‘Fear the Walking Dead’ Pilot Recap: “Nature Always Wins”

‘Fear the Walking Dead’ arrives with a whole lot of goodwill behind it. Thanks to the overwhelming popularity of the series to which it is a prequel, I fully expect this premiere to set some ratings records for AMC. But is the episode itself any good? Hold on to something folks, it gets bumpy from here…

Let’s let the cat out of the bag early: The first episode of ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ (which ran a long, sluggish 90 minutes) is not very good. I’m sure I’ll get some backlash about comparing this premiere to the outstanding pilot episode of ‘The Walking Dead’, but feel free to compare it to any first episode of a series that went on to be successful and this one won’t rank very high on the charts. In fact, about the only show I can think of with a pilot this weak that went on to be a huge success is ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’. The positive news is that ‘TNG’ was also based on a hugely successful father series, so hope springs eternal for ‘Fear the Walking Dead’.

The episode begins inside an abandoned, boarded-up church where a teenager named Nick Clark (Frank Dillane, who immediately reminds one of a young Johnny Depp) wakes up and calls out for a gal named Gloria. Turns out that the church is a makeshift drug den in Los Angeles for strung-out junkies, of which Nick is one. He goes off searching for Gloria in the church and hears the sounds of a male screaming in the distance. He comes across one dead guy with his neck gouged out and then discovers Gloria hunched over the body of a second guy. When Nick calls out to her, she turns around and we see that she’s already a Walker. Of course, none of the characters here, including Nick, have any idea what a Walker is yet, so Nick high-tails it out of the church and right into an oncoming car. He’s taken to the hospital and restrained to his bed. I hope you enjoyed this opening, because not much else happens until the last 20 minutes of the show.

Nick’s mom is high school guidance counselor Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), a single mom currently dating and living with English teacher Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis). In addition to son Nick, Madison has a younger daughter, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), who’s a student at the high school where both Madison and Travis work. Travis is divorced (we haven’t learned yet if Madison is divorced, widowed or just a single mom) and has both an ex and a son of his own, though both are only seen for a few seconds during the pilot.

There’s a lot of foreshadowing about what is to come in this episode, starting with young student Tobias (Lincoln A. Castellanos), who brings a knife to school and tries to warn Madison about what’s coming. Apparently, there are already rumors online about a plague-like virus in the city, but details are only being spread on the internet, while the main press and government officials stay mum.

Nick tries to tell Travis about what he saw in the abandoned church but, of course, the presumption is that Nick was so strung out that he was suffering from hallucinations. However, Travis is interested enough in Nick’s story that he goes to check out the church himself… at night, naturally. While inside, he comes across another screaming junkie, who serves no other purpose than to jump out from behind a door, where he seems to have been standing for no particular reason. Travis sees blood on the walls and then comes across a whole bunch of it on the floor in the same spot where Nick found Gloria. Travis still isn’t sure what went on there, but he has the feeling that Nick isn’t lying about what he saw.

Nick manages to talk a nurse into untying one of his restrains and quickly frees himself. When the patient next to him conveniently goes into cardiac arrest (or a seizure, or whatever), Nick uses the distraction to escape both his room and the hospital. He goes to see his drug dealer Calvin (Keith Powers) at a nearby restaurant. Nick wants to know if something was wrong with the drugs he got from Cal, but Calvin is more concerned that Nick has outed him as a drug dealer to Madison and Travis. Cal then drives Nick to one of L.A.’s river basin areas, where it becomes obvious that he plans to shoot and kill Nick. Nick gets into a struggle with Cal during which – in one of this pilot’s biggest clichés – the gun goes off and Cal collapses to his death… or so Nick thinks.

Panicked, Nick goes off to find Madison and Travis and tells them what happened. The three return to the spot of the shooting in Travis’ truck, but Cal’s body is no longer there. Backing the truck back through one of the basin’s tunnels, the trio see Cal behind them, doing the zombie walk toward their vehicle. Not knowing anything about Walkers yet, Travis and Madison hop out of the truck to confront Cal, who promptly tries to bite Madison. Seeing that they’re in trouble, Nick takes the driver’s seat inside the truck and backs over Cal. Then, with Cal now in front of the truck and still moving toward them, Travis floors it again and knocks Walker Cal back out into the basin area. Madison, Travis and Nick then see that Cal is still moving even though he should be dead, making them wonder just what the hell is going on.

There are a lot of problems with this premiere, but I’ll touch on the most important ones. The goal of a pilot episode should really to focus on two things: First, provide a storyline that will get viewers to want to tune into the show the following week. Second, provide characters that are interesting and that the home viewers can make some sort of connection with.

The first part of this equation shouldn’t have presented a problem, as the vast majority of people watching ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ will already be familiar with the premise of the series. But that’s also a detriment here, as the viewers are so far ahead of the characters when it comes to what’s happening. We spend much of the pilot (and, presumably, much of the episodes to come) waiting for the characters to catch up to what we already know.

Now, it actually makes sense that a pair of high school teachers aren’t going to find out much about what’s behind the Walker virus in the weeks to come, since the characters on ‘The Walking Dead’ have already lived through these events and have only recently come to understand more about the rules when it comes to the virus. It sort of makes one wish that this prequel would have chosen either government officials or scientists as the main characters, but I guess the creators don’t want to explore that aspect of their creation, which is a shame because that would have made for really interesting television.

Since it’s obvious that this prequel won’t provide many (if any) answers about what caused the virus or Walker outbreak, it’s very important to give us characters that viewers can both relate to and care about. While it’s nice that the creators want to give us a racially diverse cast (although I found it funny that the three main African American actors in the pilot wound up (a) Walker-fied, (b) missing and likely turned into a Walker, and (c) a prime candidate for becoming a Walker in Episode 2… which only adds to the frequent complaint about black actors getting offed on the main series), I’m not sure that anyone yet stands out. Despite the fact that the Madison character is supposed to be the Rick Grimes of ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ (at least in terms of being the lead character and main focus), the pilot puts most of its attention on Nick, a junkie who – when he isn’t high – seems rather weak and pathetic and made me wonder how he’s ever going to survive when the outbreak becomes more serious. Is this really a character we’re going to come to care about? Will we get to an eventual Season 3 saying things like “Hey, remember when Nick was a druggie and really wimpy?”

It’s perhaps important to note that this new series is being show-run by David Erikson (a writer and producer on the first four seasons of ‘Sons of Anarchy’) and not by Scott Gimple of the main series, though Robert Kirkman, Gale Anne Hurd, David Alpert and Greg Nicotero are all executive producers on this new show (and Kirkman helped write this pilot). One wonders if the fan reaction is poor enough, will AMC play musical chairs with the show-runner spot (as happened on ‘The Walking Dead’) until finding a person who fits this show and these characters the best?

Of course, ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ still has plenty of time to find its groove (it’s already been renewed for a second season), and I’m certainly not ready to dismiss the series after just one episode. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that this was a very strong entry, either. For ‘Fear’ to survive, it’s going to need to establish itself as its own thing, and not just ride the coattails (or should that be body parts?) of what came before it.

17 comments

  1. We’re in sync on this one. This was not a good pilot episode. At all. The first zombie attack was good, and (even though we already knew the premise of the show) the reveal that the story takes place in a vibrant and thriving pre-zombie L.A. metropolis was really well done. After that, however, it was an hour and a half of characters I don’t care about doing nothing, with a hint that something might happen to them later. Maybe.

    It was a big mistake to set the story so early in the outbreak, IMO.

    How many cheap “OMG, finally a zombie… Nope, not a zombie” fake-outs can you cram into one episode?

    The preview for future episodes looks more promising. The show might get interesting once chaos really breaks out. I hope that isn’t all being saved for the finale, with nothing but more soap opera nonsense about high school teachers and drug junkies in the meantime.

  2. Csm101

    I liked it. It wasn’t as strong as Walking Dead’s pilot, but it felt very different, from the setting, to the sleeker look, characters etc. I’m glad we didn’t get government officials as the leads. I feel like I get plenty of that in The Strain (and look how that one’s turning out). I wasn’t expecting the first episode to be a roller coaster, so I didn’t mind the slower pace. As far as the Jonny Depp junky goes, it would be kind of cool for him to step up when the shit hits the fan and become an unlikely hero of sorts. It worked for Carol. You never know in this universe, he may become zombie fodder before this season is over. I’m quite excited to see what the next episode brings.

  3. Csm101

    As far as your last quote about riding the coat tails or body parts, how about not riding the entrails of what came before it? 🙂

  4. Les

    I don’t like it when reasonable people don’t do things that seemingly normal people would do. When Travis goes back to the church to investigate Nick’s story, he finds blood spattered walls and slips and falls in a big pool of blood and what I thought was left over small pieces of whoever Gloria was eating on.

    Anyway, what does Travis do?? Pretty much nothing. He just goes back to the hospital. Now, to me, the normal rational thinking person would maybe call the police and say please come check this out? It looks like people have been murdered here?? Maybe in LA, they do things different there but doing nothing and contacting nobody seemed highly unrealistic to me.

    Also, it occurred to me that Gloria was supposed to have been sleeping next to Nick and the thought was she probably died of an overdose which turned her into the zombie. So, if she was sleeping next to Nick, why wasn’t Nick the first victim? Of course, maybe she got up, died somewhere else, fell down the stairs, who knows.

    • I was thinking the exact same thing. Why wouldn’t Travis call the cops? The only excuse I could come up with is that maybe he’s afraid that the cops will think Nick murdered somebody (or maybe he thinks that Nick actually did murder somebody). A quick line of dialogue to make that explicit would have gone a long way.

      • Julie

        Same thought: why didn’t he call the cops? Also Madison and Travis were awfully calm about the drug dealer getting up over and over again after getting hit by the car and beaten by Nick. I think most people would have be freaking out, especially when the broken guy started turning his head.

        my last gripe is that I really hate it when characters born prior to 1982 are named Madison. Madison as a girl’s name did not take off until after the movie Splash. Grrrrrrrrr.

        • You’re correct, although Splash actually came out in 1984.

          That said, we already know that THE WALKING DEAD takes place in a universe where there haven’t been any zombie movies (the word “zombie” doesn’t even exist), therefore it’s possible that in their Universe “Madison” is a quite common name for females.

      • TJ Kats

        Not even that. In a logical sense why go at all. Two things can happen either it is a totally messed scene and you are walking into trouble or nothing is there and Junkie Depp is losing his mind. If its the former why put yourself in that situation and if it’s the latter let the doctors figure out he is a nut case.

  5. Connolly Video

    Such a disappointment but, thankfully, the potential still remains strong.

    My biggest problem with the pilot is the absolutely horrible writing. I mean what were they thinking? The character actions are not only cliched, but defy common sense. My girlfriends son tells me about this church where everyone goes and shoots up and horrible things happened. Sure, that seems like the place I, an english teacher, will go investigate on my own at night. Oh my, look at all this blood, the boy wasn’t lying. No, I’m not going to call the cops or anything, I’ll just conveniently ignore it until later on and then take the woman I’m in love back there, again alone. Meanwhile we’re asked to ignore the fact that the Gloria and the people she was eating (who we must assume also turned) are gone, and yet there has been no chaos on the streets near the church? I mean, last time I checked the only thing that walkers do is shuffle around and eat people. So they left the church and… ?

    And seriously did we really need the whole my former friend, who of course is black and looks totally respectable but is actually a drug dealer, lures me to a deserted location to kill me cliche? Really?!? That’s the best you could come up with?

    The mainstream media has video of that shooting by the highway exit but the only reaction we get is the “super smart” daughter thinking it’s a hoax. Meanwhile a mysterious flu is apparently decimating the school and workforce, but again it’s barely acknowledged in anything other than passing. And don’t get me started on the nurse who releases Nick from his restraints right before the guy next to him decides to flatline conveniently allowing Nick to escape.

    I could go on, but you get the point. The Walking Dead is so good because it is well written. The pilot of Fear the Walking Dead is the exact opposite. It insults the viewers intelligence and stretches credibility way beyond the breaking point. Can they bounce back from this? Absolutely. Is it likely? That I’m not so sure about. Only time will tell.

  6. NJScorpio

    Having not seen this, and being several seasons behind on ‘The Walking Dead’, I want to ask you guys a question. Would this be considered, basically, like ‘Caprica’? A prequel series that is set to explain some of the backstory. The issues with that show, and shows of that type, are…
    (1) The tone is often very different. Nothing inherently wrong with this, but it will result in a portion of the audience disliking it. Then, a portion of the public who may prefer that tone versus the tone of the original show won’t ever watch it, because they didn’t watch/like the original. So you are automatically setting yourself up for a smaller audience than the original show.
    (2) Without a planned story arch across a set-in-stone number of seasons, major events related to the original series will get pushed out further and further as seasons are renewed…running the risk of cancelation before the show gets to the bridge between this series and the original. Which leads to…
    (3) Heavy with pointless dialog and overcomplication. Since there are some key major events (I imagine) that are referenced in the original series, that must happen in this series, there needs to be filler between these events. This filler is to keep it from being just one season, and the overcomplication comes in to play when the reference events need to be shoved into the context of this new world created for this new series. (Think, Carptener’s ‘Halloween’ versus the beginning of Rob Zombie’s ‘Halloween’)
    (4) You don’t care about the characters. There are two reasons for this. The first is, unless they are tied to these key events influencing the original series, then the events they are involved in are fairly inconsequential. The second reason is if these characters are never referenced in the original series. Then, you know they die, you know they don’t really matter in the long run. If they did, you’d probably know about it already. When a character is tied to the original series, it comes off just like fan services, with their story limited to not breaking the established story of the original series.

    • The spinoff is set in the same universe as The Walking Dead and is technically a prequel, in that it takes place right at the start of the zombie outbreak. However, the story is set on the opposite side of the country, and I don’t believe there’s any plan to merge or bridge the narratives of the two shows. The intent is to show you what happened somewhere else in the world, unrelated to the original group of characters in Georgia.

      In theory, Fear the Walking Dead could run for years and years, and never interact directly with The Walking Dead.

      • NJScorpio

        Hmm, thanks for the clarification.

        So…is there some sort of date associated with the start of ‘Fear The Walking Dead’ and a date at the start of ‘The Walking Dead’? Do we know how many years between the two? It’s not like ’12 Monkeys’ in that it’s specifically intended as a disease-origin story?

        • We’ve been told on both shows that once the outbreak started, it moved rapidly. In the original Walking Dead pilot episode, Rick fell into a coma before there was any sign of zombies. When he woke up, the entire world was in ruins. The show never explicitly told us how long Rick was in a coma, but fans have put together various clues and estimated that it was only a couple months.

          The Walking Dead is about to enter is sixth season, but I don’t believe each season is intended to represent a year passing. We’ve never seen the characters endure a winter. On the other hand, many of the zombies are quite far deteriorated, so they’ve been rotting a while (but not long enough to completely fall apart).

          I’d guess that there’s maybe a year, maybe two between the two timelines. If Fear the Walking Dead skips forward in time at all, the two shows may even catch up with one another, but I still don’t believe there’s any intention of them interacting.

          • Peter

            At the beginning of Season 3 there are some scenes making it clear Andrea and Michone (and presumably everyone else) survived through the winter. Not sure if there was another winter after Woodbury, but there was one after Hershel’s (Maggie’s) Farm. It seems like less time because they always film during the summer. It would be cool to see the gang live through the winter, and walker attacks in snow, but they aren’t interested in showing a whole new setting – too expensive, too lazy, too difficult, too complacent – who knows why?

        • T.J. Kats

          Don’t know how accurate this is but I was curious as to the timeline(I stopped WD after season 3 but my wife still watches) and found this. My wife also mentioned the now winter part but two thing to help with that are the biggest jump per this article could be the only winter that has happened and winter in Georgia isn’t the same as it is in the north east or mid west.

          http://moviepilot.com/posts/2015/01/16/how-much-time-has-passed-in-the-walking-dead-it-might-not-be-as-long-as-you-think-2592317

  7. cardpetree

    Well, I’m glad to see the Pilot is getting mostly good reviews since I actually liked it. Didn’t want to be the crazy guy that likes every show since I was one of the few that enjoyed Season 2 of True Detective. The Pilot episode is 77% Fresh on RT so maybe I’m not going too crazy. I mean, there are shows that I’ve tried to watch and absolutely hated. Shows like Under the Dome and The Strain were horrible.

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