Review: Fear the Walking Dead, an Apocalyptic Rant

I’ll be honest, I haven’t watched Fear the Walking Dead for a couple of seasons now. I understand that just about all the original cast of characters are dead, and while I celebrate this fact, it’s not enough to make me watch the show.

I really hated it. The only thing that kept me watching the first few seasons was utter hatred. Every episode, it just kept getting more loathsome. Towards the end, I’d be sitting there as it played, my lips drawn into a rictus of grin, teeth grinding, muscles seized up, ever fibre of my being screaming at the television.

The problem with the show, is that it’s the worst celebration of White Privilege, I’ve ever seen.

Literally, this was a show that had Karen before Karens were a thing.

And here’s the thing, as far as I know, they were all completely unconscious of the suffocating racism and classism that permeated just about every single episode. Literally, how could you be that offensive, and that consistently offensive, by accident? Who the hell was writing this thing? Didn’t any of the actors ever come up and say “Hey, we’re practically the Swiss Family Klansmen, what’s up with that?”

Let me back up a little bit.

Fear the Walking Dead is a ‘spin off’ of AMC’s Zombie classic series The Walking Dead. It’s genesis was simple enough: The Walking Dead was scoring blockbuster ratings, it was making tons of money.

So when you get a pony like that, you ride it until the legs fall off.

So if one zombie series was a hit, why not a second? Sure! Why not!

The pitch for ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ was that this was not just going to be a zombie series, but it would show us the beginning of the Zombie apocalypse. Where they came from, how society broke down, and the walking dead took over. Great premise, there’s all sorts of interesting stories you could tell, and it had real potential.

Yeah, but it would have probably been expensive, so why bother? There was some lip service to the grinding of the Zombie apocalypse in the first series, particularly in the first few episodes, but mostly it was off stage, and barely referred to.

As the first season wore on, it relocated to a gated community, and spent most of its time there. So basically it was Knots Landing, but with Zombies, but mostly without zombies.

That little notion was utterly abandoned in the subsequent seasons.

So yeah, it’s a TV series that went well out of its way to completely shit all over its basic premise, and to do it in the laziest, most slipshod, unimaginative, and thoroughly cheapjack way.

So whatever initial enthusiasm or sympathy I had, that got bled away.

And in it’s place, came a growing awareness and loathing of the utter privilege and entitlement of the central characters.

I suppose I should talk about them.

Okay, to start with, we started out with a racially and ethnically diverse cast centered around a blended family. There was Madison Clark aka Karen, a schoolteacher and domineering blonde matriarch. Then there was her fiance, Travis Manawa, a Hispanic man. Then there were the teenage children, Nick Clark, Madison’s sleazy heroin addict son, Alicia Clark, Madison’s perpetually overlooked daughter, Chris Manawa, Travis’s also ran son.

Added to the family grouping were Liza Ortiz, Travis’s ex-wife and Chris’s mother – she didn’t survive to the end of the first season, big shock. Daniel Salazar, barber and former central American torturer and mass murderer… Yeah, you read that right. He’s presented as a sympathetic character, the voice of wisdom, etc. etc. Jesus H. Christ. There’s also Ofelia Salazar, Daniel’s daughter, also colourless and overlooked. Finally, we round out the cast with an unaffiliated stranger – Victor Strand, aka Superpimp, a walking Blaxploitation stereotype, who eventually turns out to be gay.

You’re probably thinking hey, that’s not bad. We got some pretty good representation of all demographics. We got white people, Hispanic people, black people, we got younger people, we got older people, we got working class, middle class, street, even some LGBTQ representation. Be interesting to see how this diverse group gets along.

All right at the start of the Zombie apocalypse, oh my.

That could have worked.

Ha!

So what went wrong.

White Privilege. Racism and classism so thoroughly ingrained that it feels like the creators and writers weren’t even aware of it. This was just the natural way the world worked for them. White people ran things because they were white. Hispanics were the docile servants, except when they were shifty and untrustworthy, and their moral worth was defined precisely by how well they stayed in assigned roles. Black people were spicy, mildly dangerous outsiders. And as if this ‘natural order’ weren’t enough, the surroundings reflected the perpetual cocoon of white entitlement and indifference to… everyone else.

Let’s break it down, shall we?

First, there’s Madison. If the series had waited a few years, she would have been Karen. Madison is the matriarch of the show. She’s the leader, she makes decisions, she continually bosses everyone else around. She has no actual leadership skills, and no survival skills, except for an endless arrogant sense of entitlement. She regularly does horrible things, but since she’s the series lead, we’re all supposed to sympathize with her.

What sort of horrible things? Well, in one scene, she locks a little old lady in a room full of zombies so she can be horribly murdered and eaten alive.

She’s an appalling hypocrite, regularly arguing for democracy, tolerance, everyone getting a say… but only as a tool to get her way. The minute it’s convenient, her ideals are abandoned. If she can get her way by bullying, she goes ahead and does it. And she’s frequently a bully. She has no respect for anyone around her, and no real sense of boundaries or personal safety. She’ll put people’s lives at risk recklessly.

Mostly, she consistently puts people’s lives at risk for her son, Nick, the heroin addict. Nick’s primary aspects are his addiction, for which everyone but Nick suffers; a superficial charm, and his white privilege. No matter what awful things Nick does, and he does a lot of awful things, we are supposed to respect and sympathise with him, because he’s ‘deep’ or ‘soulful’ or something. While not as grating as Madison, Nick is a picture of automatic white entitlement. Put him in a group of ‘brown people’ he naturally becomes loved, worshipped and eventually a leader.

Oddly, Madison barely seems to remember her daughter Alicia, who only seems to be there as someone atop the pyramid that good Hispanic Ofelia, and bad Hispanic Chris represent. But like the rest of the Clarks, she’s a complete child of privilege, she can wander through zombie infested towns, without them even bothering her. The most colourless of the Clarks, she’s till near the apex of the pecking order.

Madison’s fiance Curtis? As the series goes on, it becomes clear that she has no respect for him. He’s not a life partner, he’s a useful doormat. He actually does have skills, but she continually disrespects and disregards him, shutting him out of decision making in favour of partnering with Strand, belittling him, and ordering him about. While they were presented as partners, at every step in the series, literally from day one, he’s presented as subordinate and obedient to Madison’s needs and priorities, particularly her attendance on her son.

So there’s the ‘pretend’ White/Hispanic relationship, ostensibly a partnership, ostensibly equals, but for all practical purposes, one of subordination. Okay, that’s pretty screwed up, but you know, it’s just one mildly dysfunctional couple.

But Hispanic subordination is a running theme through the series and its characters. Brown people just seem to automatically need a white person to tell them what to do on this show, they’re usually presented in positions of social inferiority.

Take Liza Ortiz, Travis’ ex-wife. She’s not even a Nurse. That would be status. Instead, she’s a Nursing student. She’s assigned to the periphery of the family unit, a helper, and then dispensed with in the final episode of the first season. Unlike Madison she actually has useful skills and abilities, unlike Madison, she has genuine relationships with the other characters. But she’s the ‘help’ and disposable.

Daniel Salazar, late middle aged, mild mannered in the extreme, is the picture of Hispanic subordination. He’s so obedient and deferential it’s painful. Like Liza, he’s a low status servant – a barber. He’s presented as the voice of quiet wisdom, but much of his quiet wisdom seems to amount to ‘obey the white people.’

He’s also a central American torturer and mass murderer, which I have trouble getting past. It’s like they took a Nazi concentration camp guard and turned him into a kindly voice of reason. What the hell. Occasionally his skills as a torturer are put to use, but only when the white people tell him.

His daughter Ofelia is clearly being cultivated to be a maid. That’s literally about as much character as she was given.

The only exception to this is Travis’s son, Chris, who comes across as a sullen young man. And he has good reason to be sullen, because he’s clearly noticed that in a family dynamic which perches Madison and her children at the top, he’s surplus baggage. The gulf between him and Madison’s world grows slowly, until he creeps out Madison’s daughter, runs off, and is eventually killed. To the extent he represents anything, it’s the ‘untrustworthy young Hispanic’ not one of the ‘good uns’ who know their place. The one who must inevitably be expelled for their irrational antisociality, their inability to comprehend the ‘rightness’ of the social order that has them on the bottom, and eventually earn their just reward – lawless death. Tragic, but inevitably tragic, just like Liza’s death.

So that’s the White/Hispanic dynamic. Don’t worry, it will repeat on larger scales through the next few seasons.

What about the gay black guy? Victor Strand looks, talks and acts like he stepped out of a blaxsploitation movie from the 1970’s. The character is essentially a walking cliche, a collection of tropes and mannerisms that verge on racist. Initially, it appeared that his character had designs on Nick Clark, but the notion of a black man molesting a beautiful white heroin addict protagonist squicked the creators, so that angle was dropped. Instead, he just likes and helps young Nick, a boy who should be utterly useless and untrustworthy for someone as street smart.

In the second or third series, there’s a plot thread involving a Bed and Breakfast/Winery, and a gay lover who has passed. But apart from that, Strand’s sexuality was continually downplayed, in favour of sexual tension and flirting between him and Madison… because she’s obviously the centre of her universe, and it would be insane for a virile male character not to lust for her.

Notice that part about the Bed and Breakfast? I’ll come back to that. But anyway, that’s Strand. Never really allowed to become a full character. He’s introduced as the sleazy con man, the cool cat, the high roller, and he gets to be the muscle as the tough street smart hombre, occasionally clashing with Madison, but usually deferring to her.

It all seems so completely automatic, so utterly unconscious. It’s as if the writers haven’t even noticed the ethnic dynamic and the implicit unquestioned hierarchy. It’s as if they don’t even realize it’s there. It’s just part of their world, or world view, and they reproduce it without ever noticing.

Now, maybe I’m wrong, and this deranged dynamic breaks down. Or maybe this deranged dynamic of classism and racism was designed to break down in the Zombie apocalypse. That might have been interesting. Social boundaries collapsing under pressure.

But no, through much of the series, the social dynamic revolves around the white entitlement of the two whitest, most self absorbed characters – Madison and Nick. And oddly, neither of them have any skills whatsoever to survive in the Zombie apocalypse. They don’t have medical skills like Liza, or mechanical skills like Curtis, they’re not tough or savvy like Victor, they bring nothing to the table. They should be roadkill. But ultimately, the show and the characters, both continuing and guests, situations, continually defer to them.

Which brings me to the bed and breakfast.

Because the show doesn’t just reproduce ethnic class structure in its central characters, it literally builds them into it’s setting.

A large part of the first season literally takes place in a gated community. What the hell? But yeah, that’s the whole thing. As the zombie apocalypse begins to ramp up, and things start to get heated, whoops, our white family, and their hangers on, retreat to a privileged gated community where they are protected from the scourge of urban decay. They ride out the collapse of civilisation in air condition and comfort, working on antique cars, doing neighbourhood stuff. Zombies are barely seen and not much remarked upon.

Apparently it gets worse and worse out there, apocalyptically worse, but the inhabitants of the gated community barely notice… until it’s time for them to escape. Which they do with an ingenious plan straight out of ‘I Love Lucy.’ Where do they escape to? Why Strand’s waterfront mansion, of course.

The second season sees our heroes having escaped the zombie hordes, and are now riding out the apocalypse on a Yacht. That’s right, a f***ing yacht! The zombie apocalypse is barely a dent in the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

The arc for the a lot of the second season amounted to cruising down the coast in the Yacht, with luxurious cabins and surroundings, occasionally coming to shore to meet strangers and ruin their lives, and bicker. At one point, zombie gunk clogs the engine, and we get to see what Madison and Curtis’ real relationship is. Another point, they find an Airplane crash sight and use it as an excuse to go ‘shopping’ among the luggage of dead people, trying on clothes, looking for drugs. Another point, they encounter a light house, and Nick and Madison bring about the death of the entire family there.

This formula, such as it was, wore thin pretty fast. After a few hijinks in Mexico, with untrustworthy Mexicans and bandits, the group winds up at a Vineyard/Bed and Breakfast resort.

Amazingly, despite the Zombie apocalypse, these people have managed to hold on and maintain a self sufficient island of stability. They have a quirk – which is that instead of killing zombified loved ones, they lock them securely in a vault in the basement. Quirky, but not suicidal. It’s a lot more secure than Herschel’s Barn in the Walking Dead, and the zombies don’t cause much trouble down there.

They welcome the extended Clark family, although they’re dubious about Strand. It seems that Strand was the gay lover of the leader of the Compound’s son. He’s a zombie now, and the leader, Celia, blames him and wants him to leave. So we’ve got some soap opera drama here.

This is the storyline, by the way where Madison, deliberately and maliciously, locks Celia in a roomful of zombies to be horrifically eaten alive. Celia was attempting to reach out to Madison, so explain to her why they did what they did, out of love.

At this point, I’m starting to notice a trend – Gated Community, Yacht, now a Vineyard/Bed and Breakfast resort.

This is not the Zombie Apocalypse for you and me. No sir. Not for the working class, the riff raff, not at all. This is high end, upper class Zombie apocalypse, where you still have servants and clean sheets.

And in fact, a critical conversation occurs between Madison and Celia in Madison’s room at the resort. What’s Celia doing in Madison’s room? She’s changing the sheets for her. She’s a fucking maid. She’s the head of a thriving survivor community, but the minute Madison shows up, the old rules reassert, and she’s back to being a Maid.

So of course, Madison later has to feed her to zombies and have her horrifically torn alive limb from limb. The Maid has gotten out of hand, she’s risen above her station, talking down to Madison, like they were equals or something.

At no point is there anything in the show to suggest that Celia, the overweight, late middle aged mother and Hispanic maid, has done anything to deserve this fate. If anything, she’s a heroine, who has held he community together through a crisis, and has acted with decency and humility, even to people she would have liked to have shot on sight.

And yet, the show is completely on Madison’s side as she commits this act of horrific cold blooded murder. There’s never a moment of self doubt for Madison, of guilt or recrimination, there’s no point where the show turns against her. She’s presented as a heroine, sneakily murdering an innocent woman for no reason whatsoever.

Of course, our heroes precipitate the collapse and invasion of the resort. Nick realizes that they’re horrible people and wanders off to feel sorry for himself, taking time out from wrecking more lives. Madison and her group are scattered.

Where do they wind up next?

You guessed it: A four star resort hotel! Because apparently, the Zombie apocalypse is not a reason for Paris Hilton to lower her standard!

What the hell?

What’s going on here? Gated communities, Yachts, Chic Resorts, High rise hotels? Who is writing this? Who is producing this? What kind of world do they live in? The show is shot through with this automatic sense of a privileged world view, of creators that can’t imagine the lives of ordinary people. Instead, they can only see the apocalypse through the lens of their own reality, a lens of wealth and security, walled away from the riff raff. A world where white people live lives of unearned privilege and everyone else is a natural servant class catering to their whims and needs.

A world whose privilege is so ingrained, that the leader of a frigging survivor’s community, reverts to being a maid and changing the sheets for the white woman. A world where social collapse doesn’t even dent the social order. And where the very suggestion that this social order might be upturned becomes reason to throw it all to the zombies.

So yeah, they move into a four star hotel, and Madison becomes the leader of a new group of survivors because she’s a white woman. And she establishes two priorities – keeping out the riff raff, and trying to find her son. Of course, her efforts to find her son endanger the entire community, but that’s okay, because a mother’s love for her addict son completely justifies getting everyone else killed. And don’t you dare tell her different.

Nick, the addict, has found another survivor’s community of course, and for no reason whatsoever, becomes utterly beloved and is on his way to being a leader and hero… because he’s a white boy. And, inevitably, he will precipitate a series of actions that will destroy that community, while not being held responsible at all.

Oh, and there’s a nice scene which shows off Madison’s entitlement, when visiting a heavily armed CostCo (yes, they have Costco’s in this Zombie apocalypse. F*** them!) She hears a rumour about her son, and bursts into a heavily armed group as they’re about to torture someone, demanding that they drop whatever they’re doing and pay attention and do what she tells them. Because there’s no way that could go badly. But since she’s a blonde white Karen, it doesn’t go badly for her.

Maybe for other people. But she doesn’t care.

By this time, I was just throwing objects at the TV screen.

On to the third season, and they’re back in the United States, and on a …. ranch. Of course they are. Where they go horseback riding and boar hunting, and where a plot point turns on antique pistols. And the upper class entitlement just never lets up for a minute.

I just gave up. Maybe they were making the show for Paris Hilton or the Kardashians or someone, people whose lives were so thoroughly cocooned with wealth and privilege that they just had no connection to the rest of us. Whose racial and ethnic social hierarchy was so ingrained that not even the end of the world could disturb it.

But they weren’t making it for me.

To be fair, there were plenty of disasters, plenty of tough situations. But I had the sense that the producers and writers never once stepped out of the narrow prism of their world view. Like gravity, it always manifested, it always came creeping in around the corners.

The characters were beyond stupid. Madison and Nick in particular, but practically everyone, had an appalling history of just appallingly stupid, selfish actions. They were reckless. They were illogical. Sometimes cruelly so, I had moments where I’d shout at the TV ‘no don’t do that, that makes no sense, what are you doing?’ But of course, although stupidity occasionally drove the plot, there was never an acknowledgment or accountability.

These were the worst people in the zombie apocalypse. But oddly, they weren’t hateful or evil. They were simply selfish and entitled, and the scripts would never ever call them out on it. It seemed to me that the creators and writers simply assumed that this was who and what these people were, that they were naturally entitled to be selfish and entitled and there was simply nothing wrong with that.

The communities they destroyed, the lives they ruined, were regrettable, but nobody’s fault. Somehow, privilege and entitlement meant that you really weren’t responsible for the destruction you caused. It was tragic, yes, and they could occasionally (only occasionally) feel bad, but in the end, those dead bodies were nothing to do with them.

In one sense, the Clark family, Madison and her brood, as everyone died around them, remind me of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. Perhaps a new spin on it, they were not evil people who were banal. They were banal people who spread evil.

In the end, I had nothing to root for but the zombies, and the hope that they meant the end of Madison’s world, a society that richly deserved extinction.

I don’t think I was the only one who had these reactions. From it’s beginning the show has haemorrhaged ratings, dropping dramatically through the first season and declining through each subsequent season. The fourth season saw a spike, as the show killed off key members of the cast, notably Madison and Nick, and struggled to reinvent itself by importing characters from the parent show, and manufacturing new and implausible white characters to replace the thinning Hispanics. But since that fourth season bump resumed its decline, stupid characters some of them utterly awful human beings, making stupid decisions.

It would be nice to think that perhaps it abandoned its toxic characters, it’s innate sense of entitlement and privilege, and actually managed to tell decent stories that were not criminally stupid. But frankly, I gave up on it, and I’m not coming back.

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