Nervous expectation is the name of the game in the prequel to AMCs The Walking Dead. It may not break any new ground, but that doesn't stop it from being compelling.
A big part of what made The Walking Dead so compelling when it first started was that, in Rick Grimes, we had a character who was utterly blindsided by an apocalyptic outbreak of “the zombie”. As the show progressed though, the whole ordinary guy stumbling from catastrophe to catastrophe, barely a step ahead of survival at any point, fell by the wayside. Characters like Darryl, people who were startlingly self-assured roaming through the wreckage of civilisation, were exceptions. Now, they’re more or less the rule, and what was once the exciting outlier has threatened to become stale and commonplace, while pretty much all the average-joes who make for empathetic characters have been eaten.
With Fear the Walking Dead, AMC have found a way to rectify this without having to alter their flagship show, or (God forbid) kill Darryl. We start in L.A., a city teetering on the edge of oblivion as the walkers (though they’ve yet to be named as such) start to make themselves known. Our main character at the moment is Nick Clarke (Frank Dillane, he played young Voldermort in Half-Blood Prince), a junkie who wakes up to find his friend nibbling on someone, with the show seeming to focus on the Clark family, and their coming struggles.
As a prequel, Fear the Walking Dead is always going to face a certain kind of difficulty: the audience already knows what’s going to happen. The show seems to be mitigating this to some extent, however, in a few ways. First, with the exception of the walkers themselves, this show bares little character or setting-based similarities to its older, bigger, zombie-er brother. It isn’t Rick Grimes: the Younger Years, or My Name is Darryl, or anything like that, which means that for the most part we don’t actually know what’s going to happen. The Walking Dead isn’t a show about the big picture, and neither is Fear the Walking Dead, they are shows about smaller, more personal stories, and so the big picture being the same makes little difference.
In this vein, any well-made prequel (any well-made anything, really) hinges on its characters, on the audience caring about them, being invested in them, wanting to see them safe or harmed. Given that this is just one episode, it’s reasonable for audience-character empathy to not have developed overly, and for the most part that holds true. The majority of the characters are intriguing, or show signs that they will develop in some way, which is good.
Nick Clark however, our junkie protagonist, has already come much further. Dillane’s performance is a strong one, blending confused Californian stoner with moments of tenderness to lay the groundwork for a three-dimensional main character. The episode’s climax belongs to Dillane as well, his hapless bewilderment and gut-twisting fear making for a compelling final ten minutes.
Finally, the fact that we know what’s coming (hordes of hungry dead people) actually adds to the show’s appeal. It teases us with our knowledge. Shots of the sprawling L.A. cityscape are accompanied by swelling, discordant music that says ‘look at this, this is going to explode, it’s going to tear itself apart and we’re going to show it to you.’ The whole episode is like that moment in a horror film where the ditsy blonde girl wanders off alone into the woods, or the basement or wherever. You know what’s coming, it’s what you came to see, but you don’t quite know when – and it’s that thrill of anticipation that makes it enjoyable. That’s what the pilot of Fear the Walking Dead is, one big, extended moment of suspense; waiting for the wave to break, for the wall to tumble down and the monsters to come screaming out of the dark.
Fear the Walking Dead airs on AMC Global on Mondays at 9pm and on Amazon Prime in 2016.