Here's a question for those of you who’ve been watching Fear the Walking Dead since last summer: Who do you tune in for? Which character, or characters, are you excited to spend time with every week? Aside from Victor Strand, is there anyone on this show whose ongoing participation matters? Think about the original Walking Dead. Even at its most tedious and uninspired, that series still has Michonne, Carol, Glenn, and Daryl to cheer on.
Who does this spinoff have?
In Fear's midseason finale — "Shiva" — nearly every bit of action is tied to the fractured relationships among these people whom we're supposed to care deeply about. It's meant to be meaningful that Strand lost Celia's trust when he shot Thomas in the head. We're asked to share Travis' worries that his son Christopher is sliding into violent mental illness, and to feel bad that Madison is losing touch with her son, Nick. The broken connections are primarily what this episode's about. But if these characters aren't well-developed — and by and large, they haven't been — then there's really nothing to see here.
And that's deeply disappointing, for a couple of reasons. First off, it's a betrayal of that brief, hopeful period earlier this season when it seemed like this show had turned a corner. The writers had almost realized that thrills and suspense — and not soul-searching and family drama — were their strengths. Once upon a time, we were promised an entirely new approach to the Walking Dead concept, with regular changes of scenery and a fresh life-or-death adventure every week. But instead, here in the midseason finale, we got the culmination of several consecutive dreary episodes, where the plot's pretty much been an afterthought. "What have these people become?" has taken center stage, crowding out the far more interesting question of "How will they survive?"
"Shiva" is also a letdown because the credited writer is David Wiener, who penned Season One's best episode: "Cobalt." That installment featured legitimately tense confrontations, and flavorful dialogue. But over and over again this week, as the characters get some time alone to say what's been on their minds, they seem tongue-tied — as though even they realize that nothing they've done on the show up to this point has been weighty enough to make these moments as crucial as the script demands.
More than anything, Fear the Walking Dead right now is suffering from an all-too-common problem in modern TV dramas: The themes appear to be driving the narrative, rather than emerging organically. The finale is a fairly strong episode conceptually; it just doesn't earn any of the big philosophical questions it raises. Picking up on last week's revelation that Celia believes her zombified friends and family to be spiritually evolved beings, this episode asks our heroes to prove her wrong, and to justify their own violent, godless natures. Even though we've barely seen either the Clarks or the Manawas kill anyone — living or undead — the storyline now depends on Chris thinking of himself as an evil person, and on Nick buying into their companion's crackpot theology. Whether or not their motivations are plausible, they're necessary to get the show to where it wants to be at midseason, with the characters scattered and questioning themselves.
All of this may have made perfect sense when it was laid out on index cards and cork-boards in the writers' room. But to use a showbiz term: It doesn't play. The strongest material here involves Daniel, because aside from Strand he's the only one in this cast who seems legitimately dangerous. He spends most of this week as Celia's prisoner, forced to confront the ghosts of the loved ones he's lost and the people he killed back when he was a young rebel in Central America. In the end, Celia can't break Daniel's conviction that human beings sometimes have to behave in abominable ways to stay alive — an argument he essentially "wins" by burning down the Abigail compound.
That fire brings some belated urgency to the episode, forcing everyone in the final minutes to make an immediate decision about what they want to do next (rather than allowing them to keep sitting around and debating). Strand corrals a truckload of his boat-mates and announces his plan to take to the seas again. But Travis feels obliged to stay behind and prove that he can "be there" for his son. And Nick, rather ridiculously, tells Madison that he thinks Celia "knew what we are," and he chooses to roam among the walkers, letting go of all "hate." The image of him guts-smeared, lit by distant flames and disappearing into the night, would almost be hauntingly poetic, if it didn't feel like the show's writers came up with that ending first and then awkwardly filled in the rest of the story.
So Fear the Walking Dead heads into an intermission for the next few months, with everything in disarray. Some characters are headed back to the boat. Some are staying in Baja. When the show returns, will we be jumping back and forth between the two groups? Or are Nick, Chris, and Travis going to be out of the story for a while? If they are, how many viewers would actually complain? More to the point: How many will still be watching?
Previously: Here's Blood in Your Eye