Imagine some hypothetical family of channel-surfers who just happened to land on this week's Fear the Walking Dead, and watched the spinoff for the first time. What exactly did they see? Tonight's episode — "Sicut Cervus" — is a reasonably diverting hour of television, with enough action, drama, and mystery that even newcomers could enjoy it. But they'd get the wrong idea about what's been happening on this show for the past month or so. This episode barely seemed to logically follow anything from what's come before. At times it felt like it was missing scenes … like, maybe a year's worth.
Four baffling things in tonight's installment:
1. Remember Luis? Two weeks ago, he was a wonderful new addition to the FTWD family: a casually cool sharpshooter who's the son of Celia Flores, a longtime employee/associate of Victor Strand's boyfriend and business partner Thomas Abigail. In his entertainingly colorful way, he'd been warning everyone aboard his boss's yacht that when they reached the Mexican border, they were going to have trouble paying for everyone's safe passage. Yet at the start of this episode, the big confrontation with the armed flotilla takes place off-screen, overheard by the rest of the passengers as they hide below decks. When the gold-exchange fails as predicted, guns blaze on both sides, and when all's said and done, a surprisingly small cadre of guards are dead, as is our favorite Flores — after only about four or five total scenes on this show.
Even weirder: while Daniel stabs all of the other corpses in the brain, he's persuaded to leave Luis alone. So, to sum up: Another potentially likable character is gone (until he almost certainly turns up again in zombie form), and after all the hype, the seemingly impossible task of sailing to Abigail's compound only necessitated shooting a handful of inept goons. Talk about an anticlimax.
2. Speaking of Thomas, after he was introduced with much fanfare in the excellent episode "Blood in the Streets" — as the potential protector of our protagonists and the reason Strand's been pushing so hard to get to Mexico — he returns this week as an infected man, at death's door. By the end of the episode, he's expired, once again raising the question of why the writers bothered to create such a charismatic figure (and to cast Dougray Scott!) only to get rid of him almost immediately.
3. Last week, after some goading from Connor's brother and the resident bad-guy enforcer Reed, Christopher crossed a dangerous moral line, shooting his enemy before he'd officially died and "turned." We're supposed to believe that this one act of petty violence was the first step on the path toward a total psychotic break. In this episode, he stands idly by while his dad's girlfriend Madison is almost eaten by the undead; and when her daughter Alicia calls him on it, he threatens to hurt her. Later, he shows up in the ladies' bedroom in the middle of the knight with a knife, for purposes that go unrevealed, since the sound of a gunshot wakes everybody up and ends the potential threat. There's definitely something worth exploring in the idea that a ruined world makes killing an attractive option for someone as screwed up as this kid — but the transformation is happening awfully quickly.
4. Abigail's Baja estate is nestled next to a beachside village that, in a pre-credits scene, is the site of a gruesome mass murder, in which a priest and his acolytes start bleeding from the eyes — seemingly due to a poisoned eucharist. This all appears to have been orchestrated by Celia, a grandmotherly madwoman who believes that this zombie plague is a form of Christian resurrection … and one that she's happy to expedite. Had we spent more than a few minutes with this character in Baja before this episode, the revelations about the town and her mania might be more meaningful. Instead, it feels like three hours' worth of material crammed into one.
To reiterate: On its own merits, this episode has plenty to recommend it. The aforementioned blood-soaked communion opening is impressively disturbing. Daniel's character gets some overdue fleshing-out, as his deadly encounters with Mexican child-zombies remind him of his tragic past as a revolutionary guerrilla. Nick has a nice scene with Celia, who thinks he's been touched by God. The estate itself is a lovely place to visit, with its well-stocked kitchen, vast library of old movies and TV shows, and secret courtyard filled with undead friends and family members.
And while the scenes of Strand watching his lover die would've been more effective if we'd gotten to know Thomas better, they are undeniably moving and intimate — like a gothic horror romance, playing out in miniature in one darkened bedroom. In fact, the ship captain's arc this week is the only one that really makes sense. The younger cast members are jerked around by the whims of an an inexplicably accelerated plot, while Travis and Madison bicker unpleasantly with each other about whether or not Chris has become criminally insane. But when Victor pledges to join Thomas in the walker afterlife by committing suicide — and instead changes his mind and shoots his man in the head — that combination of sweetness and pragmatism illustrates why he's Fear's most compelling character.
But does this show know what to do with him? Do the writers have long-range plans for any of these folks? Because every time the story seems headed in an interesting direction, the next episode closes off that path and changes course. It's as though the creative team reads comments about what viewers are looking forward to seeing in future weeks — and then they choose to do the opposite, out of some perverse spite. So, for anyone out there who just joined Fear the Walking Dead in progress, be aware that whether you liked what you just saw or not, it won't matter. Next week'll probably be something else.
Previously: Naval Gazing