Justin Lubin/AMC
Jonathon Dornbush
August 24, 2015 AT 12:21 PM EDT

“What the hell is happening?”

“I have no idea.”

Those two lines are how the premiere of Fear the Walking Dead concludes, and they would be almost comical if the characters saying them hadn’t just been through such an ordeal. They ring out as a clear statement from Robert Kirkman—in one way, it signifies the knowledge gap between the characters and the audience, who is aware in broad strokes of the terror to come.

Yet, in another way, it’s also a promise from Kirkman—we may think we know what will happen, but what we think we know and what we will come to learn may be two completely divergent ideas.

In many ways, Fear the Walking Dead’s debut is purposefully a polar opposite to The Waking Dead’s pilot. (Don’t fear—I won’t be spending this entire recap comparing the two pilots, or necessarily even the two shows. But both because TWD’s pilot is one of my favorites of the last few years and because I think there are some clear choices meant to reflect how different this show will be, I think it’s worth touching on.)

The Walking Dead began as Rick’s isolated story in a quiet, disconnected space. We experienced the world at the same moment Rick saw it for the first time. Everyone stood on even footing (well, except for those who read the comic books, which I’ve avoided over the years to experience the show as a standalone entity).

But in Fear, there’s an imbalance. Presumably the audience knows, whether they’ve watched every episode of The Walking Dead or simply heard their friends talk about it, that the zombie apocalypse is coming. The protagonists of Fear, however, have no idea what to expect. And so Kirkman, co-writer Dave Erickson, and director Adam Davidson have to make the show feel fresh, surprising the viewers while not treating the pre-conceived notions or knowledge they may have as absolute junk.

Fear also sets itself apart by focusing on a family. A divided one yes, but a family bonded together by love and blood, not by circumstance.

There’s Madison (Kim Dickens), the matriarch of the group, a high school guidance counselor and mother to Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), who attends her high school, and Nick (Frank Dillane), her estranged drug-addicted son. Madison is currently seeing Travis (Cliff Curtis), an English teacher at school and divorced husband of Liza Ortiz (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and father of Christopher (Lorenzo James Henrie). Travis is still trying to be a good father to Chris, but he’s clearly head over heels in love with Madison.

Madison’s family is forced to come together when Nick reappears, now in the hospital after being hit by a car. From him is born the family’s involvement with the looming worldwide nightmare. Awaking from a doping session in a church-turned-addict’s-home, Nick finds his girlfriend Gloria gone, but he hears noises nearby. He goes to investigate, only to find dead bodies, blood, and not a single living soul… except for Gloria. At least, she’s living as far as Nick knows, but we realize what’s happened to her as she turns to face him, having just finished chowing down on another addict’s face.

She stands up before him, blocking out the sun from Nick’s view, a knife sticking out of her side, but Nick knows something is wrong even if he doesn’t know what that something is. He flees for his life, only to almost see its end when a car runs into him. A crowd rushes to his rescue as the heart of downtown Los Angeles rests steeped in fog in the distance.

Travis and Madison drag Alicia along with them to the hospital, where Madison kicks the cops questioning him out. Nick is initially as tight-lipped with them as he is with the police, deflecting most of their questions. They’re not getting anywhere, but Madison is at least happy to actually know where her son is. Travis decides to stay with him, however, while Madison heads off to school with Alicia (it’s college application day, not that college will matter…).

NEXT: Can Travis and Madison really believe Nick’s story?

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