You know the old advice that good stories should send their heroes up a tree in the first act and then throw rocks at them in the second? To wit: The Walking Dead has usually been a lot better at treeing than stoning. Just think of all the time that show's second season wasted on the farm, or at the prison during Season Three. So, so many un-thrown rocks. Given that history, there was maybe just a little cause for concern when Fear the Walking Dead's second episode ended with Madison Clark holed-up in the 'burbs with her son Nick and daughter Alicia, while her boyfriend Travis Manawa was stuck in a riot-zone in downtown Los Angeles. It really wouldn’t have been off-model for this spin-off to spend the next several chapters dividing time between a barricaded barbershop and a tasteful ranch house.
Instead, this week's episode — "The Dog" — gets everybody moving, early and often. (The title refers to the neighbor's pet who comes scratching at the Clarks' door, in one of the episode's most nerve-wracking and ultimately bittersweet scenes.) Even before the opening credits, Travis is forced to flee into the streets with his ex-wife Lisa, their son Chris, and their reluctant host Daniel Salazar; the barbershop's windows and doors may be secure, but that won't stop rioters from breaking into the store next door and setting it on fire. There’s no safe shelter when the whole city's burning.
Meanwhile, Madison is trying to distract her kids while they wait for help, which is hard to do given that something horrible is still apparently going on across the street at the Dawsons' house. Then the power goes out, leaving the family to fumble around in the darkness, startled by every distant shout, thump, or unearthly growl. When one of those noises turns out to be a dog, everyone’s momentarily relieved…until Travis and company show up later and find a feral Mr. Dawson face deep in the animal's open belly. A momentary "whew" becomes an appalled "ugh."
In genre terms, the episode is an efficient take on the domestic invasion thriller, with the neighborhood zombies standing in for the standard robber/serial killer/boogeyman. Everyone is dashing between gardens, patios, and dens, trying to escape former friends who are, as they keep euphemistically putting it, "sick," (Nick finally says what everyone's thinking when he calls their attackers "dead.") In addition to being fast-paced and genuinely frightening, this week's FTWD begins doing what its sister show excels at: making the familiar seem menacing.
As for where this particular hour fits into the larger Walking Dead mythology, and how it follows through on the best parts of Fear's first two episodes…well, it's all still a work-in-progress. Of the nine main characters we're following right now (three from each family), only Madison and Daniel are consistently compelling — and that's mainly because Kim Dickens and Rubén Blades naturally default to awesome. But when this week’s credited writer Jack LoGiuduce and director Adam Davidson slow the action down for moments of quiet interaction (Alica joking with Nick about how "evil" the game Monopoly is; Travis trying to bond with Chris after the latter gets roughed-up; Madison getting Lisa to agree to kill her if she ever starts to turn), it only proves once again that these people's non-zombie problems just aren’t that interesting.
On the plus side, the show's whole "let's go back to the start of the plague" premise continues to pay off. In addition to more tense scenes where unarmed naifs unknowingly try to reason with the undead (because they recognize who the zombies once were, not what they've become), "The Dog" contains one powerfully eerie image: Travis attempting to rush the injured Griselda Salazar to the hospital, only to find that the the institution is ablaze, and cops and soldiers machine-gunning dead-eyed patients. Davidson does a fine job of capturing the strangeness of it all, keeping the horror at a distance while the Manawas and Salazars try to process what the hell is happening.
But the spin-off has yet to establish any kind of larger point with its mix-and-match contrasting of rampaging anarchists, pushy uniformed gunmen, and zombies. And there doesn’t appear to be much sociopolitical meaning behind the way the episode ends, with the admittedly startling sight of the military rolling in and locking down the neighborhood just as the Clarks are getting ready to head east. (Although the arrival of this questionable calvary does add to the sense of nothing being under Madison and Travis' control.)
And here's another case-in-point: Because Maddie can't bring herself to kill her zombified neighbor Susan, her friend's husband almost gets eaten — and then is taken into custody by the government because he's been exposed to his wife's tainted blood. Even when they try to make the right choice, our heroes keep making matters worse, because they have no frame of reference for this rapidly unfolding nightmare. Right now they're scrambling from tree to tree, with rocks flying everywhere — some of which they're throwing at themselves.
Previously: There's a Riot Goin' On