This was a test, wasn’t it? A six-episode test to see if lightning could spark up in a different, but similar, bottle. I was unprepared to write Fear the Walking Dead off after its first episode and before it had the chance to stretch its legs, but now that I’ve seen its first season finale (if you can call six episodes a season), it’s becoming harder for me to find ways to redeem it. It’s not that the show is bad. But it is undeniable that there is just something off about Fear.
While watching the finale, I kept trying to figure out what feels wrong about the show. Do we not know enough about the characters? Would it have helped to know why Nick become addicted to heroin, or under what circumstances Liza and Travis broke up? Were there not enough walkers? And/or, was there not enough excitement built up around the walkers in this particular episode? Two thousand walkers would have been the largest herd seen on this show or The Walking Dead, and there was no attempt to create a sense of magnitude surrounding their appearance. (Though Daniel’s veritable mic drop was pretty badass. “You should save your ammunition.” Smug bastard.)
The worst theory to posit is, and I take a big gulp as I say this: did they focus too much on the growth of the characters and their relationships with one another, and not enough on what’s happening in the world around them? The last six episodes have featured so little about the things happening beyond the characters’ lives that it’s tempting to think the showrunners made a misstep in not forcing these people out into the chaos sooner.
But upon further consideration of the finale and the five episodes preceding it, I found that I was contradicting all of my above hypotheses. There’s no way we don’t know enough about the characters. To quote myself, from my recap of the premiere: “Maybe we already know too much about these new characters.” And walkers absolutely shouldn’t be at the forefront of this show: “The new panic of the show is the situations in which the characters are placed and where the walkers are just props.” And the growth of characters is exactly what the show should focus on: “Even more than we care about the characters individually, we care about them in relation to one another.”
So what is it? Perhaps the show moved too slow and too quickly at the same time. The direction it took in concentrating on character development was likely the correct one, since it has worked so well for The Walking Dead, but the result lacked any propulsion with which the story could progress into something dramatically sustaining. The Walking Dead has thrived on the prospect of well-rounded characters, and two episodes ago I thought that Fear was benefiting from the same focus. But the difference is that walkers are always a present danger in The Walking Dead, so while the conflict may not center around the threat of the undead in the way it used to in its earlier seasons, there is still the constant possibility that people will be taken down by them, and they have. Without the presence of walkers, there’s little immediate danger to the characters in Fear, so any conflict that arises falls flat because the stakes are comparatively low.
The prospect of political and social unrest was initially one of the more intriguing elements of Fear, but the rise and fall of government and military forces occured in a matter of a couple of weeks. Where was the panic, the anxiety, the uneasiness? The plot point of Alicia’s boyfriend was glossed over so much he may as not have even existed, and the walker neighbor in the living room served no more than as an inconvenience to the room’s paint job. Dr. Exner seemed merely disappointed that they weren’t getting bailed out of the compound, but where was the devastation of realizing there’s no way out? Of learning there are no more lifeboats and you’re on a sinking ship? The show may have done itself a disservice in making Daniel and Travis the characters to lead, because the former’s aloofness and the latter’s naivete neutered any semblance of dread that should be permeating everyone’s waking moments.
Part of the alure of a prequel to the zombie apocalypse is watching people react to the havoc around them. The first time Rick sees a walker in The Walking Dead pilot, he’s overcome with horror and confusion and grief, all of which are precious little present in Fear. Doug was the only character that responded to what was happening with the appropriate level of anguish, but he was displayed as being too weak to survive in this world. Something Fear seemed to misunderstand is that it’s not the composure of Daniel and Travis that generate a dynamic story, but rather the resounding triumph of Rick and Morgan overcoming the anguish they felt in that first episode and finding the will to survive that creates characters worth rooting for. And subsequently, a story worth telling.
It would seem as though the test has failed. The sad truth may just be that once you’ve watched (let alone loved) The Walking Dead, you can’t return to a place of impartiality, as my above hypotheses and negations can attest. There is no way to wipe the slate clean because no amount of willful ignorance can make you forget what you already know. Such are the laws of dramatic entropy. That, coupled with a swiftness of plot that generated little tension and characters that are generally indifferent, created a show that is hardly worthy of the name of its predecessor. Most unfortunate of all, Fear the Walking Dead lacked the one thing it promised: fear itself.