Fear The Walking Dead: 104 “Not Fade Away” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
Despite the short size of the season, it looks like Fear the Walking Dead’s premiere run is set to be a game of two halves. In the first three episodes, the apocalypse was just beginning – and as this week’s episode showed, the season’s back half will be seeing the beginning of the end for society. If that sounds a bit fast for a season of six episodes, then that’s the problem that Not Fade Away instantly flagged up.
The time jump of nine days between last week’s episode and Not Fade Away was established right away – but it wasn’t apparent until towards the end of the episode just how bad an idea this time jump was. This is a show that marketed itself on showing what happened during the month Rick Grimes was in a coma, so to skip nine days off-screen and therefore burn through several potential episodes’ worth of apocalyptic intrigue is quite a bizarre decision, especially considering the relatively slow pace of the episodes themselves. Over the course of the episode, it becomes apparent just how much story Fear just skipped over, with LA having turned into a corpse-strewn dead zone that seemed broadly similar to the Atlanta of The Walking Dead season 1. It’s a storytelling decision that yields some creepy, chilling visuals in the short-term, but really inhibits the unique appeal of the show in the long term – if the show has burned through all this material already, there’s a danger that it could simply become The Walking Dead in warmer weather by season two. The intentions are understandable, but it’s frustrating to see Fear shoot itself in the foot by skipping through some of the most intriguing, and completely unseen part of the apocalypse.
It’s a shame too, that this blunder casts a shadow over a generally okay instalment. The thread of conspiracy drama involving the military was an intriguing, slow-burning one that was built up in just the right way to achieve an excellent, shocking pay-off at episode’s end, even if this strong build-up of intrigue came at the expense of having all the military guys be poorly developed caricatures, when there was some potential to flesh out their reasons for holding everything back to a slightly greater extent. We’re certainly due an explanation next week, but a little more meat on the bones of a fresh and reasonably compelling storyline would have elevated this episode further above the huge error made right at the start. On the bright side, Not Fade Away’s key virtue was the often solid character work, and it was the couple of Madison and Travis who received the strongest developments here After last week generally ignored the hints towards Madison’s violent past made early on in the series, Madison’s violent side reared its head again here with a wholly unexpected and generally effective attack on Nick – it’s not the reaction viewers may have been expected, but that’s very much the point; at a point where the general progression of events in the last couple of episodes seems reasonably easy to predict (the military lose to the walkers, the group escape the neighbourhood), any moments of unpredictability and surprise are extremely welcome.
Not Fade Away also managed to dig a little deeper into what makes the central players tick for once, achieving the bulk of this success with Travis in just a couple of scenes. Travis’ naïve, presumptuous shtick was wearing thin (there’s a need for these types of characters in apocalyptic fiction, but that doesn’t make them interesting), so the distinct implication in the scene with his neighbour that Travis is merely putting on a brave face to reassure his family is a refreshing one that adds another dimension to a character who’s been likeable despite it all, and should hopefully lead to some cracking drama later on down the line when that façade completely falls away. It’s hopeful that this could erase some of the frustrating drama that stems from characters arguing what they saw was real or not – and based on the final scene, it certainly appears that way – which could give Fear a real boost by forcing it to concentrate on the more organic and interesting drama that arises between characters’ different ideologies and whatnot.
Unfortunately, two characters who were focused on heavily in the pilot, Alicia and Nick, are increasingly being crowded out of the story and relegated to bit-parts that don’t allow true development. Alicia, in particular, is relegated to just a few scenes that show her grief over her presumably dead boyfriend in a relatively moving manner but don’t really manage to reveal anything particularly new about the character; there’s certainly promise for some really meaningful development in Alicia’s scenes, but the short length of them doesn’t allow for a satisfying pay-off here. Likewise, a large amount of the final scenes rest on viewer investment in Nick’s quest to kick/continue his drug habit, but the episode only really allows for a plotline for Nick that’s episode that’s too simplistic and blandly executed (‘Nick says he’s off drugs, Nick steals drugs’ about sums it up) to have the kick Nick’s scenes in the earlier episodes did. The final scene still packs a punch, undoubtedly, but there’s a feeling that Nick’s betrayal of Madison and kidnapping by the military could have been far more powerful and shocking with a little more time for this plotline to breathe and establish nuances.
As for the rest of the characters? There’s signs of growth, certainly with Daniel Salazar, whose positioning as a realistic, world-weary patriarch is a smart one given Travis’ naïveté (his speech to Madison might have summed up Fear’s themes in an overly unsubtle manner, but it managed to say a great deal about the character and his backstory), but a large chunk of the cast remain only vaguely interesting and thoroughly underdeveloped, turning the time spent with characters such as Ofelia Salazar and Travis’ son Chris into a bit of a slog. It’s clear that Fear hasn’t quite managed to juggle an extended cast while fleshing every character out in the same, deft way that The Walking Dead has – and it can only be hoped that the show begins to either thin the herd or split the characters up a little when season two comes around in order to focus better on some of the less interesting characters.
Admittedly, despite Fear’s difficulty with balancing its cast, it does have the ability to reliably pull of a doozy of an ending. The intrigue concerning the military pays off terrifically here, with a punchy final few minutes that finally gives Nick’s storyline some pay-off and gives Fear an actual adversary for the main characters for the first time (aside from walkers, of course), as we head into the season’s endgame. The military made for some of the most compelling scenes in Not Fade Away, and it certainly appears we’re getting a peek behind the curtain next episode as they prepare for the ill-fated big push on Los Angeles…
Fear the Walking Dead’s weakest episode yet achieves success with certain characters but refuses to rise above tepid mediocrity with others, and is continuously marred by the frustrating choice to jump ahead in time. Potential still remains for Fear to become something better, but unfortunately it’s only achieving intermittent flashes of greatness at the moment.