[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers from Sunday's episode of Fear the Walking Dead. Read at your own risk.]
After a decidedly slow start, Fear the Walking Dead finally stepped on the gas Sunday night -- or at least it tried to.
One of the inherent challenges baked into the premise of this Walking Dead prequel is the lack of entertaining zombies ambling around at this stage of the narrative. Plus: Since the audience already knows a lot about the "infection" that is overtaking Los Angeles, it makes watching the characters' unwittingly stupid decisions frustrating at best and an outright slog at worst.
But Sunday's episode, at times, seemed poised to fix some of those problems. There was a kinetic energy as Travis (Cliff Curtis) led his ex-wife Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez), son Christopher (Lorenzo James Henrie) and Salazar family members Daniel (Ruben Blades), Griselda (Patricia Reyes Spindola) and Ophelia (Mercedes Mason) through a riot of looters and walkers to the safety of Travis' pickup truck. And there was a familiar tension in the scene in which Madison (Kim Dickens), Nick (Frank Dillane) and Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) snuck through the dark into a neighbors' house to find a shotgun to protect themselves from Peter, their turned neighbor from across the street. (I even enjoyed the emotional beats of Madison playing Monopoly with her kids, and the déjà vu it evoked in them as they remembered waiting for their dad to come home the night he died in a car accident.)
However, when those two stories crossed paths, things once again became frustrating. Travis showed up back at Madison's at the precise moment that they were next door and unable to warn him about Zombie Peter. And even though Travis is one of the few who has seen exactly how dangerous "the infected" can be, he still foolishly tries to reason with Peter, despite walking in on him eating a dog he had just killed. Fortunately, Daniel was there to splatter Peter's undead brains all over the camera lens, which while fulfilling the hour's need for gory delight, only served to underline the theme of this episode and perhaps the M.O. of both series: "Good people are the first ones to die."
Daniel says those words to his daughter Ophelia, who begs her stubborn father and injured mother to ask Travis to take them along when they abandon Madison's home to head for safer ground. But as Daniel knows from watching Travis (who insists on burying Peter rather than burning him as Daniel suggests), he's not cut out for the zombie apocalypse. Travis himself proves this idea when he talks Madison out of braining also-turned neighbor Susan with a ball-peen hammer and putting her out of her (and her not-at-home husband's) misery. Travis insists that help is on the way and that Susan deserves the opportunity to receive that help. But because we know Travis is dead wrong, the scene simply makes Madison seem unintelligent/irresponsible and, even worse, repeats what already know: Madison is wiling to kill to survive and that will ultimately draw a line between her and good-guy Travis.
Fear the Walking Dead: Just how different is it from the original?
I could have accepted all of this as necessary (albeit unnecessarily dragged out) groundwork if the show was going to put Travis, Madison & Co. on the road. And indeed, I sighed with relief when the family loaded up the cars and pulled out. But, of course, that was quickly undone when Madison sees Susan's husband returning home to find his undead wife ready for a meal. Although Madison U-turns in an effort to save the poor man, her efforts are for naught because Susan is killed by a sniper's bullet as the military(!) storms in and neutralizes the threat.
While that twist delivered a genuine surprise, it also doesn't leave me hopeful for the future. Now that Madison's subdivision is under military occupation, no one's going anywhere for a while. And while I respect the decision not to just ape the original show and have survivors roaming the countryside looking for safety, nothing about the show's first three episodes give me any desire to watch these families exist in close quarters for a few more episodes. Instead of putting them in action, I expect more "What's going on!?" and "How can you possibly think it's OK to teach my teenage son how to fire a weapon!?" conversations to fill the upcoming episodes. There could be value in that, but we've seen it all before. And although I'm also not entirely eager to see this show turn as completely bleak as its forebear, I'm not sure I can see Travis' blind optimism as anything other than foolish.
"The cavalry has arrived," he tells Madison as he watches soldiers collect dead bodies and spray paint houses to mark where the infection has and hasn't spread. "It's going to get better now."
We know that's not true for the characters. And at this point, I'm not so sure that's true for the show.
Fear the Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC. What do you think of the season so far?