It's impossible to not compare Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead. Beyond taking place in the same universe, since Fear debuted last year the show has had to constantly justify its existence. Particularly since The Walking Dead is such a monstrous cultural force on its own, why did we need another series about a separate group of people surviving the same zombie apocalypse?
I'd argue that Fear veered right away from The Walking Dead from the first episode, focusing more on the characters, the family dynamic and how we change as society crumbled, versus non-step zombie mayhem and grimness. But in case you were wondering how different the shows are, Fear's latest episode, "Pablo & Jessica," basically beat Walking Dead at its own game.
Spoilers for Fear the Walking Dead past this point.
The plot of the hour ignores the Travis/Chris cliffhanger from last week, in favor of focusing on the two far more interesting plot threads: Nick's (Frank Dillane) continuing exploration of Tijuana Hilltop (OK, fine, it's called Colonia); and Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) and Madison (Kim Dickens) fighting for their lives in an undead infested hotel.
Playing loose with the timeline, Madison and Strand (Colman Domingo) fight their way free of a herd of zombies, and end up rescuing Alicia and Elena (Karen Bethzabe) in the process — hooking up with the end of the previous episode. Previously, Elena pissed off some of the other people in the hotel by locking a wedding party in the reception room with an Infected at the dawn of the outbreak, and now they refuse to work with her/give her the keys to the hotel. So Madison and Alicia take matters into their own hands, first clearing a floor of the hotel, then leading every other zombie in the building down a pier, Pied Piper-style, and letting them throw themselves into deep riptide water.
Meanwhile, Nick bonds with the pharmacist/leader of Colonia, Alejandro (Paul Calderon), by teaching him how to stretch their Oxycontin supply, in order to stave off the drug dealers Nick pissed off a few episodes back ("You're a pharmacist, I'm a junkie. Let me make this right," Nick tells him). Nick also bonds with Luciana (Danay Garcia) by the end of the episode, but more by bonding their lips together, if you know what I mean, wink wink.
That's the plot. But it becomes starkly clear halfway through the episode that once again, The Walking Dead's weakness is Fear's strength: people just talking to each other.
Look, I'm a sucker for Walking Dead's non-stop parade of grimness and insane zombie stunts like everyone else. I religiously watch, talk about, and think about the show on a near daily basis. But it's not that controversial to say that when the killing stops, The Walking Dead often comes to a screeching halt. For six seasons, the default conversation between members of the Grimes Gang has alternated between "we survive because we have to" and "how has the world changed," or variations thereof. There's exceptions, to be sure, and last season of the show learned that silence was often more effective than throwing previously used monologues in a mixer. But the end fact is, there's not a lot going on once the undead stop attacking.
Fear is the opposite, and that's why it's a great drama with zombies, versus just a great zombie drama. There are multiple monologues throughout "Pablo & Jessica" that deftly illuminate the characters, and push them forward to new, emotional places without relying on the same beats for each. The title of the episode comes from the names of two characters we've barely seen, but had a huge effect on everything that happens. Pablo is Luciana's brother, Jessica the bride who got bit by her dad (and was locked in the reception room by Elena) last episode.
What Fear plays out through monologues from Jessica's husband — who doesn't want Strand to "kill" her, since she's been locked in a room since the fall of civilization — Luciana, Strand, and even Alicia is the idea that every minor character is a major character to someone else. Strand is heartbroken that he might be moving on from his true love. Alicia thought she lost Madison, and then that her mom had left her. And Luciana and the husband (I believe his name was Oscar?) both don't want to let go of their memories of their loved ones either.
Look, it's not a subtle thread, but it thematically plays out over the plots of nearly every character in the show, and motivates them to do what they do in the episode. Drama 101, but making the dialogue scenes more important than the zombie scenes seems like a sharp rejoinder to what's going on over in the ATL area on The Walking Dead.
Let's talk about that zombie action, though. Fear apes one of the biggest set pieces in Walking Dead history — last season's Quarry herding — and manages to do it in less time and smarter. Madison and Alicia's plan is to open all the doors in the hotel, draw the walkers with noise, lead them down the pier and dump them off the pier. That's it. It's still an incredibly tense set piece that recalls Daryl (Norman Reedus) & Co. leading the herd away from Alexandria for multiple episodes of The Walking Dead... except here it's just Madison asking for more cowbell, leading them all herself. That's it. There's a few moments where it could go wrong, but they know they're faster than the infected, so they work as a team and take care of it. No Ethan Embrys in this group!
And there's one more element where Fear, particularly in the second half of this season, has subtly jabbed Walking Dead with a pointy, pointy stick: Nearly every episode, the group has used zombie blood to mask their presence. In fact, the entire scouting process of Colonia is based on it. If you can't stomach putting undead blood on your body, you're not welcome.
This is something that Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Rick (Andrew Lincoln) discovered back at the very beginning of The Walking Dead Season 1; and for some unknown reason they've barely bothered to ever use again. On Fear, they're just catching up to the beginning of The Walking Dead timeline, and blood usage is just a way of life.
Also, Walkers is a stupid name for shambling undead monstrosities who are coming to eat your flesh. Infected is way better.
Listen, it's not a contest. You don't have to watch one show or the other (and in fact, I plan on avidly watching both). But ultimately where The Walking Dead relies on spectacle, Fear has literally quietly become the better show. It may be a prequel, but its learned the lessons of its big, bad sister show — and is improving on them, one by one.
Fear the Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.