Spoiler Alert: This post contains spoilers from the series premiere of AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead.
Welcome to the new world.
AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead — a companion series to Robert Kirkman‘s ratings behemoth — introduced its brand new take on society Sunday with a supersized series premiere that offered the first-ever signs of humanity’s demise.
For fans of the zombie drama and corresponding comic book, the Los Angeles-set series provided the long-awaited look at the first days of the end of the world as we know it. The premiere, written by series creators Kirkman and Dave Erickson, introduced a blended family and a terrifying new threat that many in the pilot — save for the drug-addicted eldest son Nick (Frank Dillane) — failed to wrap their heads around.
The teen is the first to encounter a member of the undead, but his family, including his guidance counselor mother Madison (Kim Dickens) and her boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis), as well as younger sister Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), all think he’s delusional.
Ultimately, Nick — hospitalized after running from the sight of the undead feasting on a corpse — escapes and Travis and — eventually — Madison see for themselves that his stories of carnage at the church from hell aren’t that far off. They watch as Nick’s former friend Calvin comes back from the dead and “live” after being brutally struck by their car twice, the final time with a missing jaw.
Here, showrunner Erickson breaks down the series premiere and takes a larger look at what’s to come this season.
How much of the decision to tell the story through the eyes of a drug addict came from wanting to prove to the audience that this is really happening and he’s not crazy?
A lot of it. We did a version of the pilot that was a lot more accelerated. We chopped off a lot more stories sooner. I did a pass and sent it to Robert, who liked it but pitched a different character with a similar dynamic. In the original conception of the show, before I came on, the character of Nick was an addict. It seemed like an interesting window where you’re living in a world where it’s not necessarily a judgmental world and for most people, if you see someone behaving this way, your assumption is not, “That’s a zombie.” It’s that they’re sick or high and there has to be some reasonable, rational explication for it. What’s interesting is to have a character whose prism was a bit distorted. Who sees something and even when he confesses what he saw — Travis says it in the pilot with “You saw what the drugs saw.” It becomes a quest for Nick to find out if what he saw real or if it was just in his mind. Was it the drugs or did that really happen? For Nick, Travis and Madison, it just doesn’t seem possible. For us, and this is consistent with how the season will develop, the character who believes they saw something, they’re slowly dragging the other characters along to the realization that this is really happening.
It gives us a narrative angle for the story, but it also introduces a conflict with this character and his relationship with his mother that’s something that will evolve and be explored throughout this season and beyond. When we get to a place in season two, and subsequent seasons, your addictive personality doesn’t go away and it will be interesting to see what Nick does when he’s clean. How is he going to channel that personality? There’s some great opportunities for that character.
It took Madison a bit longer than Travis to believe Nick — and seeing for herself what happened with Calvin. What do Madison, Travis and Nick do now with this information?
That’s episode two. You get to end of the pilot and they go through this horribly traumatic event with Calvin, who has already been shot, and then he’s run over and hit again and he’s twisted and torn in the dry L.A. River and he should be dead. The goal for us at end of the pilot was to get to a place where we validate what Nick saw. But for Travis and Madison, they’ve heard what Nick has said; Tobias had his conversation with Madison. They’ve seen the footage from the news chopper from the event that took place on the freeway. It’s starting to mesh, in a way. So when they get to that moment, they know something is wrong. They assume that it’s got to be a virus going around. They don’t go to zombie. For any parent at that point, you regress into your own and their priority is going to be not to get the word out — they could try to call 911 and that’s going to fail and we’ll discover that when we get to the end of season two — but it’s about how do we gather our family together and protect those closest to us. Then once we’ve done that, how do we explain to them what’s going on and how this is unfolding. Their goal coming after the pilot is going to be very specific and personal. The line of the season and every season that comes after is to always make it about family-driven stories and what’s specific to protecting them.
Speaking of which, Alicia doesn’t know how severe this outbreak is — and her boyfriend Matt is missing. More than anyone so far, she has her entire future mapped out and can’t wait to get away from home. How will the outbreak impact her and that she may be stuck with her family?
It’ll change radically. For all that happens in the first season, we still manage to structure in a way that our family is still insulated. There’s a whole world of discovery for them to get into when we get to season two. You look at this brother-sister relationship with Nick and Alicia. Nick is already living on the fringe and has been in his own apocalypse for quite a long time, and Alicia who is in counterpoint to that. They both reacted to the death of their father six years ago in an auto wreck. They both have a fatalistic line. They’ve both had experience with death already, which will be interesting to explore as we move forward. The people who seem to have it together, who seem to be the most independent, competent and ready for anything, oftentimes are the ones who are going to suffer the greatest when it comes to the end of the world. She had a very specific narrative line mapped out for herself: she was going to get out and start a life for herself and not abandon her family but put distance between her brother and his bullshit and the co-dependent relationship that Madison has with Nick. Alicia, unlike Madison whose primary goal is to protect and save her son, she has a great bullshit detector. There’s a scene in the pilot where when he talks about getting clean, and she shuts him down. It’s a visceral reaction because she’s heard and seen him say it before and she knows it’s not true. It’s going to have to be something incredibly traumatic and violent that gets his head straight. Then the apocalypse happens and something traumatic and violent does come down the pike.
Alicia also was there to see the kill-shot in the video and knows what it takes to put down the undead. Will that be something that comes in handy later?
It remains to be seen. When she sees that, she doesn’t put that in the back of her head as something she recalls and realizes that that is how you put a zombie down. There’s a scene that comes later where one of our characters does witness something like that and that’s part of our apocalyptic education: realizing that body shots are not going to do the job.
We’ve heard the flu, airborne toxins, something in the water or a virus of some sort as a potential cause. We know the series won’t ever reveal what caused the outbreak but were there any serious conversations about exploring that? What were some of the things you pitched?
I had some big-swing pitches when Robert and I first sat down and I pitched an origin story with patient zero and he listened and just said, “Yeah, no. That’s not what the show is.” There are certain things we will not have: we will never know the cause, the cure and the likelihood of Walking Dead 1 and Walking Dead 2 stories conflating is slim to none at best. That is something that has been explored in any given number of films in the genre. I can’t share what my causes were because I may go back to them — if I’m still alive in five seasons, I may try to return to it if I can get Robert in a state of mind where he’s open to such a thing. But there’s a news article from few years ago that gave me an idea that I thought would have been a nice starting point but I can save that for another show.
It’s interesting that Travis is teaching his students about survival, courtesy of Jack London. How much of a theme will London be this season — or with the series as a whole?
Some of the things that Travis articulates in that scene for me, thematically, I like to let those things play out over course of the show. The “nature always wins” argument, which is not the most original sentiment or thought, is interesting to try and think about the wolf dog in relation to the man in that story. My question is: Who of our characters is the wolf dog? Who is it that will become one with the new world and one with the apocalypse and one with nature and be able to survive?
At this point, who is the wolf dog?
If you watch that scene, Travis finishes with nature always wins and we cut back to the hospital and there’s a nurse coming in to speak to Nick with a bedpan. Her line is, “I take my dog out when I want to,” and Nick says, “Oh, I’m the dog?” It’s a reference from When Harry Met Sally and it’s also connective tissue to the previous scene. Fundamentally, it’s one of the big questions for the show: Who is best suited to survive in this new world and what are they willing to do? It’s part of the reason we started with a blended family: What is family? At the end of the original Walking Dead pilot, there is a family structure and a group of people who survived who created this surrogate family outside of Atlanta and then Rick finds them. We’re starting with a highly dysfunctional blended family and there will be a lot of questions as we move forward about who do you save? Is it the people you’re connected to biologically? Is it the people you bond with as you build this new family and as you deal with the dangers and traumas that are caused by the apocalypse? Where do your alliances and allegiances lie? It’s all part of the stew.
You’ve said before that the series is set in L.A. for a reason: to explore reinvention as a theme. How will we see these four central characters evolve amidst this new world?
We end the pilot and Madison and Travis don’t have the tools to understand what they’ve just witnessed. Nick is wise in a way that Tobias is: Nick has been validated at the end of the pilot and learned that it wasn’t the drugs and he’s not insane. Madness is a theme we’ll continue to explore as the show progresses. What will be challenging for Nick is waiting for people to catch up with him. He’s been living on the fringes and in his own apocalypse, and now the real apocalypse has arrived. Initially, it’s about trying to protect the people they care about most. Alicia is not with them when the pilot ends. She’s been looking for Matt, who failed to meet her. They’ll try to wrangle her and bring her back in. From Travis’ perspective, he’s going to want to find his resentful son, Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie), and his ex-wife, Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez). They know something terrible is wrong, but they don’t realize this is the apocalypse or that the dead are rising. For Travis, there has to be an explanation and it becomes a process of hacking away at the expectation that there will be salvation and things will be made well. It’s going to be very challenging for Travis, specifically. For Madison, going into the second episode and beyond, she needs to protect Alicia and Nick, and that will manifest in different ways because they both have very specific problems that they’re dealing with.
Wrapping up, what will you be calling the undead this season? The flagship show uses “walkers” and won’t ever say zombie.
Right now, playing off of the idea that they think this is viral and something you can catch that’s transmitted, they start to call them “the infected,” which is a nod to 28 Days Later. We don’t get into a place in the story where they’re going to start throwing names. Whether it’s biters, roamers or walkers, our characters in season one still think these people are human and sick for a big chunk of time. “Infected” made story sense for us, and as things evolve, we’ll come up with new names.
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