Well, what do you know? There may yet be some life in this show about shambling corpses. By far the best Fear the Walking Dead episode of this season, this week's installment — "Blood in the Streets" — is the closest this series has come to an episode grabby enough to hook new viewers. All the writers had to do was take Elvis Presley's advice: A little less conversation, a little more action.
It's the second consecutive FTWD that's been markedly improved by telling multiple stories at once. Last week's episode did it by cross-cutting between two life-or-death situations: one on a zombie-filled beach and the other on a busted boat. This week, the series expands the scope, shifting between an invasion of the Abigail, a mysterious excursion to the shore, and a key bit of "once upon a time" backstory for this drama's most valuable player, Victor Strand. There's very little set-up or hand-holding here. Credited writer Kate Erickson gets right to business, and trusts that everyone at home can keep up; even better, each of the various pieces are completely integral to each other.
The hour's primary story concerns the hostage situation aboard Strand's yacht, which pays off a threat introduced way back in the season premiere. Remember when Alicia was having idle conversations on the radio with a seemingly nice guy named Jack, and the captain warned her that all strangers are threats, because they want the boat? He was right: Immediately after the opening credits, her new friend and two gun-toting accomplices storm aboard under false pretenses and then seize the helm.
In an instant, the Feariverse expands. Jack, it turns out, is an emissary of a shrewd schemer named Connor, who in the mere months since the apocalypse has been storing up useful items — and also acquiring people. He intends to add Alicia and the handy Travis to his team, and promises to let Madison, Ofelia, Christopher and Daniel take a boat to shore. But he leaves those four with his meanest lackey, Reed, who describes his boss as "big heart, strong mind, weak stomach." Just when the henchman is getting ready to liquidate the remaining passengers, another raft motors up, bearing a sniper who wipes the bad guys out.
Carrying the world-building even further, this chapter jumps back into the past to introduce Thomas Abigail (played by Dougray Scott), a filthy rich international hustler who's made his fortune exploiting the unfortunate. He met Strand in Louisiana shortly after Hurricane Katrina, which had wiped our man out. Victor initially seduced and stole from Thomas, but they soon became business partners and lovers. They separated right when the zombie plague started, with a plan to reunite in Mexico.
To make that happen, in the present day Strand sends Nick on a secret mission, having him zip over to a high-class gated oceanfront community to meet Carlos, a man who's worked for the family for most of his life. It's Carlos who has the know-how and means to get the yacht to Mexico — and it's he who uses his long-range weaponry and deadly eye to retake the boat, where he's immediately annoyed by how many extra people he must now sneak across the border.
All three parts of "Blood in the Streets" are tense and eventful, and filled with gripping moments — like the scene where Madison tries to rattle the pregnant woman who's holding her at gunpoint by asking her what she'd do if her baby was born undead. But the episode's big stars are Nick and Carlos. The latter's cool and funny, which makes him a welcome addition to a cast of characters who are too often whiny and overwhelmed. And Nick's begun to cement his place in this bunch as a crafty survivor, as unkillable as a cockroach. In the opening, he arrives in an abandoned tent city in the middle of the night, where he makes enough noise to attract a walker that he then gut, so that he can do the "blood-disguise" trick he learned last week. That sequence — so suspenseful and strange — sets the tone for what's to come.
Still, it's way too early to declare Fear the Walking Dead officially on the right course. With only three episodes left until the mid-season finale, there are still plenty of worrying signs. There may have been a welcome cutback in chit-chat this week, but whenever the characters do wax philosophical, they stick with this franchise's usual bluster about how to avoid being "weak." (Reed makes fun of Christopher for having wondered aloud if he should shoot the intruders: "If you have to ask the question, somebody should already be dead.") And after this year's early promise of an "adventure-of-the-week" format, it's mildly disappointing to see such a quick turn toward something more like what's happening in the parent series, where multiple charismatic leaders are staking out territory in the wastelands of civilization.
But for the moment anyway, this show is actually exciting. And if there's one thing we should learned from the Deads, it's to savor the good. It'll all be gone before we know it.
Previously: Plane and Simple