Sunday, August 21, 2016

REVIEW: 'Fear the Walking Dead' - Nick Wanders the Mexican Countryside Looking for a Place to Belong in 'Grotesque'

AMC's Fear the Walking Dead - Episode 2.08 "Grotesque"

Nick's steadfast search for answers leads him into a deadly dog-eat-dog landscape. A dark piece of his past is uncovered.

Fear the Walking Dead has been better in its second season. It's not a great show but it has improved slightly. It's been able to evolve past its initial premise of showing the first days of the zombie apocalypse depicted on The Walking Dead. That premise was pretty boring and didn't offer any kind of new details about this worldwide pandemic. This season has been able to evolve and work on its characters some more. There are still way too people who are one-note and boring. But a few - namely Strand, Daniel and Nick - have been able to grow in some interesting ways because of their new environment. The first half of the season was a search for sanctuary. Everyone aboard the Abigail still believed they could find a place in the world that hadn't been destroyed because of the apocalypse. They didn't want to accept that this was the end of the world. What they ultimately found was a community that embraced the dead as the next stage of humanity. A message that seemed comforting to Nick but alienating to everyone else. This is still a show that defines itself by the moments of plot and action. The characters themselves really aren't driving the story forward. That's problematic and keeps one of the better episodes of the show from being its best.

"Grotesque" is unique because it focuses entirely on Nick's journey throughout the Mexican countryside after he leaves his family. That felt like a rushed plot contrivance at the end of the midseason finale. It propped up the idea that this makeshift family was being torn apart. Instead of finding unity at the sanctuary, they found disaster and despair. The main characters all going their separate ways could be a great thing for the show. It can force the narrative to slow down and focus on the bare essentials. It may be a boring thing to do but really necessary to truly define the nuances of the characters. It's a narrative trick the original show has done on numerous occasions - largely whenever it gained too many cast members and needed to better define the new supporting players. I didn't care about Beth until she was forced to survive in the woods with Daryl. That made her an important part of the show. Hopefully, the same can happen here. Fear the Walking Dead gets off to a strong start in that regard because of the intense focus on Nick here. However, the urge to expand to focus on all of the characters in every episode could be very tempting to the writers moving forward. Hopefully, they don't fall in that trap just because they set up a really interesting ending with Nick here. It could be interesting to see an episode all about Travis or Madison or Alicia or Strand. That doesn't require a huge overarching plot that will inevitably bring them all back together. Will this show resist that temptation for a huge and important plot? I don't know at this point.

Of course, those are questions for the future. This half-season is just getting started and "Grotesque" really is a profound and captivating way to start. Nick chose to go off on this journey by himself because he felt more of a connection to the dead than the living. That was a feeling that clashed with his family in so many ways. Maddie and Travis wanted to stand united as the picture perfect blended family they always wanted to be. But that was simply unrealistic. It was a hopeless fantasy that the parents had in their heads. Nick was never going to be the perfect son. He has way too many problems for that to be true. Those problems have been heightened because of his family's inability to truly connect with him. He found true refuge with Strand because he saw him as special. Someone who was still defined by his past mistakes but that didn't make him a bad person. Nick has always seen himself as a monster. He lived on the fringes of society because he just couldn't live in a normal world. Even in the apocalypse, he can't seem to stand by the idyllic life Maddie is trying to maintain. He feels more at home roaming the world filled with monsters. He walks alongside them. He doesn't care about the danger out there. This is where he feels he belongs.

And yet, that's a very perilous journey for Nick. The dead don't get tired like the living do. They can wander around without needing to stop. Yes, they are fueled by consuming human flesh. But they don't need that in order to survive. Unfortunately, Nick still needs to eat and drink. Otherwise, he'll die on the side of the road. That would ultimately fulfill his transformation into a monster. But that's not a journey he's actually trying to achieve right now. He's still holding onto life. He simply wants to find a place where the dead aren't seen as monsters. That way he too can feel like he isn't a monster because of who he is. It is weird that the show includes flashbacks to his time in rehab just to remind the audience of just how troubled he has always been. That has been a consistent part of his character. It's a detail that no matter what the show will never let us forget about. It defines almost everything that Nick does. At times, that has been very effective. At others, it has been very lousy and lazy. Nick's walkabout is a profound journey though. He's searching for acceptance. But all he's finding is a road filled with peril and death.

Nick isn't on a search for family. He's just looking for a place to belong. If that's with the dead, he's made peace with that. He knows how to walk amongst them without becoming their prey. Once he discovered that trick, he has felt even closer to them. That's part of the pull to this way of life. Of course, the dead are being hunted. The majority of humanity sees them as monsters that need to be killed. To make that point even more clear, the men with guns Nick meets on the road actually kill a dying man trapped in his car. That's a horrifying sight to Nick that sends him fleeing as quickly as possible. But even in the more peaceful moments of his journey, he can't seem to find any place to belong. When he finds a house to stay in over the night, he's awaken by a screaming mother with a baseball bat telling him to leave. He looses all of his possessions including his water in that moment. When he escapes the men with guns, he finds a beautiful valley to walk. And yet, the cacti both hurt him and fail to provide him with the water he needs. He needs to drink his own urine just in order to survive. And then, when he falls asleep for the night, he is forced awake when two dogs attack. It's the dead who safe him from the brutality and violence of this world. They lure the dogs away and they provide cover when he encounters the men with guns again. They empower him unlike anything else in this world.

But again, Nick can't survive amongst the dead because he is still a member of the living. The universe seems to want him that way too. It storms just as he's collapsed of exhaustion. That gives him the strength to go on and perhaps find the sanctuary he's been searching for. It's something he stumbles upon completely by accident. He is taken to a place where a doctor can treat his wounds. He meets a woman named Luciana who takes him to this place. She had been watching him on his journey for awhile. She's seen him walk amongst the dead. She wasn't willing to take him in because he seemed as good as dead on the road. It was a miracle that they ran into him again once he recovered from that collapse. He is willing to go with her to her community because she promises a doctor. The doctor than shows him a peaceful existence where a community is continuing to live like the world hasn't ended. It's a beautiful moment to end on. And yet, there's darkness looming as well. Luciana knows the men with guns who had been hunting the dead earlier in the hour. So, this may not be the safe place Nick is looking for. But it provides a nice thematic end to his journey. He's been searching for a place to belong and he has finally found a home. Now, it's just a mystery of how long this will last.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Grotesque" was written by Kate Barnow and directed by Dan Sackheim.
  • Maddie is the only other main character to appear here. She only pops up in the flashbacks when she visits Nick in rehab to tell him that his father was killed in a car accident. That provides some further insight into that family dynamic. Maddie has rarely mentioned her first husband. Nick didn't think much of the guy. He was alway too lazy to be an effective father. But it's still shocking when Maddie tells him what happened.
  • The flashbacks also show that the girl Nick was with in the series premiere who became the first member of the dead was far more meaningful to him than it initially seemed. She was in rehab with him as well and encouraged him to get better. And yet, that just did not happen.
  • Though the flashbacks suggest that Nick's descent to getting high in that church is directly connected to learning his father died. And yet, there must have been years between those two moments because Maddie had to have mourned her husband's death and then moved on to Travis.
  • Nick found a radio in one of the cars on the road. He had hoped it could be broadcasting a message of where safety was where the dead weren't monsters. And yet, he had to give up that hope because that's when the men with guns first appeared.
  • Nick still doesn't know a whole lot of Spanish. Pretty much just a high school knowledge of the language. That helps a little but not a whole lot. That could be a huge problem in his new community. Or perhaps he'll learn fast and be fluent by the time the rest of his family finds him.