It seems premature to say that AMC's "Fear The Walking Dead" could end up being better than its parent show. After all, "The Walking Dead" just wrapped its sixth season and "Fear" is embarking on only its second. But when it comes to getting a post-apocalyptic zombie fix this spring, the latter series may prove to be satisfying in a way the sixth season of "TWD" ultimately wasn't.
Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson's spinoff already has a lot going for it by design alone (Vox outlined many of these reasons in a nifty little article on Friday), its smaller scope giving the characters more room to grow while also forcing them to deal with their conflicts -- conflicts that would exist even if the end of the world wasn't in full effect. Nick Clark (Frank Dillane) would still be dealing with heroin addiction, Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis) would still be struggling to integrate his son Christopher (Lorenzo James Henrie) into their new family, and Nick's mom Madison (Kim Dickens) would still be trying to keep her clan from splintering. Throw a globally crippling legion of undead into the mix, and you have the recipe for a kitchen-sink drama amplified by horror-movie grotesqueries. If it's done right, of course.
Luckily, Kirkman, Erickson, and director Adam Davidson are doing just that in "Monster," the first episode of the second season. As Los Angeles burns behind them, the Clarks, Manawas, Salazars (Ruben Blades and Mercedes Mason) make their way to the luxury yacht of Victor Strand (Colman Domingo), the mysterious businessman who helped them all escape the military compound at the end of last year's finale. There's some scene-setting zombie action on the fiery beach -- including a money shot where Nick uses an outboard motor to make hamburger meat of a walker's face -- before the party reaches Strand's vessel. Then we're off on the high seas, the characters in search of a sanctuary that may not exist in this new world.
The maritime setting already allows "Fear The Walking Dead" to stand apart from its predecessor. While it's far from the first piece of zombie fiction to toy with the undead in the water, '70s grindhouse flicks like "Zombi 2" and "Shock Waves" forced the viewer to endure a whole lot of nothing to get to one or two thrilling aquatic sequences. But "Monster" takes full advantage of its claustrophobic setting -- even a large boat is still a boat -- to ensure that the human drama is just as captivating as the walker combat. For every leisurely scene of Daniel Salazar fishing, there's a fight between Chris and Travis, the teenager still furious that his father had to kill his infected mother to keep her from turning; there's the growing uncertainty of Strand's true colors and Alicia Clark's (Alycia Debnam-Carey) convivial yet ultimately sad radio conversations with another escapee. Every lighthearted moment becomes devastating as each party realizes that, even with the right resources, they really have no clue where to go next. Where does a boat sail to when there are no longer any safe harbors?
Unfortunately, Alicia's loneliness gets the best of her, and she promises to rescue her enigmatic friend (whose own ship is sinking), even as everyone else remains against it, and for good reason. When they do come across another sea-craft, it's been riddled with bullets, its passengers now bloated water-zombies that almost make a meal out of Nick and Chris.
The episode ends with another boat approaching, leading us to wonder if the transmission to Alicia was as well-intentioned as she thought. Was she talking to the crew who's been killed or the crew who did the killing? Or someone else entirely? Even if I wasn't reviewing "Fear The Walking Dead," I'd still tune in next week to find out. Maybe there's still hope for AMC's zombie franchise yet.