character right away, and I suspect will punctuate the series with gruesome moments, rather than overwhelm it.

Finally, some unanswered random questions/thoughts I had about the premiere:

  1. Wtf did Travis hit to cause that huge crack in his windshield, and if he can find time to investigate drug dens at night, why hasn’t he gotten that fixed yet? Like seriously, Safelite can come to you…
  2. Why did Travis think it was a good idea to visit a drug den at night with only a flashlight? Was he having a Sherlock Holmes moment? Did he plan to discuss Doyle’s works following his lesson on Call of the Wild?
  3. Was it just me or did Alicia sitting on the hospital bed to feed Nick initially have a weird incest vibe to it?
  4. Is Alicia a junior? A senior? Is it the beginning of senior year?
  5. Was Nick getting morphine in the hospital or some other pain killer for his injuries that somehow slowed down his withdrawal process?
  6. What happened to all of the bodies in the church? I know, I know, they rise from the dead, but Travis had enough issues getting through that gate when he went to investigate. Did the undead manage to open doors and gates, or maybe took the same path Nick did on his initial run from the church?

In any case, until next week, keep your friends close and your undead cl-…wait…