Where each of the previous episodes of Fear The Walking Dead has begun almost at the exact moment the last one left off, this was the first to let a little time elapse, to let a few things develop offscreen, to let the characters change and adapt so that when we rejoin the action things are a little different than when we left.
Nine entire days have passed since the Manawas’ neighborhood was secured by the U.S. military (calling forward to the Alexandria storyline on the original series), and things have settled into a New Normal, with Travis positioning himself as a liason between the community and the military, his ex-wife Liza providing nursing services to everyone inside the fence in need, their son Chris making video journals, Ofelia striking up a relationship with one of the soldiers (apparently in hopes of getting medicine for her mother), and Madison focused on getting Nick clean and otherwise taking care of things in their home, now with three times the headcount as before the dead started walking.
This was an important episode, in that it seemed to be the one that set up some real questions about the course this story is going to take. Obviously, having seen The Walking Dead Classic, we know that society is going to collapse completely, that the army is going to lose its hold on Los Angeles and everywhere else. It was natural to assume that there would be so many zombies (for some reason it feels odd to use this turn because the show doesn’t use it, but I’ll use it anyway) that the army would be overrun, but as things stand now it’s hard to see how that would happen: we didn’t even see any zombies in this episode. The Manawas’ neighborhood is secured behind a fence and the fence is manned with machine guns. So what’s going to bring society down?
We start to get an answer with the arrival of the doctor who praises Liza for her help with the stricken in the neighborhood, and recruits her to come to base camp and lend a sorely needed hand. It all seems aboveboard until the doctor susses that Nick has not kicked his junk habit like he’s been promising, instead sneaking into Liza’s patients’ homes and hooking himself up to their morphine drips, and when the time comes to take Griselda and her broken foot to the MAS*H unit, the army does not allow Daniel, her husband, instead snatching Nick (but not before knocking him out with the butt of a rifle).
Nick is certainly in a bit of a pickle, but his condition is hardly life-threatening, so what does the army want with him? Madison’s excursion outside the fence confirms that at best, they’re not telling the whole truth. So why don’t they want Daniel to be with Griselda? And what’s going on with the flashes across the canyon? Is it something the army is doing? Is it something the army knows about? It’s not clear yet, and that’s a good thing, but it suggests that this story is not going to be as simple as “zombies overran everything and society collapsed, the end.” It looks like society is going to have a hand in its own undoing, and that’s a far more interesting direction for this show to go.
Alan Sepinwall of HitFix, who was underwhelmed by the first few episodes of the series, appreciates the direction the show is taking:
The show is still taking a budget approach to the apocalypse, for instance, by keeping us confined to the fenced-in neighborhood and skipping over all the chaos that happened as the National Guard unit made its way there. But the sense of tension and dread was more effectively maintained with this new status quo. Though we remain ahead of the characters in ways that just can’t be avoided with the show’s timeline, the episode smartly played with our understanding, as well as our assumptions based on the parent show. To Travis and some of the other people in the neighborhood, the Guardsmen seem like heroes, but we know how these things work in the “Walking Dead” universe, which makes it easier to spot all the trouble signs in this new status quo and its maintainers. And it makes Maddie, Chris (a character in desperate need of a quick rehab) and Daniel all seem savvier for sensing the same things we can. Daniel’s story comparing the current occupation to his childhood in El Salvador was a nice showcase for Ruben Blades. It remains to be seen whether the younger actors are up for what’s coming, but the adult cast is very strong, and this was the first episode that really let Blades, Dickens, and Curtis really start to strut their stuff, as each of them began to realize at different rates that the peace of the moment is very, very temporary.
Vulture’s Simon Abrams focuses on the dynamic between Travis and Bowers, the military commander in charge of the Manawas’ neighborhood:
A lot of the talking points that Bowers raises are not unreasonable. When he’s first introduced, he comes off like a mid-level bureaucrat. He delivers a speech, and exasperatedly shouts down a group of protesters who want to know when telephone service will be restored, what’s being done to replace medical supplies, and other burning questions. Still, Bowers’s protest isn’t unreasonable: He insists that he’s required to read a speech, and therefore it’s their job to just listen to the speech. Still, Bowers responds to queries with vague non-answers, and has a generally lousy bedside manner, like when he scoffs, “You’re the lucky ones.” Then again, he’s got a point: Think of how lucky you would have to be to be inside a five-mile safe zone, one of only 12. The amenities that are missing? Important, but not so essential that their delayed arrival is somehow an indication of Bowers’s evil nature. What’s really supposed to turn us against Bowers is his refusal to empathize with the people he’s protecting. He plays golf when Travis nervously explains that people just want to be informed if loved ones are being taken away (“You could have notified his wife, sir.”). It’s an understandable request, but Curtis’s character phrases it in such a servile way. He’s also in such deep denial throughout “Not Fade Away” that he almost begs to be disliked when he dismisses Chris’s claim, saying that it’s probably a trick of the light, or something else. But no, Bowers is presented in a bad light when he makes a tactless joke: “Be nice. Or I’ll have to shoot ya.” He also confirms the military=bad association that every zombie-film fan accepts as a given when he gives Travis an ultimatum regarding reclusive neighbor Doug: Get Doug to submit to a medical exam, or Bowers will have to force Doug to comply using strong-arm tactics. Bowers is also ostensibly bad because he doesn’t tell Travis’s family that Nick is a danger to the community because of his drug addiction. All of these things make Bowers unapproachable, sure, but what’s the alternative? This isn’t Nazi Germany, and order isn’t being maintained for the sake of a monstrous social experiment: There’s a population-decimating virus on the loose, and extreme measures have to be taken. What would you expect or even really want from a strict, military-ruled society if not dickishness and zero-tolerance policies? Then again, by episode’s end, it’s impossible to take Bowers’s side. Once people start getting abducted, one can’t help but return to Team Travis. But it’s pretty rough going until then, especially when Daniel Salazar speaks for Travis and his neighbors' frustration when he shares a ridiculous anecdote: “[My father] said that men do these things not because of evil: They do evil because of fear. And at that moment, I realized my father is a fool for thinking there was a difference.” The laughable part of Daniel’s assertion is that the majority of “Not Fade Away” boils down to choosing between “Fear” (Travis) and “Evil” (Bowers). Until the showrunners' priorities inevitably shift, my money is on Evil.
Jeremy Egner of the New York Times is frustrated with Travis’ unblinking optimism, even as it shows signs of abating:
If for some reason Mr. Brightside isn’t a changed man next week, then I promise to throw a parade myself for whichever walker eats him. I get the value of positive thinking, both in life and in this story. Travis is trying to keep his family, and probably himself, from losing it, and the show needs a true believer to embody the inconceivability of a total collapse of order. But at this point the man’s seen a family friend run over repeatedly without dying; cops eat one another during a riot; hospital patients withstand gunfire fusillades; his old friend eat a dog and then try to eat him; and a beloved neighbor growl through the fence and attack her own husband. I realize Travis is meant to be flawed — he plays at being a “man of the people,” as Madison tells him, but disregards his own son. But there’s a time for optimism, and then there’s a time when a character’s dogged, sunny faith becomes absurd and tedious. “It is gonna be O.K. That’s all that you have to say,” he tells Doug. No, Travis, that’s all you have to say. The rest of us can see that, apologies to Marsellus Wallace, things are pretty far from O.K. Back in reality, Madison made her own fact-finding mission beyond the perimeter. What she found was a number of executed, yet seemingly uninfected people and storm-troopers patrolling the streets. When she relayed that to Daniel, he told her the story about the people kidnapped from his village and killed, and recalled how his father had urged him not to have hatred in his heart. “He said men do these things not because of you,” Daniel said. “They do evil because of fear. At that moment I realized my father is a fool for believing there is a difference. ” It felt like a title drop, one that cleverly refocused the show to suggest that the real apocalypse at issue isn’t the walker terror, but society’s self-consuming response to it.
And Rolling Stone’s Noel Murray has an idea where all this is headed:
With only two episodes to go, the series needed to move some key pieces into place, and to clarify the real conflict — which isn’t between human and zombie, or even between civilian and soldier, but between the heroes and their own softness. Occasionally throughout the first half of the season, the show has subtly and even wryly established how coddled the Clarks and their ilk have been, by contrasting the noise of downtown L.A. with the quiet of the ‘burbs, or having a sports-talk radio host refer to the loss of a quarterback as “a catastrophe of Biblical proportions.” But this week, as Maddie watches Nick revert to his old junkie selfishness, and hears Daniel Salazar tell a story about the military “disappearing” his neighbors back in his home country, she’s more aware than ever that her people haven’t properly prepared for hard times. And there’s a lot of high-minded chatter about how the plague is either nature reclaiming the Earth or God scorching sinners. On one of the fences, someone has used cups to spell out “Rev 21:4” — the Bible verse that reads, “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” That’s all fine, for those who aren’t scrapping for their very lives, and have the time to sit around and philosophize. But neither the writers of Fear the Walking Dead nor its main characters should forget what all of this mayhem and decay means on a day-to-day, practical level. This episode ends with Travis seeing gunshots in the same windows where his son Chris saw S.O.S. signals the day before, suggesting that the national guard may be executing everyone outside their controlled zones, whether they’re zombies or not. That’s a real threat — and one that we can only hope will make for some more gripping television over the next two weeks.
New episodes of Fear the Walking Dead air Sunday nights at 9pm ET on AMC through October 4, and recent episodes are available on demand.