Toward the end of this week's Fear the Walking Dead — tellingly titled “captive” — director Craig Zisk injects some much-appreciated stylistic flair into a show that too often plays everything straight. He takes a God's-eye view of an unfolding skirmish, via a couple of striking overhead shots that make all the combatants look like toy sailors on model ships. The fight pays off the mini-cliffhanger that ended last week’s episode, where burly pirate captain Connor kidnapped Travis and Alicia off the Abigail, intending to impress them into his not-so-merry band of plundering hard-asses. Now, Madison turns the yacht around to go rescue her people, in a risky scheme that involves a weaponized zombie. The result is an especially tense five minutes or so — a cool climax, artfully shot.
And it's pretty much the only thing that happens. Yawn.
Look, "happens" is a divisive term when it comes to serialized dramas. It's all a matter of opinion. Fans of fantasy/adventure series are often split over just how much any given episode needs to move the main plot forward. Is it a waste of our time just to hang out with our favorite TV pals for a while, as they enjoy a day of downtime? Or to watch them get caught up in some side-story that has very little to do with completing their quest or vanquishing their enemies?
Those arguments are a lot easier to have though with something like Lost, Game of Thrones or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the characters are colorful and the conversations lively. Fear the Walking Dead isn't at that level — not yet, at least not. If its heroes aren't chasing, fleeing, or killing, by and large, they're just not that interesting. Episodes that are light on plot can be pretty dreary. And what's even worse about "Captive" is that after spending most of the hour on idle chit-chat and careful planning, the one sequence of actual action ends up closing the book on a potentially fruitful storyline, which never really got a chance to ripen.
So far this season, we’ve gradually seen this show's universe expand in exciting ways: Connor's group emerging out of the darkness to establish themselves as formidable opponents; the backstory, via flashback, of Strand's well-armed Mexico-based boyfriend, Thomas. This week, Madison shrugs off the warnings of the lackey Luis and changes course from south to north, planning either to trade the villain’s merciless enforcer Reed for Travis and Alicia, or to use him as bait while she and her team storm the ship where her family's imprisoned.
That journey takes time, so while the pieces are very, very, very slowly moving into place, the characters indulge in the Dead franchise's favorite pastime: criticizing each other's strength and readiness, vis-a-vis this crazy post-apocalyptic world they all find themselves in. There's a lot of idle speculation over who's gutsy enough to kill whom, and who's maybe too eager to throw themselves into the bloody fray … y'know, what passes for cocktail party conversation on these shows.
Ideally, the episode would've also taken this time to introduce us properly to Connor's people, and to break down his whole operation. Instead, Alicia just gets a brief orientation session from her old CB buddy Jack — who tells her about how they bait other boats and them seize their most valuable booty — while Travis finds himself locked in a cage by Alex, the now-livid plane-crash survivor whom Strand cut adrift two episodes ago.
But maybe the reason why credited writer Carla Ching doesn't show us much more is that, by the end of the episode, the king is dead and his organization in disarray. After Reed dies and "turns," Madison throws a hood over the creature and brings him to the dock for the prisoner exchange, where he promptly goes on a feeding frenzy, in the shadow of an impressive-looking landlocked ship. In the resulting melee — again, well-staged by Zisk and Fear's various camera-people and stunt coordinators — Alicia and Travis escape and everyone scurries back to the yacht, ready to continue on to Mexico. So much for Connor being this season's Big Bad.
For those considering what may lie ahead this year, this episode does plant a few seeds. Jack and Alex survive, and both are now nursing hurt feelings toward our heroes; no doubt they're part of the series' long-term narrative plans. And before they get bested, the bad guys get under the skins of Alicia and Christopher, warning the former that Strand won't protect her, and suggesting to the latter that he has no real ties to his fellow travelers. There's a strong likelihood that in the weeks to come these doubts could become problems. The groundwork has been laid.
But at the moment, what's most promising about FTWD's Season Two story arc is where it appears to be leading next week: to a confrontation between the Abigail and the Mexico blockade, which'll be demanding more money for safe passage than Luis is prepared to pay. That should be another nerve-wracking battle. Let's just hope that it doesn't take an entire episode to get to it, and that this time it lasts more than a few minutes. Because right now it seems like these folks are running out of stuff to talk about.
Previously: Intensity in Tent Cities