The sadness of sophistication has come to the boy. With a little gasp he sees himself as merely a leaf blown by the wind through the streets of his village. He knows that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun.
Sherwood Anderson; Winesburg, Ohio
Despite his somewhat inauspicious introduction in the series premiere, Nick Clark has been presented as the character to bet on in this post-walker-outbreak world. The six or so years he spent living on the streets scoring drugs made him uniquely suited to scavenging, as we’ve all previously noted. He may not have Strand’s resources, but he is resourceful. Nick’s not as disciplined as his sister Alicia, who was headed to Berkeley before everything went to hell (and whose industriousness seems to be the result of compensating for his behavior). But he’s had no trouble adapting to having less in this new life. Nick’s addiction issues have placed him in danger, as he traded a heroin high for the adrenaline rush of walking among the dead after the group made it to Rosarito and Sigourney Evil’s (Celia) clutches. But, as the back half of season two (or season 2B) kicks off, we learn that even that buzz is starting to wear off.
The midseason finale broke up the original Angelenos group into three factions: Madison and Strand joined forces to protect her daughter and Ofelia, who’s supposedly an orphan now*. Travis and Chris had already set off on their own before Daniel set fire to the Abigail compound, as father tries desperately to save his son (but since this is Travis we’re talking about, the outlook isn’t exactly rosy). Nick bought Celia’s hook, line, and sinker, and abandoned his family to stroll with the undead, with whom he empathizes in part because neither he nor the walkers intend to do any harm. By contrast, Madison couldn’t even deny being a murderer in “Shiva.”
“Grotesque” eases us back into the storyline by catching up with Nick, who somehow found Sofia, one of Thomas Abigail’s maids. She talks of reuniting a young boy with his father, but Nick is no rush to find his family. Instead, he asks if there is a “place for people like Celia.” I assume Nick’s assumed she’s turned, and that he’s looking for another walker menagerie. Sofia points him north, gives him a backpack with supplies, and warns him of La Maña, a shadowy organization comprising the kind of men who thrive in this “lawless” new world.
Nick’s sojourn from Baja to Tijuana takes up the bulk of the episode, which affords him some respite from the family drama while also ratcheting up the tension. Director Daniel Sackheim makes the desert vistas at once beautiful and daunting—Nick might think he knows where he’s going, but he doesn’t have any idea what lies between him and his destination. He’s a stranger in this land, a fact that’s underscored by the lack of dialogue. Not only is he on his own, but Nick probably couldn’t communicate with most of the people he’s likely to encounter. That point’s further driven home after he loses his supplies and almost his head in an encounter with a bat-wielding Mexican mother, who lashes out at him to protect her daughter.
Naturally, Nick stumbles upon some of the very bad men Sofia warned him about. He flees, but ends up wandering through the desert, where his survival instincts quickly kick in–not only does he think to get water from a cactus, but he also drinks his own urine. He crosses paths with a walker herd, but a car honks repeatedly and lures it away. Nick eventually dons his walker-camo again, though he doesn’t need to affect their ungainly gait thanks to a nasty dog bite on his leg. Just as we begin to wonder how well the walker blood masks the scent of his own, the bad guys show up again to dick around with the herd. At least one of them gets their just deserts, though. I don’t mean retribution for firing on Nick, it’s just their comeuppance for looking for trouble. I realize these events are mere months into the apocalypse, but it seems really shortsighted to waste ammo that way.
The action is interspersed with flashbacks to Nick’s first stint in rehab, where he met Gloria, the “Type A girl” and the first flesh-eater to appear in the pilot. Here she’s in much better health and helping Nick prepare to meet with his parents for the first time since he was sent to court-ordered rehab. He asks her to cut his dad some slack in their roleplaying, telling her that Patrick Clark is a well-read man who wouldn’t hurt a fly. Nick’s references to his father’s exhaustion and withdrawal from the family suggest his dad was suffering from depression, even though he never says the word. He does eventually admit to feeling abandoned by his father, who he soon learns died in a head-on collision. Madison shows up in another separate flashback to break the news to her son; they cry and hug, but his expression is already shuttered.
FTWD has long suggested that Nick has more in common with the undead than his fellow survivors. At this point, he’s not experiencing much of a high from his trips in walker-camouflage. Now, Nick moves among them for survival and/or to be around others like him, much the way that shooting up with heroin only gets an addict back to “normal” after prolonged used. But I had previously found Nick’s push for coexistence with beings that want you dead, even if it’s just by accident, hard to swallow. Even when it was Celia—someone presumably raised in these traditions—who was proselytizing about how the walkers merely represent the next part of the circle of life, that interpretation seemed far too literal.
So, despite the addict comparisons, Nick’s unquestioning adoption of this new philosophy wasn’t sold on me. But “Grotesque” reveals that the kinship Nick feels with the walkers actually symbolizes his relationship with his father. He might not have been there at the accident site, but Nick essentially watched his father’s life fade away. And Patrick seemingly helped spark Nick’s drug use—the father retreated to his room with his books, while his son checked out of reality with drugs. This is the real reason why Nick bought into the belief of the walkers’ state being kind of an afterlife—someone in despair is usually a much more willing convert.
Back in the present, Nick’s collapsed from the combination of exhaustion, dehydration, and his injuries. We see three people watching him from the mountains, the same people who might have been in the car that drew the attention of the herd earlier in the episode. They like Nick’s moves, but they don’t pick him up off the road. But after another flashback, he comes to and painstakingly makes his way to another town, where he meets another group of walker-tolerant folks. Nick’s bravery impresses Alejandro, a pharmacist who patches up his wound. When Nick confesses that he might prefer death, Alejandro admonishes him for seeking it out. “Death is not to be feared, but it shouldn’t be pursued.” Then he opens the doors on what looks like a bustling little town, and I’m surprised not to see Celia’s waving in the distance.
- This is the second time Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio has been shown, and the first time its collection of “grotesques” was directly referenced. So expect the next couple of episodes to unfold similarly, by focusing on one group of survivors at a time. Oh, and for people to talk some more about how people don’t talk enough about what they’re going through.
- I enjoyed this kind of standalone episode. The desert setting felt both expansive and intimate; Nick was on his own, but far from being alone. The flashbacks were neither intrusive nor overdone, and the backstory actually contributed something meaningful.
- Nick’s hallucinations in the herd also point to him looking at the walkers as just a step away from their former lives.
- Frank Dillane proves himself more than capable of carrying an episode, though I didn’t have much doubt.
- *In an interview back in May, FTWD showrunner Dave Erickson said Daniel’s death was intentionally not shown, so there’s a chance he’ll be back. So for now, Ofelia only thinks she’s an orphan.
- Guess every Robert Kirkman show gets a Danai/Danay, huh?
- Welcome back to weekly Fear The Walking Dead reviews!