UK TV review: Fear the Walking Dead Season 2, Episode 1
James R | On 13, Apr 2016
Warning: This contains spoilers. Not seen Season 1 of Fear the Walking Dead? Read our spoiler-free review here – and find out how to catch up online.
“Let me explain the rules of the boat. Rule number 1. It’s my boat. Rule number 2. It’s my boat.”
With those words, Victor Stand (Colman Domingo) pushes Fear the Walking Dead into waters far removed from the show’s uneven first season.
The show, a prequel to AMC’s The Walking Dead, is based around a simple premise: what was the zombie apocalypse like when it first began? If The Walking Dead portrays a hostile world, where people try to rebuild some semblance of society, Fear the Walking Dead charts the collapse of society in the face of that new hostile universe – one shows us flashes of kindness under the surface of monstrous brutality, the other shows us glimpses of monsters lurking beneath the surface of humanity.
The problem is that Fear the Walking Dead’s humans haven’t always been that interesting to begin with. Dad Travis (Cliff Curtis) and his partner, Madison (Kim Dickens), not to mention their kids, Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie), Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) and Nick (Frank Dillane), were all ordinary, everyday folk – so everyday, in fact, that they were a little too bland to intrigue. It’s no coincidence, then, that Strand’s arrival in the final episodes of Season 1 is when the show really began to show promise – and creators Dave Erickson and Robert Kirkman smartly keep him front and centre at the start of this second run.
For those who didn’t catch Flight 462, the web series linking Season 1 and 2 – which sees an airplane go down near Los Angeles, due to an outbreak on-board, while the country below descends into chaos – there’s a slight jolt to the system at the start of Episode 1, as we’ve skipped to nighttime following the shooting of Travis’ ex-wife, Eliza, and LA is already burning, partly thanks to the military’s apparent decision to bomb the whole place. And so the family – and their neighbour, Salazar (Ruben Blades) – board Strand’s boat to sail away to safety.
What follows is a solid hour of wallowing, wondering and worrying, as everyone attempts to come to terms with what’s happening. Chris is mourning his dead mum and can’t forgive Travis for doing the right thing and putting a bullet in her head. Alicia is chatting on the radio to a mysterious male voice – after bonding over David Bowie’s Five Year, they trade horror stories. “Are you safe?” she asks. “I think so,” comes the reply. “We found a cove.”
Travis, meanwhile, is struggling keep up his Mr. Nice Everyman persona, especially as Madison becomes increasingly good at fighting the undead. “I need you here with me,” he tells her. “I am,” comes the steely reply.
There’s still an inherent lack of depth to many of these people, which means the soul-searching doesn’t really convince. But the writing still manages to be clever, even when it comes to juggling dumb moments – for all the mildly unengaging heart-to-hearts going on, it’s slyly witty that everyone else in the boat is better at bonding with Chris than his dad. “I remember the first time I hit my father,” Madison tells Chris, the sheer implausibility of the whole thing only emphasising the gulf between father and son.
“One day he will understand,” Salazar tells Travis, after bonding with Chris himself over losing loved ones and catching fish.
The show’s knack at capturing the eeriness of the apocalypse through seemingly everyday events also rears its head once again. “A perfect day,” Travis tells Salazar. “I was thinking the same thing,” comes the reply. It could be a harmless, mundane conversation, until we realise they’re talking about ideal conditions to bury Eliza’s corpse at sea.
But before you start thinking Season 2 is all dull conversations and serious melodrama, Fear the Walking Dead takes its biggest criticism on its shoulder and begins the episode with a barn-storming bit of action. Surrounded by flames on the beach, we watch as our troupe battle their way off the beach in an introductory sequence that has your pulse racing more than anything that happened in Season 1. Zombie Kill of the Week goes undoubtedly to the use of a rubber dinghy’s propellor to mash a walker’s face into bits.
“The only way to survive in a mad world is embrace the madness,” Strand tells Madison – and Kim Dickens relishes the chance for her character to do just that, thwacking, hitting and pulverising the monsters dead. It’s only topped by a later set piece that sees Nick and Chris surprised by zombies in the water – yes, they can float, and yes, they’re unsettling as heck.
“It was over before I knew it started,” remarks Alicia, during her all-too-convenient conversation with a stranger. “It was all over.”
Her words, though, herald a new problem for Fear the Walking Dead that might come as a surprise: by picking up the pace from Season 1, the showrunners may be hurtling a little too quickly into the apocalypse (a sign of just how carefully balanced this spin-off needs to be). Here, the slide of LA into a dog-eat-dog mess appears so rapid that the prequel faces the unexpected challenge of distinguishing itself from The Walking Dead – if all we’re doing is following a small band of survivors around Robert Kirkman’s universe, is this really any different to AMC’s other undead series?
Fortunately Strand is here to save the day – by doing just that, in the least nice way possible. “If it wasn’t for me, you’d have burned to death,” he declares, not giving a crap for anyone else in the room. “You’re welcome.” Colman Domingo is wonderfully aggressive and matter-of-fact about what’s going down in the world, a fact that makes him both better qualified to keep people alive than Travis and co. and the worst person they could trust right now. Why was he ready to leave the house immediately? Did he know the infection was coming? And was it even his property and boat to begin with?
Strand is not only the most interesting character on screen, but also a welcome return to political territory for the show. As Season 1’s distrust of the police and army showed, Fear the Walking Dead’s timeframe gives it a unique opportunity for social commentary that AMC’s parent series doesn’t have – and the programme is at its best when it embraces it. Strand’s boat tirade isn’t just a fun speech, but also takes us right back to the quarantine camp set up last season – is there any difference between his imposed rule and the military curfew established by the soldiers? As the family seem to bend to his will, there’s an interesting study in there somewhere about the way society gathers around such figures of power, no matter how despicable they may be. It’s the kind of situation that also brings more substance out of the other cast members – Nick, who has been written off as worthless by most people (and himself), is now seen as a valuable asset by Strand, who values his disregard for death and ruthless ability to keep on living. Madison’s apparently badass past, meanwhile, will likely be driven out by the growing tension between the group and their self-appointed leader. Even Travis, when he starts to stand up to Victor, seems a little less boring.
It’s a sign of where Fear the Walking Dead is heading – and the direction is promising, as the writers seem to be stronger at writing groups of people, rather than individual humans. As a family unit with an intruder, their ensemble is far more intriguing than the characters we were served for the first six episodes. With the survivor of Flight 462 set to arrive next week, and the looming appearance of Alicia’s radio boyfriend – Are they the culprits for the rowing boat riddled with holes and surrounded by zombies, or the victims? – the growing conflict and varying need to retain some semblance of civilisation could prove very fruitful indeed. A big cliffhanger – “Whoever did this. They’re coming back.” – only reinforces the feeling that Fear the walking Dead is entering more exciting waters that rival The Walking Dead proper. The question, though, is how those waters can stay separate. For now, this is a scary, suspenseful start to a new chapter. If Season 2 can keep up this level of fear and politics, we have no plans to leave the boat just yet.
Fear the Walking Dead Season 1 and 2 are available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. For more information, see Where can I watch Fear The Walking Dead?.
Photo: Justin Lubin/AMC