Recap Digest: Fear the Walking Dead 1.5, "Cobalt"

Sep 28, 2015 by Alex Castle

Chris and Alicia, the teenaged characters whose main plot function to this point has been to give their parents something to worry about, had an interesting little scene in this week’s episode. After finding the home of a particularly affluent neighborhood family abandoned, they looked around for a while, then started playing house, then eventually got all dressed up, she in evening gown and he in tuxedo. Then they trashed the entire house.

It was a nice little kabuki version of the story this season appears to be telling: though the spreading virus that’s got the recently deceased up on their feet certainly started the process, society’s reaction to it, more than the zombies themselves, are bringing society down. Like last week’s excellent “Not Fade Away,” this episode was about the scales falling from characters' eyes at an alarming rate – even Travis'.

Our male lead has been much slower to grasp the increasingly obvious truth that things are never going back to the way they were, with a tendency to trust that “they” are going to get things sorted out and, a few dozen dead neighbors or so aside, he and Madison will get back to the important work of blending their families with a minimum of friction.

But that all changed when Travis' entreaty to the commanding officer in charge of the neighborhood first showed chilling contempt for “Mr. Mayor”’s concerns, then decided to grant his request and take him to see his ex-wife and stepson, with a short pit stop to snipe at an infected waitress, which of course lily-livered Travis can’t bring himself to do. Apart from illustrating the growing divide between Travis and Madison in terms of adapting to the new reality and doing what it takes to survive, these scenes show the increasing discorn within the military, as a couple of the soldiers on the ridealong decide to go AWOL and leave the CO behind, as part of “Operation Get My Ass Back to San Diego.” There are hints that this sentiment is spreading through the military, as another soldier refers to a black eye as “a momentary lapse in patriotism.” Even Travis can’t deny that the army can’t be relied on anymore.

Daniel Salazar, of course, does not hesitate to do what’s necessary, first taking Ophelia’s soldier acquaintance hostage and then torturing him until he reveals that the army is planning to “humanely terminate” everyone in the area – both living and “skin bags” alike – as an extra precaution to stop the spread of the virus. Even before Daniel reveals what he’s learned from Corporal Adams, Madison understands that Daniel’s right, that this scenario IS like the Salvadoran civil war, and that’s probably the most optimistic possible reading of the situation, and that she and Daniel and Travis and everyone else are going to have to get a lot more comfortable taking extreme measures to keep themselves safe.

Daniel does not know that his wife, Griselda, died in the course of this episode, but that was pretty easy to see coming, as she had about three lines in five episodes and they were all in Spanish. He seems pretty resigned that she’s not coming back anyway. But this episode introduced probably the most interesting new character in the history of this franchise: Nick’s nattily dressed cellmate at the MAS*H unit, Strand, played by Colman Domingo, who began the episode pushing the Manawas' distraught neighbor the rest of the way to full emotional breakdown, and ended it by bribing a soldier not to take Nick away. What this man’s plans for a sweaty, feverish junkie in withdrawal are a mystery, but we can only hope that they keep him on this show and in the main cast.

That goes double for Shawn Hatosy’s Adams, who was so great on TNT’s great sleeper cop series Southland that I hope his affection for Ophelia, and his clear ambivalence about taking part in the Army’s strategy, will lead him to forgive Daniel for turning his forearm into parchment and stick around for a while. This group is going to need somebody that knows his way around heavy weaponry.

The New York Times' Jeremy Egner focuses on Daniel’s scenes with Adams:

At the heart of this episode, of course, was a treatise on torture, as Daniel went Sweeney Todd on his daughter’s suitor. For those who prefer more didactic morality tales, it was probably a pretty troubling depiction. The filleting was fairly ghastly, for one thing, and also totally effective. What information our heroes — and by extension, we as viewers — got about Cobalt came from carving up the young man’s arm. We were all implicated.

But it was also pretty clear that the net gain in intelligence, as well as whatever cruelties he perpetrated in El Salvador, came at a cost to Daniel’s soul. This was suggested most obviously after Ofelia recoiled from his actions but was conveyed in more interesting, Gothic fashion later, when Griselda cryptically rambled as she slipped away. “I saw the devil’s face; it’s the same as yours,” she said, perhaps to some fevered vision of her husband. “Take my flesh piece by piece if that’s my penance. I loved who I loved.”

By the time Daniel climbed the steps to the rattling arena, I expected his karmic comeuppance to come bursting through the doors to feed on his guilt (as well as everything else). But it didn’t happen. There’s always next week, I guess — I don’t think those doors are going to hold.

IGN’s Matt Fowler has some perfectly reasonable questions about some of the episode’s plotting:

And what was so big about “Cobalt?” Well, it turned out to be an evacuation plan that was set to hatch in less than 24 hours. One that none of those soldiers with Travis seemed to know about because they, apparently, couldn’t wait until the next morning to leave. But one that Hatosy’s Reynolds knew all about. So why did he know and they didn’t? And why, if he liked Ofelia, did he keep it a secret from her? Not only that he’d be leaving her in less than a day, but that her mom might be euthanized? Or something. I mean, that’s what we assume right? That the infirm would be killed? He never actually said the line out loud, so it’s just speculation. Why would this information need to be tortured out of him when, given his character, he shouldn’t have been on board with it? And were we to assume, at the end, that Daniel had plans to release all two thousand of those Dodger Stadium walkers? Just to f*** up the army’s plans? Yes, that would quickly solve the show’s walker drought, but it also seems like a very dangerous idea. One that runs the risk of killing everyone, including those he wants to protect. And who’s the villain now that Moyers is gone? Dr. Exner? Is she calling the shots? Or is it that one guard who tried to take Nick away? Who’s giving the “Cobalt” command? Why does the medical center feel like two different places (a place where they heal, a place where evil guards drag crying men off to be killed?) And what are our heroes trying to do in the upcoming finale? Save their loved ones? Escape their town? Stop the army from leaving? Keep in mind, most of the main characters still don’t even know the full story about the zombies. Liza, who’s been dealing with the sick and wounded, finally was told about how everyone comes back and that it takes a headshot to end them. A lot of information has been happening off screen and away from our main players to the extent that they’re all but incapable of making non-frustrating decisions.

And Rolling Stone’s Noel Murray hopes the episode’s humor is an indication of where things are headed:

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.

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