We’ve been here before. The Walking Dead proper started off with a strong, emotional pilot that’s arguably still the best episode of the series. Written and directed by creator Frank Darabont, who was fired just one season in after budget disputes, the episode was anchored by a gut-wrenching scene in which fan-favorite Morgan has to come to terms with his wife’s death and undeath. We see her through the barrel of his rifle as he watches her from the second floor of his home. He knows, of course, she’s a zombie, but he can’t help but hesitate. His wife is still there, somewhere, if only in appearance. This inner conflict gave promise to the series. It set up a show focused on the humanity within the chaos—how does society adjust to the zombie apocalypse? How does someone, say, shoot their wife in the fucking face?
Despite the strong opener and becoming the most watched show on television, The Walking Dead has spent most of its time held back from its full potential, most notably because of pacing. So with a spin-off now upon us can we really expect it to be any better?
The zombie apocalypse begins in a crack den. Or at least that’s where we’re first introduced to it. Fear the Walking Dead brings us back to the early onset of the outbreak, a time completely foreign to us in this universe because Rick spent it in a coma. In the opening scene Nick Clark, played by Frank Dillane (a.k.a. young Tom Riddle), stumbles high through an abandoned church as he investigates screams from downstairs. He passes blood spatter and then dead bodies before finding his female friend. And instead of needing rescue she’s chomping down on a dude’s face. OUR FIRST ZOMBIE SIGHTING. As we were promised, the zombies are indeed very much hotter in Los Angeles.
You gotta pump the breaks, though, if you’re expecting to drop right into the action. This was still a near-isolated incident. Because of Nick’s drug addiction and few people putting the strings together—besides a (rightfully) paranoid high schooler who’s told he needs to spend less time online—his account is dismissed, and his hands are strapped to his hospital bed so he can’t harm himself.
While in treatment he’s visited by his mother, Madison (Kim Dickens); pseudo-step-father, Travis (Cliff Curtis); and sister, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey). And from there much of the episode (necessarily) feels like a family drama, setting up the stakes. Emotional investment is far from instantaneous, but the pilot does a fantastic job of laying down the foundation. Nick has fucked up so much that his Berkeley-bound sister has given up on him and wants her mother to cut him off. Madison isn’t ready to go that far yet, but the thought has certainly crossed her mind (as it would for the mother of any repeat fuck up). And Travis is trying harder than anyone to support Nick and give him the benefit of the doubt. His own son won’t even visit him on the weekends, so he’s determined to play the father to someone.
Still, fans need gore-filled zombie action, and as the pilot patiently dips further into the outbreak via viral videos and a climatic square-off, we’re given enough to sustain us while still being left hungry for more. Pacing is going to be key going forward, and season five of The Walking Dead finally figured out how to maintain a narrative throughout an entire season without lulling episodes that served as little more than filler. I’m optimistic that the lessons learned in five seasons will prevent Fear the Walking Dead from suffering a similar fate.
One thing The Walking Dead never lacked was acting, and the spin-off follows suit. Dillane is particularly strong as a character who can’t decide if his drugs were laced, he’s insane, or he really did see a 90-pound-woman cannibalizing a man she just killed. That unknowing can drive a person a mad, and Dillane is convincing as he draws nearer and nearer to a breakdown as the episode progresses.
The masses never stopped watching The Walking Dead, despite several seasons worth of reasons. Hopefully, this time around the internal grappling will stay on-screen and away from viewers as they justify their television loyalty.