It's taken a while — perhaps too long, for some viewers — for Fear the Walking Dead to trot out some of the powerhouse actors that have been waiting in the wings. Rubén Blades didn't show up until the second week. Shawn Hatosy made his first appearance (barely) last week. And now this season's penultimate installment — "Cobalt" — introduces someone theater geeks have been waiting to see since the show's cast was announced. Colman Domingo, the Obie-winning co-star of the rock musical Passing Strange (and Tony-nominated for The Scottsboro Boys), kicks off this episode with what could be called a "reverse Patton" speech. Under the shadow of a backwards American flag, seated in a government holding-pen, Domingo's character Strand saps the will of his cellmate, one needling insult at a time. In less than five minutes — before the opening credits, no less — he becomes the most fascinating person on the show.
That's not a knock against Fear so much as it's a big thumbs-up for Domingo. Because this is the spin-off series' best episode yet — at times even "best TV of the year" good.
Writing for television is such a collaborative process that it's usually misguided to give credit for an especially strong script to any one person. That said, remember this name: David Wiener. He gets his first FTWD "written by" this week, after serving as a co-executive producer on the first four episodes (and working on The Killing and Last Resort previously). There's a wonderfully pungent flavor to Wiener's dialogue in "Cobalt," unlike anything this show has served up before.
It starts with that Strand monologue, who's being held in the facility where the National Guard has been keeping the sick and the troublemakers — the place where the junkie Nick Clark and the dying Griselda Salazar were taken at the end of last week's episode, "Not Fade Away." The newbie only gets three scenes, which isn't enough to explain who he is, or why he's being detained. But Strand is clearly a man with a plan. As he asks about the attractiveness of a fellow prisoner's missing wife like a David Mamet villain ("Did Maria… keep herself up? Her figure, Douglass. Her shape."), he gets across his longstanding worldview: only the fit survive. Those who aren't physically strong enough should surround themselves with people they can use. And he's apparently been cutting deals with the guards to keep only the most potentially helpful folks by his side — one of whom turns out to be Nick.
"Cobalt" is similar to the previous episode in that it establishes the current state of Los Angeles: cordoned off into safe zones, patrolled by soldiers who don't really seem to care whether the civilians are doing okay. But Wiener and company ratchet up the tension this week, forcing confrontations. Blades' Daniel Salazar ties up Hatosy's well-meaning Corporal Adams, and tortures him to find out the Guard's secret scheme. Travis Manawa goes to his military liaison Lieutenant Moyers to demand that he be allowed to check up on Nick and Griselda (as well as his ex-wife Liza, who's been drafted as an emergency nurse). The only subplot with no real urgency sees Alicia Clark and Chris Manawa breaking into an abandoned McMansion and living like rich folks for an afternoon — and even those scenes have a sweetness and poignancy that have been absent from their storylines all season.
The title refers to the codeword for the Guard's ultimate mission, which is to evacuate Los Angeles after "humanely" terminating any remaining human survivors. (Their preferred method of execution involves a bolt-gun, which should be familiar to anyone who's seen No Country for Old Men.) The rest of the episode is really a consideration of what this means — not just to the overall narrative, but to what the series is about.
One of the reasons for doing a Walking Dead prequel was so that producers Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson could take a look what it's like for society to break down, and how long it takes for citizens to adjust. These last two episodes have been functioned as their own mini-drama, illustrating Travis and his makeshift family's dawning awareness that there's no law any more, and thus no reason to trust people in uniforms. Moyers makes that clear to Travis when he explains why some people get to travel at will and others are stuck behind fences. "I said you couldn't do that," he grunts. "I can do anything I want. I've got guns."
The blunt wit of that remark is a big part of what makes "Cobalt" so entertaining. The episode is littered with choice lines: Strand responding to Nick's puking by saying, "I was wishing we had something to mask the smell of urine… you saved the day," or a soldier declaring "I got a new mission: Operation Gettin' My Ass Back To San Diego." Even the steely Dr. Bethany Exner (introduced last week, and played by Sandrine Holt) gets in on the act, defining the stakes of their job to Liza by saying, "One slip up and we all start figuring out how the neighbors taste."
Next week wraps up FTWD's first season, and there will be a lot at stake, in terms of setting up what the series is going to be going forward. But so long as the writing and the characters can stay as strong as they are here —so long as the show can keep bring in a Strand or a Moyers occasionally, to give amusingly articulate little lectures about what it means to survive — then Fear's future looks bright. Or at least as bright as a zombie apocalypse can ever be.
Previously: Army Surplus