Fear the Walking Dead Season 1: A Review
Zombie films and television shows are extremely popular these days, possibly symptomatic of the increasing realization by the general public that for all the assurances they receive from their isolated elites all is not well in society today. However, it is notable that they almost exclusively focus on the aftermath of general societal breakdown or focus on a group of protagonists somehow isolated from broader society at the outbreak of the undead plague. Information on the effect it has on wider society is limited, when it is shown at all, to either a brief montage of scatter news clips showing the chaos or at most a few minute long introduction showing the release of patient zero into the wider population.
Fear the Walking Dead, the prequel to AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead, breaks this mold. The show begins at the very start of the zombie apocalypse and allows us to follow our protagonists as they are forced to confront the realization that something earthshattering has occurred that has completely and permanently altered the comfortable reality they live in. When civilization ends, one character opines, it ends fast. That one sentence can sum up the general theme of this first season. It focuses mercilessly on the utter fragility of civilization, as in a span of only a few days society goes from business as usual to total collapse.
The show has received quite a bit of criticism about the lacklustre nature of their main characters, and indeed the critics are right that there are few Rick Grimes or Daryl Dixons to be had here. This misses the point, however, as the entire premise of Fear the Walking Dead is that it is starting from the very beginning, and showing us to process by which the last become first and the first become last that eventually gives us the tough band of survivors that we are introduced to in the original series that inspired this show. If the main characters are inept, pampered and totally unprepared for a life or death struggle it is because that is the epitome of what modernity has made us into.
Our main group of characters can be taken as a perfect example of what the liberal bourgeois consensus of the modern world has created; they’re almost a stereotype when you consider it. They consist of Madison and Travis, a pair of public school teachers who both live together with the children of their previous failed marriages. The children consist of Madison’s two children Nick, a drug addict, and Alicia, a self-entitled brat, and Travis’s son Chris, a self-righteous, would-be social justice advocate. If you were to make a poster for progressive modernity this family would be on the cover of it. Heck, Travis and his son are even Latino to boot.
So of course they cannot cope with the realization of what has occurred. They cannot comprehend it. Everything that they have centered their existence leaves them with no room to come to terms with the realization that the inevitable march of progress to some eventual utopian future has been rudely arrested dead in its tracks. Travis doesn’t both arming himself, because he doesn’t like guns. Madison tries to reason with the turned principle of her school rather than fighting back, because violence doesn’t solve anything. Chris outraged about the sight of police shooting infected people without mercy, because of course it’s always authority’s fault when things go wrong. All of this seems foolish to we the viewer who know what has actually happened, but to our
characters in the show it is simply their attempt to maintain the fiction that they have known for the entirety of their lives. “This doesn’t end,” a would be prepper from Madison’s school warns her darkly, and you see the horror of this statement take hold as she slowly processes that this is not some blip, but instead a new and frightening reality. This underscores the irony that for all progressive liberalisms undermines civilization, it is only through civilization and the certain degree of security it provides that liberalism is even possible. There were no social justice warriors in Medieval times, trying to picture it is farcical. When you were only one spot of ill luck away from total annihilation, such petty things as hurt feelings or vague notions as “equity” suddenly lose all importance.
Of course, there are attempts made to maintain the fiction, as National Guardsmen cordon off the protagonists’ neighborhood to establish an infection-free zone. The cracks soon begin to form, however, as the rules become more draconian and then soldiers’ grip on the protective zone become more and more oppressive. It would be easy to dismiss this as mere liberal fearmongering on the “military-industrial complex” but this is a shallow analysis. Instead, this is simply another example of the attempts by those in charge to maintain the illusion of civilization for just a little bit longer. Yet as the demos, the shared mythos of some common nationality and people, begins to slip away, increasingly all that is left is the kratos, the coercive power of the state to compel obedience from the point of a gun. Even this illusion soon dissipates, as the weekend-warriors begin abandoning their posts when they realize they have been following orders simply because following orders was all they had left and that is no longer enough. The US Constitution, after all, is just words on paper when you take away the idea of the nation that inspired then. The true fragility of civilization is show for what it is, premised entirely on the assumption that you will do what is expected of you, follow the orders you are given, simply because that is what is done; once that premise is called into question it all goes to hell.
What is left when the brotherhood of man is revealed as the false god it is, and the state of nature is shown not as Rousseau’s idyllic myth but rather a nightmare? Here is where Fear the Walking Dead truly comes into its own via the character of Strand. Strand is antithesis of our main characters, trapped in the mirage of the liberal bourgeois. Smooth talking and confident, he is completely willing to embrace the new paradigm he is confronted with, and sees it not only as a tragedy but also an opportunity. Take this piece of dialogue:
Nick: Why’d you do that? What you did with the guard? You saved me.
Strand: No, I obligated you. There’s a difference. The game has changed, we return to the old rules, and the people who won the last round with their grande lattes and their frequent flyer miles are about to become the buffet.
When I first heard this exchange it was electric. Strand understands that modernity is finished, and that with it has gone all the old ways of before. What motivates people when the progressive cries of altruism, egalitarianism, and rights disappear? Obligation. The knowledge that I owe you. This is at the core of the oldest and most enduring relationships between man. Blood, faith, and kingship. Despite the best efforts of philosophes and intelligentsia throughout history to erode them, with their appeals to reason and logic, still they remain with us today. They are enduring precisely because they are irrational, and in the end they are all that remains.
We see this with the other characters, as the show lurches towards its finale. Daniel, who came to America with his family fleeing some unnamed civil war in El Salvador, already knows this. He needs no education in what is occurring around him, because he has seen it before, and immediately decides to do whatever is needed to ensure the survival of his family (his daughter, raised in the luxury of American security, predictably reacts with horror). Even Madison is eventually coaxed into action when her son is taken by the National Guardsmen, presumably because his drug addiction makes him a liability, as on a primeval level even her liberal conscience will not let her stand by when her own child is threatened. When confronted with her actions (she and Daniel kidnap a soldier and torture him for information on where their family members have been taken), Travis cannot understand. “Tell me you didn’t know, tell me you didn’t know,” he pleads, unable even now to abandon his illusions. Predictably, his inability to see past the naivety of his liberalism ends in tragedy as he lets the captive soldier go rather than kill him, and the man promptly returns this favour by shooting Daniel’s daughter, seriously wounding her. This finally serves as the breaking point for Travis, as he sees his illusions finally shattered and he proceeds to beat the soldier to within an inch of his life in a moment of pure rage.
Just as the characters act as a stand in for the modern progressive fallacy, so to do the zombies represent the true reality of man; bestial, mean, and without mercy. Fear of the Walking Dead challenges the fantasy of the Enlightenment’s egalitarian utopia to its core, and forces both the characters and the viewer to view the true darkness that is humanity. When we are at our lowest, reason, justice and equality become mere words. What can be counted on is the ties of kinship and fealty that have existed since the first chieftain took the hands of the first tribal follower and said “you are mine, and I am yours, and I will kill anyone who ever threatens you”. That is the message of Fear the Walking Dead, and it forces us to confront the uncomfortable truths that have been force fed to us for generations.