Beyond being frustratingly plotless and overstuffed with dull, dimwitted characters, you want to know the real problem with Fear the Walking Dead's Season Two premiere? Not enough cool zombie shit. As much as the creative minds behind this franchise want to presume that they're making prestige TV drama about human perseverance and moral compromise, the fact is that these are still, fundamentally, genre shows. They're action-horror — which means they need action, and horror.
Last week's installment really only had one memorably spooky image: The floating corpse that tried to take a bite out of Nick. This week's episode — "We All Fall Down" — has two. The pre-credits opener in particular is a humdinger. While two little kids play happily on the beach, nearby the undead rise from the ocean and shamble toward them, like bigger, slower versions of the tiny nibbling dinosaurs in The Lost World: Jurassic Park. The creatures are ultimately held back by a chain-link fence, but still … kudos to the Fear team for starting this episode with an image more immediately gripping than anything in the previous hour. All they had to do was put a couple of children in peril.
That sequence is matched in "gotcha" intensity by a scene towards the end, where one of those two youngsters — an adorable tyke named Willa — swallows a poison pill, dies, revives, and chomps away on her mother, Melissa. It's a throwback to one of the first and scariest zombie movie moments, when a blood-soaked little girl lurched out of the shadows and stabbed her mom with a garden-trowel in Night of the Living Dead. This version is nowhere near as bone-chilling as the original, but it's at least in the right ballpark.
The rest of "We All Fall Down" is more of a mixed bag, though overall the episode's an improvement over last week's snoozer. If nothing else, it more properly introduces this season's "a victim in every port" premise. Looking to escape the potentially deadly boat that keeps popping up on Strand's radar, the crew of the Abigail finds an oceanfront wildlife refuge, occupied by a wary-but-welcoming survivalist family. Over the course of a couple of days, our gang gets to know theirs, and picks up some useful information about the state of the outside world, finding out that cities and government facilities all up and down the west coast have been either napalmed or ravaged by walkers.
And in a refreshing change of pace, none of the characters in this week's FTWD is actively annoying. Even Chris mellows out some, by making a new friend — the teenaged Seth — who teaches him how to kill by letting him swing a pickaxe into the rotting skulls of the beasties bumping into the refuge's fenced perimeter. And Nick, surprisingly, is also downright useful. When he hears the family's youngest son Harry talk about the "power pills" his dad George gives to him and his siblings, Nick uses his junkie skills to sniff out the supply, and to figure out that the man is planning a mass suicide. It's one of these "Jonestown" drugs that Willa consumes by accident.
As a test-case for what this season could be, the episode is promising. The park is a nifty location, at once picturesque and creepy. (Harry's room is especially unsettling, thanks to his collection of action figures with red dots on their heads, symbolizing the imaginary bullets he put through their brains.) And Travis has some genuinely thoughtful philosophical conversations with George, who tries to get his new friend to forget about "right or wrong, good or bad" and just see this newly post-apocalyptic world as nature taking its course, eradicating the "weeds" of humanity.
But once everything inevitably goes haywire and our heroes are back on the water, speeding away from the compound in the wake of Willa's feeding frenzy, the story peters out. And even at its best, this episode is relaxed and slow-paced in a way that on some shows would be a nice respite, but here feels like an unnecessary downshift in energy from a premiere that was already pretty inert. Some viewers may even wonder if they're watching the series out of order, given that last week ended on an urgent cliffhanger that the writers then shrugged off.
Some progress is made with the show's overall plot-arc. Daniel finds some heavy-duty weaponry stashed away on Strand's yacht, and we overhear our mysterious captain making nefarious-sounding plans on his cell phone. But in terms of establishing Fear the Walking Dead as can't-miss television… Well, we're not there yet. That's going to take more than just a few good scary scenes and some passably engaging dialogue.
What we really need now is an episode as stunning and strong as the parent series' "Clear" or "The Grove" or "Days Gone Bye" — the kind so addicting that we'll suffer through any lulls to get another taste. There are a lot of places that the Abigail can dock in the weeks ahead. Maybe one of them will be somewhere we're actually anxious to visit, and not just another way to kill time until the coast is clear.
Previously: Anchors Aweigh