For several seasons now, the world of The Walking Dead has turned to a hyper-specific storytelling gimmick when it comes to the fate of its characters. First, their status is left intentionally ambiguous, usually in the form of a teased death at the end of an episode. They’re gone for a while, sometimes all the way into the next season. Then, they return with little announcement — once again at the end of an episode, just like their initial disappearance.
Finally, in the following episode, an entire hour is devoted to what they’ve been up to the entire time they’ve been gone. It’s happened with Morgan. It’s happened with Glenn. It’s happened with Carol. It will probably happen with Heath, who’s currently missing, and it’s probably happened to several others I’m forgetting. The device was once surprising, but due to its repetition, it’s become ineffective.
So did we really think Fear The Walking Dead‘s Daniel Salazar wouldn’t come back? Hell no. Unless you see a mangled body in the Walking Dead universe (and even that’s not a surefire guarantee of death), you can’t trust that a character’s truly gone for good.
When Daniel showed up at the tail end of last week’s episode, the show hinted that he might be some kind of fever dream of Victor Strand. But the writers throw that potentially interesting trick out the window as soon as tonight’s episode, “100”, begins. We open on Daniel hobbling his way through a ruined Tijuana, burned and half-broken by the fire at Celia’s estate. He befriends a vagrant named Efrain (Jesse Borrego), who reveals that water has stopped running in the city, save for a single fountain that flows at the same time every day.
Although Daniel’s time with Efrain doesn’t do much in terms of the show’s central plot, which more or less comes to a halt this week, the sequence works from a pure visual perspective. There’s a kind of weather-beaten surrealism to the scenes of Efrain carting Daniel through the abandoned streets of Tijuana to dodge walkers, as well as a trippy sequence where Daniel confronts a walker in the pouring rain, only to see it struck by lightning. As he faces down the zombie, clad in rags and leaning on his cane, there’s something Biblical about the imagery and the way a bolt of electricity hurls down from the sky to stop the undead in its tracks and knock Daniel unconscious.
Daniel eventually gets found by Dante’s workers, and he soon discovers that Strand’s former associate — the one-time municipal president of Tijuana — is tightening his grip around the city by controlling the water supply, withholding it from anyone who won’t bow to his regime. The only reason the fountain runs every day is because a kindly woman named Lola (Lisandra Tena) is operating it from the inside. To survive, Daniel must become an enforcer for Dante’s cause, going as far as cutting off the water from the fountain and nearly beating Efrain to death.
It’s here that the story goes especially repetitive, for reasons outside the already overused plot device of the missing character. Most prominently is the fact that all the various dictatorships on Fear The Walking Dead are beginning to run together. How is Dante any different from the other thugs who we’ve seen seek out absolute power in aftermath of the zombie apocalypse? Granted, the real-life end of civilization would likely breed just as many villains, but the show does little to distinguish Dante’s personality from others, beyond his connection to Strand.
Then there’s the issue of Ofelia, yet another main cast member who’s been missing for some time. Like Daniel, we’re meant to think that she’s dead, even though she’s probably not. As soon as Daniel encounters Strand, he interrogates him about his daughter’s whereabouts, doubling down on the theme of missing (but probably still living) characters in an episode that’s already overflowing with that trope.
The saving grace of “100” is that Daniel finally does break his cycle of self-preservation. While he enforces Dante’s commands for most of the episode, he rebels against him in the final moments, refusing to throw the people who oppose him (including Strand) off the edge of the dam and turning his pistol on the oppressor. Then, when he hands his gun to Lola and asks her to mercy-kill him for his sins — past and present — she instead offers him her hand.
Both Daniel’s change of heart and Lola’s refusal to grant his death wish work against viewers’ expectations. They’re deliberate disruptions of the storytelling patterns we’ve come to expect from Fear The Walking Dead. Now, if only the show could break its missing-character pattern as well. But seeing as there’s still Ofelia’s fate to resolve, that seems unlikely, at least in the immediate future.