By Nicole Prieto | staff writer
Summer break has come and gone, but “Fear the Walking Dead” is just getting started with its second midseason premiere. Emerging from the ashes of an explosive finale, the latter half of this season promises more character introspection and a host of new threats.
Last May saw the group’s latest safe zone going up in flames, Strand mercy-killing his lover and Madison presumably murdering Celia. In the ensuing chaos, the group splits in three — with Daniel apparently dead after incinerating Celia’s imprisoned horde. The show now focuses on Nick as he journeys into the unknown, with only outlaws and the undead to keep him company.
Here is a spoiler-heavy rundown of Episode 8, “Grotesque.”
Atmosphere remains one of FTWD’s top strengths. With a blazing sun overhead, disorienting heatwaves across long stretches of road, a low-key soundtrack and minimal dialogue, the episode maintains a disquieting mood. The open desert does not hide much visually, but that ironically invites a sense of uncertainty for Nick’s travels.
The survivalist scenes peppered throughout are nice touches that add to the episode’s believability. Dehydrated and desperate, Nick resorts to eating a cactus and drinking his own urine. He steals the belt off of a walker to tie up a bleeding leg, painfully dragging it behind him as he struggles to move forward.
The audience can almost vicariously experience the way he succumbs to heat exhaustion; drenched in blood and sweat after several scenes walking and running in the oppressive sun, Nick convincingly staggers and collapses backward in the middle of the road. His vulnerability is enough to make us wonder if he will really make it to his destination.
Relatedly, Nick’s hallucinatory scene while amidst a walker herd is surprisingly well-done, given how absurd the situation is. Covered in guts to mask his scent, he travels with the uncomely group for safety. He then starts to imagine that they are calling out to him, promising to take him home. The scene provides some foundation for his growing obsession with the living dead, but it also reinforces an underlying complex for Nick as a character: that he feels perpetually displaced from the world around him.
Flashbacks are considerably better handled in FTWD than in “The Walking Dead,” which made odd usage of black-and-white sequences in season 6. Comparatively, FTWD’s transitions are seamless.
The episode attempts to explain how Nick’s personal problems have a lot to do with his absentee father. However, not once do we actually see his portrayal in the series. While this helps reinforce his blatant absence, it also makes it hard to sympathize with Nick’s complicated relationship with his parent before his death.
This narrative move is in stark contrast to Madison’s attempts to reach out to Nick in earlier episodes. Given that we have known of his father’s death since the start of the series, the flashbacks seem like asides. The series will have to do more in later episodes to convince the audience that the relationship carried any real weight on Nick’s character development.
It would not be a “Walking Dead” episode if someone did not die for inane reasons that could have been easily avoided. Nick encounters a group of drive-by gunmen twice, and their second meeting comes off as a writing snafu. The gunmen stop their vehicle at a comfortable distance from Nick’s walker herd as they get out to shoot at them. One gunman recognizes Nick, but in his eagerness to shoot, he drops his bullets. Instead of heading back to the car, he clumsily reaches down and reloads before getting overwhelmed by the sluggish group. A second gunman, standing farther off, suffers a similar fate.
While on the subject of grisly killings, it should be noted that this is not an episode for diehard animal lovers. Nick gets attacked by a pair of feral dogs and later watches them get torn apart by walkers. Cue fake, half-devoured dog carcasses. On a shock-value scale, the scene registers low to moderate. The moment is about as literally “ugly” as it gets in the episode, which is a good note for a franchise plagued by overly gruesome, and laughably dramatic death scenes.
After meeting a group of survivors, Nick ends his long journey as a guest at another safe zone — again inhabited by people with a deep respect for the undead. The camera pans out to reveal the modest compound bathed in sunlight. The moment is clearly a happy one for Nick, who finally seems to have found his way “home.” But the optimism comes at a dangerous price. As his delusions are further enabled, Nick’s family may very well lose him entirely. The unsettling end of this premiere signals a dire new chapter for the divided group, and it remains to be seen whether they will reunited by season’s end. Episode 9, “Los Muertos” airs on Sunday at 9 p.m.