5 Ways Fear the Walking Dead Doesn’t Work
May 5, 2016 \ TV \ 6 Comments
I recently started watching Fear the Walking Dead. It started with some great tension, but over time that greatness has faded. It’s not just that the show is in The Walking Dead‘s shadow, it’s that there is a problem with conflict on the show. There simply isn’t enough conflict (so far) between the characters and each other, themselves, and their surroundings. Fear the Walking Dead might have some interesting groundwork, but it hasn’t quite blossomed yet.
So what’s wrong with the show? Here are five ways Fear the Walking Dead doesn’t work.
1. It’s Not About the Start of the Outbreak
While it is legitimately a prequel to The Walking Dead, it’s less about the start of the outbreak and more about a group of characters experiencing the start of the outbreak. It’s like a false promise; for three episodes we’re watching the fall, then after that we’re watching people dealing with life after the fall.
So it’s quickly turning into the same show with different characters and I’m not sure that’s a better story to tell. It doesn’t necessarily add more interesting or different dimensions. What about a story from the perspective of a government? Or FEMA? Or a special organization trying to find the source of the outbreak and the cure? Or a group of elite soldiers that decides to try and save the world one person at a time? Something to give us another perspective other than regular people experiencing the end of the world.
2. It’s Difficult Not to View it Through the Lens of The Walking Dead
Even though Fear the Walking Dead is supposed to be a story about the start of the zombie outbreak, we can’t help but view it from the perspective and experience we’ve gathered watching The Walking Dead. We’re already familiar with the world, the dangers of the walkers, the threat of regular people, and a wide array of internal conflicts we’re likely to see. So every time something familiar happens, like Strand arguing with everyone about the dangers of letting new people into the group, it feels familiar — and boring.
Also, because the characters in Fear the Walking Dead are just learning how to deal with the end of the world, their problems are less engaging than those who live in a world long ravaged by the apocalypse. Heck we’re used to, “our doctor just got bit on the leg so we cut it off immediately and no one else really knows how to stop the bleeding.” Instead we get scenes like when Madison (Kim Dickens) slaps her son Nick (Frank Dillane) around then returns to the garage to sulk and drink alone. Conversely, in Season One of The Walking Dead, Shane (Jon Bernthal) nearly beats a man to death simply because Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) rejects him.
It’s hard to feel for a “slapping” when we’re used to so much more.
And it’s not just that some of these dramatic sequences are less than our expectations, I believe something else is missing from the conflict on the show.
3. Unlikable Characters
Most characters fit into a one-note description.
There’s a certain humanity missing from most characters. I’ve talked about this before, but are there enough tender moments in Fear the Walking Dead that reveal a character’s humanity? An audience needs a human moment with a character so we feel something for them.
Nick (who is being made out to be the hero) is the exception. We feel something for Nick, because when we first meet him he’s so vulnerable that he can’t even trust his own memory. (It also helps that his personal failures help push the story forward, like when his withdrawl forces his Mother to get medicine, or his desire to know the truth forces others to come help him deal with a person he killed.)
4. Character Conflicts
It’s important to have characters that disagree with or even hate each other on a show. These inter-character conflicts should ideally stem from inherent character traits or beliefs that cause one character to act against the other character’s traits or beliefs, AND in a way that effects the story.
Let’s consider the inter-character conflicts in Fear the Walking Dead.
Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez) is Travis’s (Cliff Curtis) ex-wife. Madison is Travis’s girlfriend. Since these two women are forced together thanks to the apocalypse, one would hope for a little tension and conflict. Your ex-wife and your girlfriend living in the same house: Drama! Nope. As soon as the two women are living in the same house, Liza is never around. End of conflict.
Travis is all about doing the right thing all the time, while Daniel (Rubén Blades) is from the “whatever it takes” school of thought. They disagree with each other, but their disagreements don’t result in plot-changing actions. For example, when Daniel tortures a man for information, Travis disagrees with it, but ultimately chooses to use that information anyway. Likewise, they have different opinions on letting the man they tortured live. Even though Travis lets the man go and this results in Daniel’s daughter getting shot, this neither changes the direction of the story, nor has any consequences between Daniel and Travis.
Strand (Colman Domingo) is the exception. His “no one else on the boat” stance creates conflict between him and everyone else on the boat, and even sub-conflicts between the kids and their parents. Let’s look at the “it’s my boat” scene as an example.
We’re missing some important back and forth here. While this might be purposeful and a payoff is later, it’s definitely less interesting.
Now let’s compare these conflicts to a show that executes the concept perfectly. On Firefly, Jayne is the prime source of inter-character conflicts. First all, we like him immediately.
But it’s clear early on he isn’t like the rest of the crew. In Jayne’s eyes money is more important than people. In one flashback, we learn that he joined Serenity’s crew simply because they offered him more money (and his own bunk).
Jayne’s self-serving nature comes to fruition in the episode “Ariel,” where he calls The Feds that are after Simon and River because of the reward on their heads. This puts not only Simon and River into jeopardy, but the rest of the crew as well, in addition to forcing them to change their exit strategy for their mission. It also leads to this scene where Jayne’s beliefs and Captain Reynold’s beliefs come to a head:
That’s how you do inter-character conflict.
It’s not just character conflict that’s lacking in Fear the Walking Dead, though, it’s every conflict.
5. Not Enough Conflict
I think Fear the Walking Dead is so interested in easing our characters into the apocalypse that it doesn’t have enough conflict. I’ll use an episode of The Walking Dead for comparison.
Let’s look at the conflicts in Season Two, episode three of Fear the Walking Dead, “Ouroboros.”
Tom tries to kill Jake in his sleep. Alex kills him.
I suppose Chris killing the man is conflict. Perhaps a “man vs. himself.” Not very tense though.
Nick falls in the pit with the zombies.
More zombies fall in.
Zombies surround group.
Now let’s compare this to an episode from The Walking Dead, Season Three, episode four, “Killer Within.”
Zombies coming in prison after deer head.
The Governor confronts Michonne.
Walkers flood courtyard and the prison alarm goes off, attracting more walkers to the compound.
T-Dog gets bit.
While evading walkers, Lori goes into labour.
Baby delivery not going well.
T-Dog human shields Carol.
Rick attacked while getting prison alarm off.
While Daryl also defends against walkers.
If the example in Fear the Walking Dead where Chris shoots man counts, Carl shooting his Momma definitely does.
There is a different intensity that Fear the Walking Dead is only just starting to experience. Notice the episode of The Walking Dead layers the conflicts on top of each other. Can you imagine a worse time to try and have a baby? Fear the Walking Dead is simply several layers and degrees away from that kind of intensity.
Fear the Walking Dead is its own show with its own characters, its own conflicts, and its own story to tell, but currently the show is adrift in a world we know to be so deliciously fraught with tension, conflict, and drama. It has yet to boldly distinguish itself in a way that makes us hungry for the next episode, and desperately invested in its characters. Maybe the show is headed slowly towards a better horizon — hopefully it will have the courage to arrive soon.