Monday, August 24, 2015

Preparedness Review of Fear the Walking Dead Episode 101: Pilot

Spoiler Alert!!!

Madison Clark (to student):  The authorities would tell us.
Student (who looks way too much like me in high school):  Shrug.

Synopsis:  Fear goes where no episode of its parent series has gone before:  Los Angeles, to a time before the events depicted in The Walking Dead.  Society is still humming along, but cracks are beginning to show.   A new strain of influenza is spreading across the country, and rumors of murderous people are starting to surface.  While a few people are paying attention to what is really going on, most of the citizens of Los Angeles scurry along, content to worry on their day-to-day issues.  The release of a leaked video of police officers taking down a walker forces the spreading zombie plague to the forefront, and the family that is the focus of our story is forced into the realization that something terrible is happening.

The debut episode of Fear the Walking Dead has the unenviable burden of rewinding time to the beginning of the apocalypse and showing us how the world fell apart.   It succeeds in doing so, but drags a bit in the middle.

I think Gloria's got your number, Nick.
The episode opens with Nick, a college dropout and a drug addict, waking in a disused church from a    He stumbles around the church, hearing vague noises and screams, until he finds Gloria apparently eating another addict’s face.  Her eyes are glazed and gray, and a huge pole has been jammed into her abdomen but apparently she is still able to move despite what should be a devastating wound.   Nick flees, exiting the church and running accidentally into the path of an oncoming car, which hits him.  He is transported to the hospital.
heroin-induced sleep to find his gal pal Gloria missing.

Next, we are introduced to Nick’s family:
  • His mother, Madison, who is a high school counselor and is frantically searching for her son.   It becomes clear she has been down this road before with Nick.  Nick’s father, her ex-husband, battled drug addiction as well.
  • Alicia, Nick’s sister, who is a senior in high school and cannot wait to graduate.   She has plans for after school to get away from the family drama and start a new life with her new boyfriend, whose name I forgot.  Let's call him Red Shirt.
  • Travis Manawa, Madison’s live-in boyfriend, a teacher at the same school, and would-be stepdad to Nick and Alicia.
  • Chris, Travis’ son from his previous marriage who wants nothing to do with his dad’s new living arrangement, and his mom, Liza.
  • It appears that the only two people that actually like each other are Madison and Travis, while the kids are stuck in orbit around their new relationship.

    Travis and Madison:  not Mike and Carol Brady
    Nick wakes in a hospital, refusing to answer police questions.   Madison and Nick arrive and toss the cops out, and Alicia makes passive aggressive comments regarding how her sibling sucks.  Meanwhile, Travis, gets a call from his ex-wife stating his son does not want to come over for his weekend with dad, and Travis is forced to accede.

    Nick tries to make sense of what he saw.  Was it the drugs?  Is he losing his mind?  He has no idea.  The part is played brilliantly by Frank Dillane as a person who is not really sure what reality is at the moment.   Travis agrees to stay with him while Madison goes to work.  The principal, Art, stops Madison in the hall and asks if everything it okay.   As they talk, a student, Tobias, sets off the metal detectors at the door.  Madison, who likes Tobias, covers for him with the principal and takes him to the office.   Tobias surrenders a knife, and expulsion-level offense, and tries to warn her that something bad is happening around the country.  Madison, ever the adult, tells him if something was going on the authorities would tell people. 

    Nick, meanwhile confides in Travis regarding the events at the church, and Travis sets off to investigate.  While he is gone, Nick’s roommate, an elderly man, expires, and is rushed “downstairs.”  The nurse starts to raise an alarm with the doctor in attendance, but the physician cuts her off.  

    “We don’t know!” he says.  It’s a clue that “the authorities” know what is happening when people die and are trying to determine the extent of the problem.  The implication is that they don’t want to believe what is happening.  Nick uses the confusion to steal the man’s clothes and wallet and escape.
    Alicia skips class at school to hand out with her boyfriend, an artist who is not as intelligent and probably won’t be going to Berkeley like her.  They agree to meet at the beach that evening to spend time together.

    Travis finds the church drug users are visiting to inject heroin, called a “shooting gallery.”  He finds blood pools and smears on the wall, but strangely, no bodies.   He becomes convinced that Nick saw something, but he still isn’t sure what that might have been. All he knows is, “something bad happened here.”  Madison is initially dismissive of her son’s claims, but they go to the location to see if Nick went back there.   They find some of his belongings, and Madison sees the blood, but no Nick.  

    They visit Nick’s old friend, Cal, who claims not to have seen Nick in a while.  Nick, meanwhile, has purchased a pre-paid cell phone and is calling someone about what happened in the church.  He needs to know the truth.  Is he suffering from a mental illness, or were the drugs laced with something to cause him to hallucinate?  While Travis and Madison search for Nick, Alicia goes to the beach, but her boyfriend doesn’t show and isn’t answering her text messages.  

    Madison and Travis are on their way home that night, but get stopped in stalled traffic caused by a car accident.  Police loudspeakers blare for everyone to stay in their cars.   Gunshots are heard, and Travis decided to cut through the median and turn around.  Then next morning video footage is leaked from a TV news helicopter that shows a crash victim reanimate and attack a paramedic.  The police shoot the man, who refuses to die.  Finally someone shoots him in the head and puts him down for good.

    The next day school is sparsely attended.  Students are watching the video on their smart phones and debating its credibility.   Travis and Madison are forced to call the police to search for Nick and return to the school.   Alicia’s boyfriend is a no show and he still isn’t answering text messages.   The school administration sends students home a half day early, and Madison trades a look with Tobias as he is leaving on a school bus.   

    Nick finally meets the person he was calling.  It turns out his dealer is Cal, who maintains the cover of a respectable person while supplying heroin to the masses.  Cal is concerned Nick is going to compromise him, and takes him to a deserted area (that looks like the same empty storm drainage canal location used in the movie Grease) to kill him.   They struggle, the gun discharges, and Cal falls to the ground, dead.  Or dead-ish.

    Nick calls his mom, and Madison and Travis meet him near the scene of Cal’s murder.   They find his car, and a blood pool like they found in the church, but no body.  Nick is apoplectic.  As they are leaving, they see someone in the tunnel behind the car.  It’s a reanimated Cal, who attacks Madison and Travis before Nick gets behind the wheel and runs him over with the truck.     Cal gets back up, and Nick hits him again, propelling the zombie out of the tunnel and into the canal.  As they watch, Cal again tries to get up despite both legs and arms being broken and a missing lower jaw.

    Preparedness Discussion

    Fear the Walking Dead gets off to a solid start, and does a decent job of building dramatic tension.   Principally, the pilot does a great job of showing just how dependent society is on normality.  We assume things will always be as they are now.   We rely on the police to protect us, the hospital to cure us, and the supermarket to be freshly stocked every few hours with food.  

    This phenomenon is called Normality or Normalcy Bias. Normality Bias (I maintain normalcy is not a real word and was only popularized when Colin Powell used it in 2001 after the terrorist attacks; if you don’t agree, get your own blog) is the tendency of people to enter a mental state that underestimates the possibility of a disaster and the consequences of its effects.   This effect was on full display by people who were unwilling to evacuate during Hurricane Katrina or by the government’s failure to prepare for such a disaster.  This bias kicks into overdrive as the disaster looms.  

    Fear shows this in subtle ways.  Madison’s dismissing of Tobias is something many preppers have experienced when trying to persuade friends and family to makes some sort of basic preparations.   As someone who works in the education field, I have seen adults dismiss teens out of hand like this more times than I would like to count.  Faced with Madison’s assurances, that have no basis in the unfolding reality, Tobias shuts down and shuts up.  I have seen at least one review that describes this scene as poorly written, but it rang true for me.

    Then again, I had a face full of pimples and was about this kid’s size in high school.  I might have a soft spot for him. 

    The media we consume tend to support Normality Bias. News outlets, especially traditional television, print, and radio sources, have only so much time and space to use for news and are forced to make choices as to what to cover.   Some stories that might be of national interest – the encroachment of Mexican drug cartels onto U.S. soil in Texas and Arizona, for example – get little airplay in the traditional media.  As preppers, we have to look deeper and things like financial data, reported terrorist incidents, and other potential sources for disaster and be aware of the threat environment.  
    Watching Nick’s battle with addiction and apprehension for his own sanity is harrowing.  Anyone who has had a loved one suffer from addiction knows the anguish of watching someone you care about self-destruct without having the ability to help, because they don’t want it.  Nick knows he is in trouble, but cannot confide in his mother because of the gulf his addiction has placed between them. 
    If you think your addiction – whether to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, food, pornography, or any other product – isn’t affecting those around you, you’re wrong. Further, if there is a widespread disaster, what are you going to do if the object of your addiction is no longer available?  

    Finally, I want to address the absolute fear of firearms characters display in this episode.  When Nick shoots Cal, he leaves the gun on the ground.  When he, his mother, and Travis return, and are forced to run over a zombified Cal, they leave the pistol on the ground.  While it could be argued that they did not want to touch the gun for fear of being implicated in a murder, the dead guy just got up and attacked them.  

    The pistol is a form of self-defense.  We have the natural right to defend ourselves. You have to be alive to be able to defend your actions.

    I do like that Travis has the initiative to fix his own sink.  That nascent sense of self-reliance is going to come in handy.

    Preparedness Lessons for Episode 101
  • Society exists on a very fragile system of services and assumptions that work to keep us reliant on that system.  Any disruption to those services creates havoc that may or may not be temporary.  Combat Normality Bias.
  • Curb bad habits now while you can slowly wean yourself of the product, instead of being forced to go cold turkey when a disaster strikes.
  • Start thinking about how to defend yourself instead of waiting for someone else to take care of you.

    Next week:  Walkers start overwhelming the city, and Tobias and Madison run down the school hallways with a cart full of food.  C’mon Kirkman, fat kids going for food?  That’s messed up!


  1. nor•mal•cy (ˈnɔr məl si)

    the state of being normal.

  2. Normality. That's my story and I am sticking to it. ;-)

  3. Enjoyed your review despite the fact I'm not usually big on TV reviews. The highschooler's shutdown at being dismissed by a trusted authority figure rang true with me too. It wasn't from looking like him, either. I looked like a jock back then.