When The Walking Dead premiered on AMC in 2010, I was in film school, inundating myself exclusively with art-house cinema and classic literature. If I ever watched television at that time, which was rare given my growing desperation to see every Béla Tarr movie, it was either to binge-revisit Mad Men before a new season, or to have an excuse to host a party (for the Oscars, the Tony Awards, the Kitten Bowl).
But as the zombie show became an international hit, it also emerged as a ubiquitous subject of conversation; its presence in class discussions and social media feeds became a toxic reminder, I felt, of our social inclination towards bandwagoning. Naturally, I responded by avoiding the series and its exhaustive fandom as an act of petulant defiance.
Seven years on and knee-deep in Peak TV, I have still never read the graphic novels, nor have I seen a single episode ofThe Walking Dead, its recap chat show Talking Dead or its spinoff prequel, Fear the Walking Dead. I have, however, watched all of the grungy, sharply executed AMC digital series Fear the Walking Dead: Passage, with enough pleasure to wonder: What have I been missing all these years?
Passage is the second season of the spinoff’s spinoff, following last year’s Fear the Walking Dead: Flight 462 (which I have also not seen). An anthology series, each season provides a distinct sub-narrative from within Fear the Walking Dead’s mythology, in the same way that the separate short films of The Animatrix filled in story space between the features in The Matrix trilogy.
In the hardscrabble landscape of this recent season, Gabi (played by Mishel Prada, immediately convincing), a wounded survivor of a bomb attack on Los Angeles, has stumbled alone and wide-eyed into the crusty domain of what I’m pretty sure are zombies (the only term used to describe them is “the sick,” so I’m making an educated guess here). On the verge of being hurt—infected? eaten? killed?—she is rescued by the staunch and stoic Sierra (12 Years a Slave’s Kelsey Scott, in a commanding lead performance), who is looking for fellow humans. Gabi appears vulnerable at first, with a twisted ankle and trusting eyes, but she soon offers a wily exchange: for Sierra’s protection, Gabi will bring her to a tunnel, where her boyfriend (Michael Mosley) is supposedly stockpiling supplies while training soldiers for a full-blown confrontation.
Passage takes place over 16 episodes of barely a minute each, for a cumulative season run-time of less than fifteen minutes. Both digital spinoffs, which aired in segments between commercial breaks of TWD, were written entirely by Lauren Signorino and Michael Zunic. Former assistants-turned-writers, Signorino and Zunic gird their storytelling with an exquisite shared economy more typical in the longform dramatic space.
It takes them 50 seconds (about the length of the pilot) to set Gabi and Sierra on the path to the titular passage as comrades; and in that time, the writers stage two upsettingly vivid action sequences and some spare, rough-and-tumble exposition in a landscape eviscerated by plague. Their combined specialty is rhythmic dialogue, which Scott and Prada deliver with the ferocious patter of Mamet characters concerned solely about dismemberment.
Sierra: There’s nowhere to go.
Gabi: What if I knew a place?
Sierra: If you knew a safe place, you’d be at it.
Gabi: South. Mexico’s better.
The actors’ complement, director Andrew Bernstein, infuses the hazily dystopian urban atmospherics of I Am Legend with the editorial crunch of Crank: High Voltage. Life-or-death battles whizz by, raising the heart rate to hummingbird levels in mere minutes. And while the cinematography by Timothy A. Burton leans heavy-handedly on dusty lenses, first-person POV shots and lightning-quick spurts of blood that disgust in their nearness, the Passage very quickly becomes a clinic in (relatively) low-budget snapshot world-building.
Rather than create blooper-like outtakes exclusively targeted to Fear fans—an ironic tactic used to Emmy-winning effect by AMC in its Better Call Saul-adjacent Los Pollos Hermanos Employee Training videos—the showrunners walk a tense tightrope here between hyper-specificity and vagueness. Ultimately, Bernstein’s direction lends the season’s predictably gruesome conclusion an unpredictable (and strangely handsome) existential violence.
As a newcomer to this ever-expanding universe, the assaultive bloodletting was a genuine shock. Yet it was undeniably satisfying to finally be introduced to Kirkmanian carnage and Greg Nicotero’s by-now-legendary zombifying makeup. I’m not the only one to notice how fastidiously and (seemingly) effortlessly this juxtaposition was achieved: Passage was nominated for two Emmys, one for Scott’s powerful performance, one for Outstanding Short Form Series.
Disappointingly, the TV Academy has yet to separate comedy and drama series in the short-form category, despite the overabundance of high-level digital and broadcast programs in both genres. As a result, Passage and Employee Training (the victor) competed last weekend against such programming as Comedy Central’s Hack Into Broad City, an apples-and-oranges scenario that wound up disrespecting the nominees.
Still, the visual and tactile achievements of this vicious micro-series suggest that there is under-recognized craftsmanship at work in the parent shows, beyond acclaimed below-the-line artists like Nicotero or stunt coordinator Monty L. Simons. If, for example, the lead performances of Andrew Lincoln and Kim Dickens were known to have the heft of Scott’s or Prada’s; or if future seasons were to be spearheaded by a guiding creative force, as Mimi Leder was on The Leftovers (a fantastical idea in its own right), could not TWD or FtWD be elevated in critical discourse to the status of its mythological archenemy, Game of Thrones?
Given its brevity above all, a more perfect taste of the franchise than Passage is hard to imagine. But personally, I’m ready for a bigger bite.
Fear the Walking Dead: Passage is available on AMC.com.
Sean L. Malin is a media critic and producer based in Los Angeles. He is a frequent contributor to The Austin Chronicle and Filmmaker Magazine; and he is the editor-in-chief of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism.