While AMC’s zombie spin-off Fear the Walking Dead struggles to connect with the wider audience in the same fashion as The Walking Dead, it should be commended for taking the risks its predecessor can’t.
The latest example of this: The Walking Dead could never afford to return from a hot season by featuring one character wander the desert drinking pee and eating raw dog meat. It’s as disgusting as it is fearless. Fear the Walking Dead may never be a monster influencer, but in its Season 2 return the show proves it’s bolder than any “popular” show could ever be.
“Grotesque” picks up some time after the Season 2 mid-season finale, which saw Nick (Frank Dillane) leaving his family after they destroy the Baja safe house. Afterward, Nick found temporary shelter with a family, but the group soon parted ways, leaving Nick on his own once again. Nick’s long road to Tijuana forces him to survive amid extreme conditions, teetering between desperation and madness. He hides from Mexican gangsters, drinks his pee, eats aforementioned raw dog meat fresh from a zombie horde, and somehow, manages to keep himself together until he’s saved by scouts based out of an encampment in Tijuana. But until that climax — for the majority of the 44-ish minutes — Nick is living a south-of-the-border edition of Into the Wild.
There’s little dialogue in “Grotesque,” at least in the immediate plot. There’s talking in the flashbacks to Nick’s time in rehab with Gloria (guest star Lexi Johnson), his girlfriend and the first walker he sees when he wakes up in the show’s first episode. But for most of Nick’s journey to T.J., it’s all action and few words. Survival is a universal concept, and Nick’s struggle is multi-lingual. I can’t imagine the producers thinking of implementing this kind of storytelling to The Walking Dead, where the show’s ridiculously large audience must be told everything in excruciating detail just to keep up.
Fear the Walking Dead is carefully introducing a world that has yet to be encountered in any version of The Walking Dead. The new base in Tijuana is filled with life rarely seen in any Walking Dead world, and it comes with a tint of sand and gravel the other show doesn’t have. That other show is a gruesome cartoon: Negan is a straight-up comic book character that’s ready for cosplay at Comic-Con. No one is a costume in Fear the Walking Dead, and, as a result, the show is much grittier in its outlook than The Walking Dead’s genre trappings.
In its return, Fear the Walking Dead remains a peculiar beast. It’s a big hit in the ratings, but Walking Dead fans are unenthused. They’re certainly not fired up like they are for the other show – that’s got crossbows and katanas. But free from needing to impress, Fear the Walking Dead shocks and awes without firing rocket launchers or making characters your new favorite cosplay. Nick’s journey, a lonesome walk through the literal valley of death, is a piece of television that deserves to survive long after this zombie apocalypse blows over. It probably won’t, but it was special for those of us who were there.