I’ve been kinder to Fear the Walking Dead than many other critics, but even I can admit that the show squandered its chance of being original long ago. What started off as a fascinating prequel to The Walking Dead soon sped up its timeline so it was just another story of survivors dealing with the same zombie apocalypse, albeit in a different part of the world. Before the first season was over, we were no longer examining the series of events that led to the breakdown of society (the show’s original gimmick), but how one would go about trying to stay alive.
So even in its strongest moments (and there were many in season 2), Fear the Walking Dead is bound to repeat some of the plot elements of its parent show — itself fairly derivative at this point. But the weakness of the first half of the season 3 premiere, “Eye of the Beholder”, isn’t just that it apes The Walking Dead, but a work by the godfather of modern zombie fiction, George A. Romero. Anyone familiar with Day of the Dead (which coincidentally featured Fear/Walking executive producer Greg Nicotero in a small role and assisting with makeup effects) will likely recognize the premiere’s central device of the military experimenting on the undead. In this case, they’re killing off anyone who’s sick or weakened to see how long it will take them to reanimate.
In all fairness, there’s nothing wrong with drawing inspiration from a classic in your respective genre. But it should be with the intent of building upon it, not simply aping it. Unfortunately, “Beholder” is content to combine the methodical, assembly-line apathy of the Hunters from The Walking Dead with the gross fascination of Dr. Logan in Day of the Dead. And when you’re emulating as opposed to innovating, the audience can see the story beats coming from a mile away. Do we ever think Travis, Nick, and Luciana will get shot point-blank by their new captors? Of course not. But because we’ve seen these types of military personnel conducting these sorts of brutal experiments before with the same demeanor, we do know that this won’t end well for the soldiers.
And it doesn’t. With the aid of a fellow captive, the Angelanos manage to overtake the soldiers and escape. Of course, their attempt to get out via underground tunnel leads to the horde of walkers outside the compound overtaking the place, similar to Day of the Dead and so many communities on The Walking Dead.
There is one narrative surprise that could make for some interesting future episodes. Like “Beholder’s” predecessors, the guy in charge of the experiments is Troy Otto (Daniel Sharan), a young soldier who takes a sadistic joy in shooting his prisoners, then studying their perverted resurrection. He also shows a troublesome affinity for Madison and Alycia, who he invites to leave the compound with him. When Madison manages to get them out of his locked office by holding him hostage, we expect him to die by her hand or in the ensuing walker invasion.
But he doesn’t. Instead, we discover that he’s been conducting his experiments in secret, and that he has a goodhearted (or so it seems) brother, Jake (Sam Underwood), who chastises him for his actions. At the end of the episode, everyone leaves for the border together, with a somewhat compelling foundation for the rest of the season. We’ve seen plenty of horrible military characters in zombie fiction, in everything from Day of the Dead to 28 Days Later and the first season of Fear the Walking Dead. What would Fear the Walking Dead be like with some soldiers who are actually on the main characters’ side? The revelation arrives too late to completely salvage the episode, but keeping not just Troy, but Jake alive to work with the Angelanos is smart move on the writers’ part.
While “Eye of the Beholder” fails to satisfy on a narrative level, it does deliver on a visceral one, showcasing the most grisly moments of zombie violence on the show so far. In the second half, rats burst from a wall to reveal a walker who yanks a soldier into the hole, knocking off his lower-jaw on the way. Elsewhere, Madison nearly gouges Troy’s eye out with a spoon and Travis once again shows superhuman strength after being thrown into a pit full of walkers. He impales them on metal beams, stabs through their optic nerves, and bashes in their heads with cinderblocks. Granted, the increased violence could also have very well been inspired by Day of the Dead — easily the bloodiest of Romero’s zombie films — as well. But this is a horror series, and if a show is going to borrow anything from what came before, it might as well be a bigger bucket of blood and guts.
Tonight’s second episode, “The New Frontier”, starts off on a more surprising note, if only for the immediate death of a major character. While en route to the Ottos’ ranch via helicopter, Travis gets shot by an unknown attacker on the ground. The bullet wound throws him into a daze, and he ends up plummeting out the chopper doors to his death below. This all occurs within the first five minutes, as if to make up for the plot stagnancy of the first episode.
As much as I appreciate the shock factor of Travis’ death, his demise is also somewhat disappointing. There’s the obvious reason of Cliff Curtis giving arguably the best performance on the show and Travis arguably being the most complex, consistently interesting character. It also eliminates the off-balance family dynamic that Fear the Walking Dead established so early on. With both him and Chris gone, it’s just the Clarks trying to function as a familial unit — not the Clarks and the Manawas. Simply put, the step-family element made their relationships more unpredictable and exciting. I guess there’s still Strand, but he’s stuck in an extraneous side story for the time being, playing doctor back at the hotel for new refugees. By the end, he’s at least on his way to somewhere else, having been shocked by the suicide of the mother of the bride who previously almost killed him.
When everyone reunites at the ranch — Ottos and Clarks alike — it looks like Travis’ death is at least going to serve as a catalyst for Madison, Nick, and Alycia’s rebellion, especially as the tension with with Troy rises. But if the Clarks are now merely out for blood against the whole Otto clan, that ruins the groundwork laid by Jake and the kindly patriarch, Jeremiah (Dayton Callie). We’ve seen plenty of communities the Angelanos haven’t gotten along with. For once, can’t they just settle in somewhere? Otherwise, Fear the Walking Dead falls into the tried and tired Walking Dead formula of find new community, community succumbs to infighting, infighting leads to walker invasion, wash, rinse, repeat. It’s one thing to rip off another story from the zombie genre, but another to constantly rip off yourself.