I wonder if I would have enjoyed the last three episodes of this show as much as I did if I hadn’t spent six years watching “The Walking Dead.” They’re not doing anything magical here; I must be grading on a curve unconsciously. Setting the show on a boat is a break from zombie convention but the stories they’re telling are straightforward reprises of genre tropes — watching a loved one turn, abandoning fellow survivors to their fate, sifting through the dead’s belongings for food and medicine. Those are low-hanging fruit on the pathos tree, and they’re logical places to start the inevitable “survivors losing their humanity to survive” path that all zombie dramas inevitably take. Still, I like that they’re spending more time to enjoy that fruit instead of rushing into an endless cycle of gun battles with the warlord of the week. It’s hard to remember that “The Walking Dead” started off more inventively too, with Rick’s gang traveling to Atlanta and the CDC to try to find a cure for zombiegeddon. Since then the show’s been stuck in an endless rut of wandering the woods from one seeming safe haven to another only to encounter a more terrible enemy than the last at every turn. With plenty of brooding by Rick about ruthlessness in a ruthless world, a.k.a. “stuff” and “things,” in between.
FTWD’s not in that rut (yet). They’re content to linger on the human tragedy the cast encounters, an unusual approach for a genre that’s forever being tempted into gory scares and brain-popping shootouts. I don’t know if “The Walking Dead” has thrown a gut punch heavier than Strand striding to the stern of the boat at the end of last night’s hour without a word and hacking through the tow rope, leaving that woman and the kid to die on a raft in the middle of the ocean. That’s a microcosm of how the show succeeds: No blood, no zombies, just the implied awfulness of what’s to come. Last week’s ending, with the kids shooting their zombified mom on the pier, operated the same way. It wasn’t the fact that they had to put their mother down that grabbed you, it was the thought of what their life on the island would be like going forward. Mom was dead, little sister was a zombie, and dad’s whereabouts were unknown. They’d be all alone in a big house on an island inhabited only by “the infected.” The show even raised the prospect of joint suicide when Nick discovered their stash of poisonous pills. These elliptical endings are clever and effective, I think, because they underline a question that the zombie genre asks more insistently than most types of drama: What would you do? Would you cut the rope? If you were on the raft, would you kill the burned kid? We’re way past these questions on “The Walking Dead,” which is now basically a story of paramilitary gangs battling for turf. It’s a cartoon, true to its comic-book pedigree. FTWD is aiming for real drama, or at least real tragedy. Real drama would require more than one interesting character among the core cast.
Even their treatment of zombies suggests more interest in tragedy than in scares. Case in point was the zombie stuck in the sand dune last night who was being eaten alive by crabs. That was a nifty gross-out for a series where the bar is already high, but also sympathetic to the dead in portraying them, for once, as prey rather than predator. It’s rare in zombie killfests that you’re reminded of the humanity in the people they used to be. The sand-dune scene was an efficient way to do it. Exit question: Er, how did Travis become an expert on repairing boats? Wasn’t he a teacher in the pilot episode?