AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead did not get off to an exactly auspicious start last night.
The episode did begin well. Having just re-watched the first episode of The Walking Dead, I was struck (again) with how much it resonated with its zombie predecessors (notably Dawn of the Dead [George Romero, 1978] and 28 Days Later [Danny Boyle, 2002]). Happily, FTWD began with similar evocations. Drug-addict Nick Clark (Frank Dillane) wakes up, disoriented, in a church that looks strikingly like the church Jim (Cillian Murphy) stumbles into in 28 Days Later, the place where he, like Nick, first becomes aware of what’s going on. In both church scenes, screams echo in the distance, and light streams through stained glass windows, illuminating the darkness inside only enough to see the horrors it contains. In both church scenes, too, we see Christ figures—a statue in 28 Days, a dead drug-addict in FTWD—both images suggesting that the world millions believe Christ died to redeem may now be irrevocably damned.
The first shots of FTWD, moreover, in tried and true zombie tradition, trouble the line between human and zombie. As Nick stumbles around in his drug-induced haze, he looks just like a zombie. And many of the later attacks we witness equally blur the boundary between zombies and drug addicts, in particular. In one of the episode’s (sadly infrequent) interesting moments, a group of high-school students watch a video that shows police being attacked by apparently dead bodies on a highway. Given the drug-infused world FTWD depicts, it’s hard not to recall here the infamous Miami bath-salts attack of May, 2012. In news reports, a witness reported seeing a naked man eating the face of another man on a Miami causeway, saying (understandably) it was “like a horror movie.” The attacker, he said, stood up at one point with a piece of flesh hanging from his mouth and growled. [i] This is not only echoed in the video footage of the highway attacks of FTWD but it’s exactly what Nick sees in the first zombie attack in the church, as his drug-addicted friend turns to him with flesh hanging from her mouth—and he isn’t at all sure who or what she is. How can you tell a drug addict from a freshly-turned zombie, the series asks? It may not be quite as interesting as the suggested visual parallels between humans and zombies in Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004) and The Walking Dead itself, but, it’s a start.
The footage of the attack on the freeway in FTWD, which is when fear starts to set in, also evokes horrors of our own historical moment, as police gun down several (unarmed) people. They’re justified killings (of the cannibalistic walking dead, no less), though that’s not necessarily clear at this point, thus adding a frisson of fear—fear of the police.
For now, however, the police do seem to have things in hand. Authority is doing what it should. In fact, main character, high-school guidance counsellor Madison Clark (Kate Dickens) refuses to belief the claims of Tobias (Lincoln Castellanos) about the incipient end-of-the-world (which, as a teen, he’s obviously heard about on the internet), declaring that if something was going on, “The authorities would tell us.” She clearly hasn’t seen enough Romero films. The authorities might seem to be telling you what’s going on, but they’d be (a) wrong; (b) covering something up; (c) trying to take all your supplies and weapons when the s**t really hits the fan; and (d) shooting you in the head under the guise of saving you.
Another high point of this opening episode was that, as we lingered in the world of fading normalcy, that normalcy included an English class, taught by Madison’s partner, Travis (Cliff Curtis). (Now I get to be hopeful that someone who thinks literature matters gets to survive the apocalypse!) The classroom scene was short (no one can ever, it seems, bear to spend more than 30 seconds in an English class, even when they’re just watching it on TV), but the scene did offer something to think about that went beyond teen angst (okay, maybe a bit heavy-handedly). Travis is teaching Jack London’s story, “To Build a Fire,” a story about survival in the Alaskan wilderness. Actually, in London’s revision of the story, the man doesn’t survive (though his dog does, having a more finely tuned instinct for where the food is). And that’s what Travis ominously warns his class. When it’s “man versus nature,” “nature always wins.”
I’m intrigued by what this means in the context of The Walking Dead world. Is FTWD telling us something we don’t know yet about how the “epidemic” started? Was it some freak of “nature”? (Remember, The Walking Dead has offered us no explanations yet.) Or is he talking about the inevitable (and brutal) triumph of human “nature” over the “civilized” routines of the early twenty-first century. We’ll see.
And, as @DrWalkingDead (Kyle Bishop) tweeted last night: “Love the “To Build a Fire” shout out in #FearTheWalkingDead; it is one of the earliest “walking dead” stories after all. Plus: atavism!” (And, while we’re on the subject of literary references, a colleague of mine is furiously looking into what the mention of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio might mean.)
I have to note, too, that the Jack London reference was also a nod to The Walking Dead. In “Claimed” (season 4, episode 11), in a fleeting (and illusory, as it turns out) moment of feeling safe, Rick (Andrew Lincoln) falls asleep reading the Selected Short Stories of Jack London. Was he reading “To Build a Fire?”
Despite its interesting resonances with zombie film and its evocation of contemporary problems (drugs, police brutality), the main problem of FTWD, evident in the opening and throughout the first episode, is its over-reliance on teenagers to carry the weight of the story. So far, the plot centers on drug-addict Nick, who does absurd and irrational things (perhaps because he’s a drug addict—or maybe that’s why he’s a drug addict), and his high-achieving sister Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), who strikes a lot of angst-ridden poses and talks about how she needs to “get away from here.” (Because here is so horrible? “Here” has apparently given her the wherewithal to get accepted at UC Berkley.)
To be fair, maybe the teens’ problems seem trivial because we know the human species is on the verge of virtual extinction. Or maybe their problems just aren’t that interesting: they whine about needing desperately to escape and yet there’s no clear sense of what they need to escape from (or to). Maybe their mother (Kate Dickens) hasn’t devoted every second of her life to them. Maybe she had the audacity not to want to stay in a bad marriage. Other than that, however, their lives seem pretty good; her partner, Travis seems to care about them (going a little over-the-top, in fact, when he says he’d handcuff himself to Nick till he got help for his drug problem). Yet both teens seem determined to lament the hellishness of their lives. I can only think—“You ain’t seen nothing yet.” And I’m not just talking about the zombie apocalypse.
I hope the writers don’t continue to lean so heavily on teenagers’ and their utterly self-involved narcissism and, honestly, rather banal problems. (There’s a reason Carl may be the most loathed character on The Walking Dead). The Walking Dead has been successful because it has appealed to people outside of the 18-24 demographic: I am way outside that range—as are all of the people I know who love the show. Don’t insult us—and don’t forget how important we are –in in life as well as TV spectatorship. (I have teenagers in my house and guess who spends the money? And not even always on them.)
As the zombie apocalypse (i.e., the real world) starts to impinge on teenage narcissism, and as the adults step up, I’m hoping that things get better.
Check back next week for my review of episode 2!
[i] “Miami ‘zombie’ attacker may have been using ‘bath salts,” CNN online, May 29, 2012, http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2012/05/29/reports-miami-zombie-attacker-may-have-been-using-bath-salts/