Fear The Walking Dead S01E01 Recap: 'Pilot' [Series Premiere]

The one thing we were all rightfully worried about when it was announced that The Walking Dead was getting a spinoff series was that it would just be another version of its prime series. The Walking Dead is a compelling-enough universe we're all well-enough invested in thanks to five seasons of a television show as well as nearly 150 issues of a massively successful comic book. And while it presents us with a big enough world that we can wonder what's happening in other parts of it, there has to be a hook that's different enough so it isn't just TWD in Los Angeles or anywhere else.

While we've so far only seen one episode of said spinoff series, Fear The Walking Dead, it seems clear that creator Robert Kirkman and showrunner Dave Erickson are mindful of that. The new show's pilot is very sincere in its attempts to distinguish itself from TWD Prime. So far, it doesn't have any massive set pieces, any crazy plot twists, it doesn't pose twisted philosophical questions about the nature of man and what he's capable of. It's a show about a select group of people, a family that might very well pose as average in the world we live in, and how they might react to something universe-changing as it slowly unravels in front of them.

The show follows Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) and Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis), a high school guidance counselor and English teacher, respectively, both divorced and remarried to each other, struggling to make ends meet and keep their families together. Travis' son wants nothing to do with him and his ex-wife is happy to keep things that way. Madison has your run-of-the-mill teenage daughter and a burnout, dropout son who gets in trouble with drugs and the law.

The show begins as the son, Nick (Frank Dillane) comes out of a heroin bender to discover his girlfriend feasting on some guy's face, in spite of the knife planted firmly in her ribcage. This might seem normal to us, longtime viewers of TWD Prime, but it freaks Nick out and he runs out into the street, where he gets run down by a car. He's questioned by the police about his pusher in the hospital, and considers that he may have been hallucinating, but the show doesn't linger on that possibility for long, especially after both Travis and Madison visit the site of this event and see the aftermath. There's also an incident on the streets which goes viral, depicting a man getting shot multiple times yet not dying.

Finally, the episode ends with Nick struggling over a gun with his dealer, planning to kill him for potentially ratting him out. Nick winds up shooting him in self-defense, but soon finds out that this doesn't kill him. Nor does running him over with a car repeatedly, thus giving the Clark-Manawa family a firsthand look at the hell they're about to go through, and the viewers a glimpse into the tone of the show and how it might differ from TWD Prime.

Fear The Walking Dead is very much determined to show us how things were when the outbreak first started. It's already been confirmed that we'll never find out what's causing the disease, but the main show skipped its infant stages by dropping Rick Grimes into a world already ravaged by it for months. At the time, that was groundbreaking and amazing, and Prime's pilot still stands as arguably the best episode the series has ever done. But now we're invested in its characters, its world, and there's certainly interest, at least on my part, to see how we got to that point.

Things start off quite normal, depicting a purported average American family, one broken up by divorce and concerned more about the gluten in their food and a leaky faucet than, say, basic human survival. However, it makes a point not to meander in that kind of territory for too long, as by the end of the pilot, it's clear that this is a world that'll soon devolve into insanity, albeit an insanity that'll remain unfamiliar to its characters for a good while. By the end of the 90-minute episode, ancillary characters are missing, school is cancelled, and viral videos of police unloading clips into the undead are all over the internet.

Yet we only get to see interactions with three invidivual Walkers. Not groups or herds of Walkers, but singular undead creatures. The girlfriend, the viral video guy, and the drug dealer. And all three are meaningful and impactful in how they're shown to us. There are no one-shot expert kills, there's no badassery that we've come to expect from the Prime show's characters, just the unknown, and the fear that comes with it.

And that's really the crux of what this series seems to be about. "Fear" is in the title for a reason. There's an aura of creepiness around the show, moments where you think a character will turn around and have that glassy bloodlust in their eyes. We pass by people on the streets wandering around like the could be Walkers. We see crane shots of Los Angeles set to brooding music that are outright telling us to expect the worst. And it works, especially in setting a completely different tone to the series than the one we already get to see 16 times a season, all while keeping the focus on character development and actual surprises plot-wise.

The only unfortunate part is that it takes a while for the pilot to get to the point. I get that they have to build this subsection of the world, introduce us to characters, but really there's barely anything compelling in the pilot between the opening scene and like 50 minutes in, and that's a problem. That last 20, however, really makes up for that and gives us a glimpse into what we might be in store for. While I came into the series sort of reticent (despite being a huge fan of TWD Prime), the first episode definitely has me hooked, enough for 7.5 divorced fathers just doing the best they can out of 10.

Notes & Quotes:

  • Those of you who might follow my main The Walking Dead recaps might like my Survival Index. Seeing as we only really know four of its main characters and it looks as if they might survive for a while, I'll hold off for a bit on dong the same for Fear. But god I hope that Nick guy dies soon. To be fair though, Frank Dillane is apparently really good at playing a junkie douchebag who needs to pull his damn pants up and wash his hair.
  • I like how even the lessons at the school in this show are heavy-handed, like natural selection and chaos theory.