Fear The Walking Dead's second half-season premiere (third half season premiere, since there were two half seasons before this? Half of second season premiere, maybe?) "Grotesque" was arguably the best the show has aired to date, and definitely the best of the season so far. It was a moody, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, mostly silent hour with significant characters and locations introduced, and a major turning point for one of our post-apocalyptic heroes. But mainly what I want to talk about is all the ridiculous things that happened to Nick (Frank Dillane). Luckily, the two parts are connected, so let's get into it.
Spoilers for Fear the Walking Dead past this point.
Where the first season of Fear was a contemplative, nearly zombie-free affair, Season 2 has spent most its time on nautical shenanigans, with all the pirates and gunplay that implies. Maybe, well, fearing that it paled in comparison to the shock-heavy The Walking Dead, the show amped up the action and undead Walkers for its first seven episodes, before killing a key character and splitting the Manawa/Clark family central to the action apart in the midseason finale.
Nick, the formerly drug-addicted son of Kim Dickens' family anchor Madison Clark, was done with his morally conflicted parents and siblings, and wandered off into Mexico with a herd of hungry zombies. (Side note: unlike The Walking Dead, which has fervently stuck by its rule of not using zombie guts as camouflage for very specious reasons, Fear the Walking Dead has applied the "more guts the merrier" rule, allowing Nick to pass through hordes of zombies whenever he wants.)
With the family broken apart, "Grotesque" focuses entirely on Nick as he wanders the Mexican wilderness. The episode, other than flashbacks, and a few interludes (and some zombie grunting) is mostly silent. That means it hangs on how well Dillane can portray his spiraling lack of control, and eventual rescue at the hands of some seemingly angelic townspeople hidden on a mountain.
Dillane, who has made Nick one of the best, most surprising characters in anything Walking Dead (comics and video games included), passes the test with honors. Mostly, Nick has been pretty chill for the past 13 episodes of the show. Here, his chill is gone. He has, as they say, no chill.
The reason ties into the name of the episode, and a key scene right in the middle. In flashbacks we get to find out more about Gloria (Lexi Johnson), the woman Nick was lying with in a drug den during the very beginning of the pilot episode of Fear. She and Nick were in rehab together, and after Madison reveals — as Nick is about to be released, drug-free — that his father died in a car crash, Gloria and Nick both immediately relapse. As they lay in the church where one of them is about to die, only to be reborn as one of the undead, Nick reads a Grotesque novel.
He explains his father used to love them — it was the one subject they both connected and bonded with — and he'll explain more about what they are in the morning. Of course, there's no more mornings for Gloria; but that also calls back nicely to something Nick says in his first scene with her (while she play acts as his father) earlier in the episode, back in rehab: "Fathers are supposed to show sons how to be a man in the world, but I guess the world is too much for you."
On the surface, that reads like typical Walking Dead speak: if you took a shot for every time someone wondered what had happened to "this world" on a Walking Dead show, you'd die of alcohol poisoning. But it actually connects to the Grotesque, and how this episode plays out.
Nowadays, we know the word "grotesque" best as something horrifying, like a monster. Certainly that applies to the undead, to Nick wandering the countryside drenched in human blood, to the men gleefully driving around shooting walkers for sport.
But when it comes to literature, a Grotesque is usually a mix of tragedy and comedy, as well as indicating a character that elicits both empathy, and disgust. That's why, in the middle of a mostly silent, contemplative hour of television, the following happens:
- Nick gets woken up and attacked by a crazy woman screaming incomprehensibly, waving a baseball bat.
- Nick steps on a cactus.
- Nick then immediately grabs a cactus with his bare hands.
- Nick takes off his shirt so he can break open the cactus (smart), but it has no water.
- Nick eats the cactus, then immediately throws up.
- He drinks his own urine.
- Right after Nick is told his Dad died in a car crash, we flash back to the present and he's — out of nowhere — attacked by two rabid dogs.
- Nick hides from the dogs on top of a rusty old car, only to be approached by a herd of walkers.
- The walkers rip apart the dogs.
- Nick eats a dog that has just been eaten by a walker, which seems like a bad idea.
- Nick steals a belt from a walker, kills the walker, and wanders off with the herd.
And that's all in about 10 minutes' time. It's laugh-out-loud funny, it's gross, it's shocking, and shows us Nick, ostensibly our hero, doing everything from drinking his own urine to eating a dog... and even with that imagery, we still want him to make it to Tijuana A-OK.
Beyond aiming to be a Grotesque itself, the episode also neatly displays that even if Nick thinks his father didn't show him how to be a man in the world... he did. Without the Grotesques they bonded over, Nick would have never been so prepared for the zombie apocalypse.
For a season and a half, Nick has been content to follow the orders of other people, calmly and relatively happily drifting through life. He eventually broke down late in (sigh) Season 2A, telling the matronly Celia Flores (Marlene Forte) that he didn't understand why he was so OK with the killing and death surrounding him. The answer is: his absent father. Whether dear old Dad meant to or not, Nick was trained by a shared love of his father's books to prepare for a world that is by turns catastrophic, comical, and cold.
I mentioned earlier that Nick is one of the most surprising characters in the Walking Dead universe, and this is why. Unlike the rest of the Clark/Manawas, or the Grimes Gang, he hasn't had to adjust to the new world: he'd been preparing for it his whole life, one Grotesque at a time.
With that, it's nice to have Fear back where it was in Season 1: contemplative, and not just a clone machine for Walking Dead's epic shocks. Here's hoping the show keeps it up for the rest of this half-season... and that some time soon we figure out a nomenclature for half-seasons.