What if tomorrow life as you know it begins to change? Not dramatically or obviously, just so subtly you don’t even notice at first because the change happens within the ebb and flow of everyday events?
Perhaps we’re even used to hearing about them.
The local news mentions a current flu epidemic; you go to work and there are already several people out sick. You don’t worry, it’s not likely you’ll get. You’ve never even had the flu. Shot or no shot. The local news then reports that it may be a virus instead. Police brutality appears to be on the rise nationwide, too. Metropolitan areas across the country continue reporting incidents of peacekeeping officers beating civilians to death without provocation or probable cause. ‘They were unarmed!” eyewitnesses exclaim angrily, understandably upset. You see it on TV. Recorded on cell-phones, many of these beatings go viral, and what you see is unbelievable. What is wrong with the world? you ask yourself.
Riots break out. Looting ensues. Fires are set, property is destroyed, the violence continues to escalate and the city shuts down. The National Guard is called in.
Meanwhile, people begin dying from this virus. Doctors can’t find a cure, and somehow the virus is related to the violence. Stay indoors authorities command. Unless you have somewhere you must go, stay inside where it’s safe, they say. Curfews and martial law are established for your protection.
Some panic, calling it the beginning of the end of the world. But, you think, this is nothing new really. Things like this have happened before. It’ll blow over. Violence will abate; sanity will prevail. Order will be restored. And though it’s a terrible thing that this virus has cost some their lives, doctors will soon find a protocol for this, too, even in time to treat those already ill. An epidemic will surely be avoided. We’ll go back to normal, you reassure yourself, soon enough.
Why would you think anything else? There’s nothing more to fear here.
But this time you do have something more to fear. This time it is different.
This is how AMC network’s Fear The Walking Dead, the much-anticipated prequel to the successfully record-breaking series The Walking Dead, begins.
The new show which premiered August 23rd, and just finished its six episode summer run, stars Kim Dickens and Cliff Curtis as Madison Clark and Chris Managua, and has a supporting cast which includes Rúben Blades, Patricia Reyes Spíndola, Frank Dillane, Alycia Debnam-Carey, and many others. FTWD takes place in Los Angeles, at the beginning of an apocalypse their sister show The Walking Dead have been living for six seasons now. Maddy, a widow with two kids and Chris divorced father of one are in a new relationship trying hard to become a blended family. She is a high-school guidance counselor; he is an English teacher. Except for Maddy’s son Nick (Frank Dillane) being a heroine addict, they live otherwise ordinary, even boring lives in El Sereno, California. Into this midst of this suburban normalcy enters the virus that will alter the course of this world, and this family’s life forever.
It’s a plotline that has, unfortunately, been used many times. Add to this an initially slowly developing storyline and this is where the show loses some of the impatient in its audience.
Co-creators Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson (Sons of Anarchy) have taken a decidedly methodical, almost plodding approach in portraying this world’s fatal de-evolution. Some are calling it boring, a far cry from the immediate bloody gore and mayhem of its companion show, ensconced deep in the throes of the post-apocalyptic world. But how else can you establish the roots of a situation except to go back to the very beginning and explore it?
The characters in Fear the Walking Dead are just waking up to the morning of an apocalypse they still can’t believe is happening, much like we today might not believe it, and though we, the audience have the benefit of vicarious experience through our watching of TWD, and think we know what the characters in FTWD can expect, as well as what they should do, the characters themselves do not. To watch this show one must be patient with the characters, and understand that part of the beauty and necessity of this first season is to establish a baseline and foundation from which to catapult the storyline forward.
As the audience, we must remember: we have a head start. So why not sit back and savor with anticipation the knowledge of the conflict yet to come?
Fear the Walking Dead exposes the loose threads in the fabric of a fictitious society that portrays our own very closely. As the audience, we get to see how these threads, typically held together loosely by the trappings of civilization, can begin to unravel when society breaks down in a pandemic, as the tactics of violence over reason take control, and institutions designed to keep people safe betray and fail those sworn to be protected.
Yes, it is seemingly formulaic television. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this storyline; it won’t be the last. But does that mean we should dismiss it? Entertainment has always been a way for a culture to see facets of themselves in the mirrors that fictional characters and plot provide. Art explores self-understanding providing an opening into the critical mind through the process of the imagination.
Like any work of dystopian fiction, Fear takes the simplicity of something known and relied upon, in this case our daily lives, and redefines it, reshapes it. Like looking into a fun house mirror, it offers us a distorted reflection into something expected becoming disturbing in order to serve as a basis for allegory. It’s easy to dismiss the scenarios of chaos and martial law, the breakdown of the military, and government collapse, as the same old stuff we’ve seen before, but if we remove ‘the infected’ (TWD trivia note: there are no such thing as zombies in the world of the walking dead. The word is never used. They are referred to as walkers, roamers, lurkers, biters or the infected), replace it with Ebola or ethnic cleansing then Fear The Walking Dead is taking place in dozens of real-world locations right now.
There is, too, implicit meaning in the seemingly unoriginal name of the show, Fear the Walking Dead. Something, surprisingly, I have not yet heard mentioned.
In TWD, the term ‘walking dead’ does not refer to the ‘walkers” themselves, but to those still living, the survivors trying to adapt in a post-apocalyptic world, (and remember, fans of TWD, we know something else these new survivors don’t yet know: that the survivors are also the infected). So, what happens when civilization begins to break down right before our eyes and we begin to fear those still alive even more than those we know are sick? What happens when you don’t know whom to trust? What happens when you are called, like Chris and Maddy, to kill a family member or someone with whom you used to work, because it’s either kill them or be killed by them? When pandemic hits, civility and order, laws and social etiquette are forgotten in order for survival to take place.
Hence, you begin to fear yourself. You begin to fear the living even more than ‘the dead,’ because the living are unpredictable. You begin to Fear the Walking Dead.
Fear the Walking Dead means fear the survivors, Fear your brother, fear your neighbor, fear your government, fear law enforcement, fear the stranger on the road, the child on the swing set, fear whomever is left alive, fear your unpredictability, and your actions in the face of what you don’t yet know will happen, as well.
The pilot episode of FTWD garnered a total of 10.13 million viewers during its initial broadcast, 6.3 million in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic, making it the most-watched series premiere in basic cable television history. It’s obvious there were high expectation from audiences. Kirkman calls Fear the Walking Dead an appetizer with a parallel story to The Walking Dead. One that he promises will catch up and even overtake the original in future seasons. For some of us fans of the original, we think we can already see that coming, and as a companion show to TWD, we can afford to take it slow and watch these new characters toughen up to their new surroundings. I, for one, anticipate enjoying the drama of every twist and turn it will take to get them there.
As with all powerful machinery, the giant conceptual wheels behind Fear the Walking Dead will grind slow in the beginning, but as it gains speed, its momentum, like its very successful predecessor, should be hard to stop watching.