As a way of tipping their collective hats to the late David Bowie, the creative team behind Fear the Walking Dead soundtrack a central sequence of “Monster,” the first episode of the second season, with “Five Years,” the rapturous slow-burner that kicks off The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Though a bit on the nose as far as Bowie tunes go, its an apropos signal of what’s being lost as the world topples into zombie-ridden bedlam, with our heroes taking to the high seas on a yacht supposedly owned by Colman Domingo‘s Strand. It’s less the imagery conjured up by Bowie’s lyrics that reflects the happenings in Fear the Walking Dead than the passing of Bowie, evoking a sense of losing iconic totems of pop culture and the work of honest-to-goodness artists to a ravaged, desolate world that can only care about survival at this point.
Fear the Walking Dead‘s second season doesn’t reach the poetic, surreal heights of what Bowie sings about in that song, but in its first few episodes, it suggests a far more stranger and imaginative series than the glut of what went down in the first season of the spin-off series. The fact that the group, led by Kim Dickens‘ Madison, Cliff Curtis‘ Travis, and Ruben Blades‘ Daniel Salazar, is now mainly set out at sea gives the series a more open narrative canvas, allowing them to visit ports and encounter other aquatically relegated survivors of the first wave. The encountering of a wrecked ship toward the end of the first episode gives a taste of more intriguing strands of action and suspense storytelling that could be developed in this mode, though there’s a sense that this group will eventually have to return to land.
When they meet up with another group in the second episode, “We All Fall Down,” the series teases one of the great elements of its superb predecessor, that being the discovery of other people, their unique skills and philosophies, and their histories. Sadly, as the setting is not long after the bloodshed and flesh-eating began, there isn’t much in the way of history, but in this particular meet-up, the leader of the other group does impart a carefully considered belief in coming to terms with the inevitability of death, and the heightened likelihood of coming face-to-face with it in the current state, to Travis.
There’s certainly more promise in the episodes I saw than there was in most of the first season episodes, but the series remains stuck to laying out thematic platitudes and being guided by plot turns over characters. Even Strand, the most interesting element of the first season by a country mile, now feels less important as a character than he is as the holder of the story’s biggest secrets and the trajectory of the group on the whole. The fact that he knows where they’re going and holds power over them – he refuses to allow them to take on new passengers – means more than what he’s thinking or feeling as a distinct human being. And mind you, he’s been the most interesting and most complexly built character to arrive on the show thus far, meaning that nearly all the characters seem to represent nothing more than a very simple, uncomplicated ideological perspective.
Now, if the show was more stylish, if the world that has been created was more heightened and aesthetically designed with a clear purpose, this narrative tactic might have worked but that’s not the case. In many ways, the show still feels like it’s finding its foothold in style and substance, which means that it’s currently denoted by its most creative and alluring scenes or even moments. The “Five Years” sequence with Alycia Debnam-Carey‘s Alicia, as well as a small zombie-killing spree that Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie) indulges, would count as two of a very few of these flashes of intrigue and thoughtfulness, and if the show needs a little more time to build up steam, there’s enough good faith here to keep people watching. (Let’s remember that The Walking Dead didn’t really hit it’s stride until the end of the third season.) That being said, Fear the Walking Dead often feels as adrift as its characters, seeking tonal stability and a richer sense of character in the same way our crew is frantically looking for a place to call home and survivors to band together with while they’re both literally and proverbially lost at sea.
Fear the Walking Dead airs on Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on AMC.
★★★ – Works…For Now