Sunday, April 10, 2016

REVIEW: 'Fear the Walking Dead' - Strand Takes the Survivors Out to Sea and Exerts His Command in 'Monster'

AMC's Fear the Walking Dead - Episode 2.01 "Monster"

The families flee a burning Los Angeles on Strand's yacht. Strand remains mysterious. The group encounters danger at sea.

Fear the Walking Dead had a very boring and tedious first season. Instead of fulfilling promises to reveal to the audience how the zombie apocalypse started and destroyed the world, it focused all of its time on the drama of a blended family in Los Angeles. Maddie and Travis were trying to bring their families together as the apocalypse begins which forces strangers to unit and bond in the face of such death and destruction. It wasn't subtle about its theme at all while also not doing enough character work to justify all the characters slowly learning the rules of this world that the audience already knows. Character development has always been a major issue on the parent series, The Walking Dead. It's even more troublesome here as the only two characters who are genuinely interesting are Strand and Daniel. That largely comes from Colman Domingo and Rubén Blades' performances though. So Fear the Walking Dead still has a lot of work to do this season to justify its continued existence in this world.

The Walking Dead just drove off a cliff with its most recent season. That gives Fear the opportunity to tell this familiar story in a new and more exciting way. The first season was largely about going through the motions of this world and introducing new characters to care about. With only six episodes, that's all it could really do. With 15 episodes this season, it affords the show the ability to explore this world and why the audience should be invested in these people. Setting this season at sea is a very promising start. It allows for a different atmosphere for the characters to live in while presenting a different world to explore. The show is still in the early days of the apocalypse. Strand believes that escaping to the sea will offer the best safe haven in the world right now. That seems to be justified by the military's decision to bomb all of Los Angeles and to announce over the radio that no help is coming. It's the end of the world and the characters are finally starting to accept that.

And yet, that's still a very slow learning curve. Strand exerts his power and command over his ship frequently throughout this season premiere. He rescued this group of survivors. He brought them to his home for supplies and then to his ship for safety. He didn't have to do that. The show presents that as a mystery. Why does he have such an interest with Nick? Why does he decide to let all of these people on his ship? He's pretty ruthless when it comes to not stoping to bring aboard any more survivors trapped at sea. He doesn't want to do anything that will compromise the safety of his ship. He's reluctant to carry the amount of people he already has. He's only going to stop for people to get off. This moral debate is presented in several interesting ways in this opening hour. They pass a group of survivors stranded and desperate for rescue. Maddie and Travis both plead to Strand to let them board. But Strand has already embraced this world for what it is. He needs to be looking out for the best interests of this ship and making sure their journey isn't compromised in any way. Travis comes to accept that because he's looking out for Chris' well-being following his mother's death. Maddie has a harder time though. That honestly doesn't make a whole lot of sense. She has time to breathe and think again but that only forces her to spout horrific dialogue about not being able to live with herself knowing how many people she refused to help. It's a devolution for the character and doesn't hint at anything interesting for the future.

The same can also be said of the show's most problematic characters: the teenagers. They remain absolutely awful in this first episode. Alicia wines so much that Travis forces her to listen to the radio for any potential safe harbor they can head to. That's a solid plan considering Strand is just heading towards San Diego hoping its increased military presence will mean something. And yet, it only forces her into a position that could jeopardize the safety of the ship. She is just so desperate for attention and connection with someone other than her family right now. That's somewhat understandable given she lost her boyfriend not too long ago. It's still very annoying watching as she gives out a ton of information about the ship to a stranger she takes to on the radio. That's another nefarious tease for the future. It seems pretty obvious that Jack isn't going to be as friendly as he first seems on the radio. That's entirely because she doesn't know the rules of this new world yet. That's going to severely cost the survivors in the future.

Elsewhere, Chris is lashing out and not handling his mother's death well at all. He was easily the worst of the teenagers last season. He remains as such in this episode as well. Whatever he is feeling in this world is just so difficult to sympathize with. Yes, it's difficult to deal with the loss of a loved one in this world. But it's still so hard to care when his moping around about it almost gets Maddie and Travis killed in the process. He wants to bring Liza's body aboard the ship to give her a proper sendoff. But when that moment finally comes, he angrily dumps her body into the sea just to prove to the rest of the survivors that he's a moody and upset teenager. It just makes no sense at all. I guess it's because he can't stand the words Travis is saying about his mother. But that doesn't come across in a realistic way. Nor is it worth caring about when he punches Travis in the face and when Maddie tries to console him. It's just a messy story that the show had to deal with because of the continuity between seasons. It's just very rough and takes away a lot of time from exploring the rest of the characters on the ship.

But that's not even the dumbest decision that Chris makes in this episode. After all of that, he just randomly decides to go swimming in the ocean. Instead of telling anyone, he just does it. Nick dives in after him and even gets to enjoy the water for a little bit as well. But it's still just a storytelling decision that happens in order to introduce the threat that the dead still pose in the open water. It brings a lot of cool and creepy imagery to the show. But it's also a very forced moment that doesn't happen naturally. It's just dumb teenagers acting stupidly in a world where stupid decisions should have lethal consequences. But then again, The Walking Dead hardly punishes its characters for acting irrationally and stupidly. So why should the audience expect any better from Fear the Walking Dead?

Some more thoughts:
  • "Monster" was written by Dave Erickson and directed by Adam Davidson.
  • Daniel is envious of Travis because he got to kill his wife. That's a weird moment that doesn't land as well as the show thinks it does. Travis got to show mercy while Daniel didn't even get to say goodbye. But again, it's just too much lingering on the past and what the world used to be.
  • It's so easy to forget that Ofelia is still alive and on the ship. She's not important to the story at all and doesn't really have any purpose in this episode. She's injured from the assault in the last episode. But it also seems like the show might be teasing something between Nick and Ofelia? That won't work because they don't exist as multi-dimensional characters.
  • The streets of Los Angeles were pretty empty as the group traveled to Strand's house at the end of last season. But just a few hours later as they are making the journey out to his boat, the beach is swarmed by the dead and Maddie, Travis and Chris barely escape alive.
  • The destruction of Los Angeles at the hands of the military is a very cool and powerful image to start the season on. It indicts just how far society has fallen and the end of the world is upon us. But the rest of the hour just devotes too much time to standing around and talking.
  • Maddie and Daniel continue to have an interesting relationship because of how honest they are with each other. And yet, they are both suspicious of Strand solely because he hasn't slept yet. That's just weird rationalization to justify a continued curiosity into the man who saved them.
  • Nick risks dying multiple times out in the water solely to get the manifest from a toppled ship. That's a ton of risk for very little reward. What kind of information could that actually provide for the group? It was just because he thought he heard someone in there.
  • But hey, the show might be adding pirates in the next episode. So that's a pretty effective tease that things will be just as dangerous out at sea and that danger will come from the living more so than the dead.