For those who tune into the Dead franchise for provocative post-apocalyptic what-ifs — and next to the copious amounts of gore, that's why many folks do make TWD appointment TV — tonight's episode ("Not Fade Away") has a lot to offer. The hints of meager class-war motifs from the spin-off's first few chapters are developing into a chilling vision of the world to come — a fuller introduction to the new Dystopian States Of America. But for fans of screaming, running, and flesh-munching? Well, you folks had to peer way, way off into the distance to see any action.
To be fair, this is pretty much the whole point here: to explore that gulf between security and what The Simpsons once called "horrible, horrible freedom." Last week, all three of our resident families were prevented from fleeing to the desert by the national guard. This week, they find themselves living in a false paradise, behind chain-link fences through which they can watch Los Angeles burn.
At first, Travis Manawa tries to get his family to buy into the new reality. He thinks the soldiers have a good plan: police the border, purge the dead, and maintain order until the crisis passes. But his son Chris and his girlfriend Maddie can't help but wonder what's happening out in "the Dead Zone," where they've been told no survivors remain. Why do they keep hearing noises out there, and seeing strange flashes that look like distress signals? Can any of them really trust these armed troops who are barking orders and dodging questions?
Plot-wise, the arrival of the guard has elevated a subplot that Fear the Walking Dead has been teasing all along. It's been clear since the first episode that the government knew about the zombie plague well before it escalated from "sporadic outbreak" to "epidemic" to "armageddon." Now the show's attached a couple of actual characters to this story: Moyers (Jamie McShane), a callous commanding officer who manipulates Travis into helping him while hinting at a hidden agenda; and Reynolds (Shawn Hatosy), a bright-eyed grunt who's having a fling with Ofelia Salazar. By the end of "Not Fade Away" — after the military's bullying and stonewalling culminates in the troops taking a narcotics-stealing Nick Clark into custody — even Travis begins to understand that the people in uniforms may not care all that much about the well-being of the ones who aren't.
But it takes a lot of tedious arguing and brooding to deliver that message. The most exciting sequence sees Madison Clark venturing outside the fence to investigate the possibility that there are other survivors. As she hides from mini-tanks, in streets littered with head-shot corpses, the episode builds some actual tension, capturing the horror in the surrounding hills. The rest of the hour is more sedate — practically somnambulant, in fact — as it shows the community inside the perimeter sliding into complacency and dependency.
Undoubtedly, this will all serve a larger function in FTWD's abbreviated first season. With only two episodes to go, the series needed to move some key pieces into place, and to clarify the real conflict — which isn't between human and zombie, or even between civilian and soldier, but between the heroes and their own softness. Occasionally throughout the first half of the season, the show has subtly and even wryly established how coddled the Clarks and their ilk have been, by contrasting the noise of downtown L.A. with the quiet of the 'burbs, or having a sports-talk radio host refer to the loss of a quarterback as "a catastrophe of Biblical proportions." But this week, as Maddie watches Nick revert to his old junkie selfishness, and hears Daniel Salazar tell a story about the military "disappearing" his neighbors back in his home country, she's more aware than ever that her people haven't properly prepared for hard times.
And there's a lot of high-minded chatter about how the plague is either nature reclaiming the Earth or God scorching sinners. On one of the fences, someone has used cups to spell out "Rev 21:4" — the Bible verse that reads, "And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." That's all fine, for those who aren't scrapping for their very lives, and have the time to sit around and philosophize.
But neither the writers of Fear the Walking Dead nor its main characters should forget what all of this mayhem and decay means on a day-to-day, practical level. This episode ends with Travis seeing gunshots in the same windows where his son Chris saw S.O.S. signals the day before, suggesting that the national guard may be executing everyone outside their controlled zones, whether they're zombies or not. That's a real threat — and one that we can only hope will make for some more gripping television over the next two weeks.
Previously: Family Reunion