I couldn’t disagree more. Last night’s episode of Fear the Walking Dead was a turning point for the show, and one that it desperately needed.
Heads up. Major season one, episode four spoilers below. I’m going into depth. If you haven’t seen it, go away. Go away, and watch it. This is your final warning. You sure you want to continue? You sure? Confirm your decision to continue: [yes] no
All right, then.
Thus far, we’ve seen the early onset of the apocalypse. We’ve seen how it developed right under everyone’s noses. We’ve seen how the slow nature of the zombie threat, versus the a sudden onslaught of relentless monsters, played off of people’s tendency to ignore what’s going on around them. We’ve understood everything, especially with our prior knowledge of everything that is to come on the other side of the U.S.
We haven’t seen anyone suffer.
Contrast the series with the original, which presents a good-guy police officer with relatable marital problems, a best friend who’d do anything for him, and a son, and then he is shot and wakes from his coma after everyone he cared about left him to die in this utterly disorienting nightmare world.
I could even argue the very first scene, in which he is forced to shoot a little girl at a gas station even though it makes no narrative sense, gets him over as a sympathetic character. It’s a situation in which no decision is easy, and any outcome will be tragic.
Fear just hasn’t done anything like that. Of course, in Fear, we’ve seen people beaten in riots. We’ve seen metal scaffolding fall and break legs. We’ve seen teeth sink into jugular veins. But nothing of dire consequence, nothing that may end lives but permanently alter the lives of the living.
Last night’s episode changed all of that. It was the first in which we saw our main characters suffer, and they are beginning to evolve from characters we understand and can empathize with into characters we can sympathize with.
Sympathy is exceedingly important to the formation of interesting protagonists.
Certainly, we watched as Travis couldn’t get in touch with his son and the panic as the whole city came alive to keep them apart.
Maddy is forced to kill an infected whom she thinks is her sick friend, but a high school principal doesn’t exactly carry the same weight of innocence as a little girl in pink pajamas, clutching a teddy bear. Furthermore, we didn’t know anything about their relationship, so there isn’t much to really twist it.
Nick witnesses his girlfriend feasting on presumably one of their friends, and he has to deal with the psychological trauma of being unsure whether he is losing his mind. He also is forced to kill a friend (who was going to kill him). However, Nick brings all of his problems on himself, and just as we wouldn’t have sympathy for someone like him in real life, we won’t have sympathy for him on the screen until he does something to redeem himself.
He isn’t going to do that by stealing morphine from someone who desperately needs it. That’s for sure.
Then there’s Alicia. One of the recurring themes thus far is how sheltered Alicia has been, and it put the writers in a really tight spot where she had to confront the fact that her boyfriend was ill but her parents were pulling her away for some reason, and the show didn’t even try to broach the subject of whether she was going to fight to stay with him (I actually got the impression they had filmed it but had to refilm it because the studio felt it would be going to far). It inadvertently suggested she didn’t really care for him, that in the face of danger that she doesn’t even understand, she’d so readily leave him alone.
But the show is finally trying to convince us of her suffering since leaving him. It will fall flat, but it’s evidence of a deliberate attempt to gain our sympathy.
Maddy will have to deal with the fact that she beat her son only to have him pulled away from her by people she does not trust will ever bring him back. And it doesn’t look like Maddy is coping well at all.
As for Travis, last night’s episode ended with one of the more powerful tragedies: Travis opts to ignore his son, and when he finally sees evidence that Chris is right about a survivor across the valley signaling for help, the muzzle flashes from machine gun fire signal that person’s extermination.
Not only does Travis do nothing to save someone when he has that power, but he also causes that’s person’s death. In a way, Travis is Rick’s polar opposite more than Shane ever was. Travis has the same desire to do good, but he lacks the ability. And he’s going to have to deal with that.
I see a lot of people talking about Fear the Walking Dead as a “slow burn.” I don’t know that it is. My experience has been that there have been some very tense moments. In contrast to the flagship series, which took all of two minutes to put Rick over as a sympathetic character before tossing him into hell, Fear has certainly taken its time developing its characters before making us feel sympathy for them. The point is it’s just beginning.
These are the moments that matter. These are the decisions that will ripple through the series and influence character actions later, and in my opinion, one of the best aspects of the main series has been seeing how dramatically the characters change season to season.
Toward that end, Fear the Walking Dead may have finally risen to its feet. I’m still thoroughly enjoying it.