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Where there's smoke, there's fire as Walking Dead: World Beyond hits the road

Hal Cumpston, Aliyah Royale, Alexa Mansour, and Nicolas Cantu in Walking Dead: World Beyond
Hal Cumpston, Aliyah Royale, Alexa Mansour, and Nicolas Cantu in Walking Dead: World Beyond
Photo: Jojo Whilden/AMC
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Luck is a finite resource. At some point, it’s going to run out. But not this week—though even kids this naive have to admit, surviving their ordeal at the end of this episode was pure luck, where running blind through a smoke-filled field of abandoned buses and swarms of empties somehow didn’t end up with all of them dead. They should all be making the sign of the cross, offering up hosannas, sacrificing animals...whatever gods they pray to were extremely kind to let them survive the Blaze Of Gory. Then again, when they shut the fence on that nightmare, they turned around and found themselves in an even worse one. Out of the frying pan, into the endlessly burning tire fire of death.

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“The Blaze of Gory” slightly improves on the show’s quality as compared to the pilot, but only by dint of not shoehorning in copious amounts of clunky backstory and exposition. Writer Ben Sokolowski does his best to start developing the relationships between these kids, and actually succeeds in parts, but there’s still the overwhelming sense that no one yet has a fully defined sense of who they are—and not in a “kids are still figuring out their identities!” sort of way. It’s more that the show doesn’t seem to know how to define any of its major players, save for Elton, who once again delivers reams of dialogue straight from the precocious-science-nerd playbook. Much like its core group of “just escaped almost certain death” protagonists, I hope this show’s creative team gives a little prayer of thanks every time they remember that they managed to find actor Nicolas Cantu, who is the only thing standing between Elton and intolerability.

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But now that they’re out on the open road, the show is starting to find its pacing. Picking up right where we left off, Iris’ abysmal attempt to take out an empty sends our crew off down the road, where after a night of bonding in a treehouse, they eventually confront the much-rumored “Blaze Of Gory”—a tire fire that’s been burning for who knows how many years. Despite being a beacon for any empty in the vicinity, Iris and Elton exhort the others the find a way through, because they could lose upwards of 60 days of travel time if they went all the way around it—and, as Silas notes, it would increase their chances of being caught and taken home. (Got some good news for you on that front, Silas!) Against Hope’s better judgment, they head straight into the danger, only to find that escaping one field of empties has led them straight into another. While they sleep on the next plan, Hope takes off into the smoke, presumably to sacrifice herself so the others can get out alive.

Illustration for article titled Where theres smoke, theres fire as iWalking Dead: World Beyond/i hits the road
Photo: Jojo Whilden/AMC

None of this is bad, per se; it’s more that the show can’t quite seem to find the sense of urgency its characters are experiencing. The only exception is the climactic trek through the B.O.G., which manages to elevate tension despite anyone watching presumably taking a moment to reflect on just how dumb these kids really are. (Kudos to action-TV veteran Magnus Martens for directing it with a slick momentum that almost overcomes the script’s faulty sense of structure.) It’s a bad plan by any rational standard, made worse the moment the smoke envelops them and the kids lose their bearings. Again, this show keeps dumbing down its material for no good reason; cross-cutting between the flashbacks to Felix’s classroom lessons (about how losing the sun means you lose your compass) and their current predicament (guess what the smoke immediately blocks out?) is the kind of ham-fisted, blunt-force plotting that keeps undercutting this promising series.

Of course, the adults fare even worse. Pity poor Nico Tortorella and Annet Mahendru for being saddled with dialogue that would defeat even the finest actor, à la Natalie Portman in the Star Wars prequels. Tortorella’s Felix gets the lion’s share of flashbacks this episode, where we learn that his sweet gay teenage self was so self-sacrificing, he even wrote a check for his unemployed dad after the guy kicks his kid out of the house for being queer (a harsh deployment of the f-word, here). So while Felix’s midnight trip to his childhood home—planning to kill his now-zombie parents, though we never see if he actually followed through—makes sense, it feels like the tip of the iceberg into this prickly character’s neuroses. Faring much, much worse is poor Mahendru. If you had asked me before the show aired who the ringer was in this cast of mostly newcomers, I would have singled out the Americans actor as the obvious choice. Yet the dialogue she’s served up seems to cause Mahendru to overact, as though trying to make Huck more real through sheer force of movement. Clunkers like, “Nobody gets lower than me. But that’s when the sun’s down, and the music’s up” are probably punishment for misdemeanors in some counties.

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Illustration for article titled Where theres smoke, theres fire as iWalking Dead: World Beyond/i hits the road
Photo: Jojo Whilden/AMC

There are some brights spots, most notably in the conversations between Hope and Elton. These two bonding over their respective jaded views of humanity’s impending demise was good, but eventually revealing Hope isn’t quite the tough-bitten pessimist she claims to be was a nice tweak for her character, especially coming on the heels of the show revealing she’s been leaving clues for Felix and Huck to come find them. The idea that Hope is a wannabe nihilist looking to go out in a blaze of glory (gory? sorry) to atone for her wastrel ways immediately makes her more interesting. Especially in contrast to earnest Iris, and most of all poor Silas, who may as well be a mop with wheels and a sign around it reading “sorry.” It’s genuinely surprising to see a main character so wildly underserved by their show, two episodes in. Maybe they’re setting him up to die soon, and they don’t want us to care when it happens?

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You can see the hints of a better show tugging at the edges of the screen, like it wants to be let in, if only someone could figure out how. But for now, The Walking Dead: World Beyond is still mired in its own false starts, struggling to get some momentum going without bogging it down in hoary and vague dynamics. A lot of viewers can forgive a bad first episode; we’re all used to shows that take awhile to find themselves. But World Beyond needs to get its act together, before it finds itself like one of its shambling empties, a dead program walking.

Stray observations

  • After Iris’ dumb luck manages to plunge her and the empty into a small ravine and only the undead gets impaled, Elton gets the best line of the episode while surveilling the zombie carnage: “It’s like you tackled a bag of ravioli and candy canes.”
  • Elton gives humanity about 15 years until they’re all wiped out. Hope: “I’d have given it way less, but that’s just me.”
  • Hope adopts the “endlings” label as a tag to leave Felix and Huck en route to track them down.
  • Empty of the week: The gross one that was filled with a beehive. Yuck.
  • The bonding in the treehouse over the bowling ball felt forced; much better was the casual montage of them playing Monopoly.
  • I buy that they could somehow manage to stumble their way to safety in that undead horde, but a tiny hunk of wood supporting that fence and preventing the empties from following them? Good god, grant us a small semblance of brains, World Beyond.
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Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.

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