For an entire season now, Fear the Walking Dead has more or less been on the road (or on the water) as its core group of survivors drifts from place to place, with each community falling apart quicker than the last. The Ottos’ ranch will likely fall apart, too at some point, but there’s still a sense that the Clarks want to take their time before making a move against them. There’s also the chance — especially with Nick — that not everyone in the Clarks’ party will want to treat the Ottos as the enemy. That may be the plan now, but tonight’s episode, “Teotwawki”, goes to great lengths to build some bonding moments between members of the two families.
That’s not to say it necessarily depicts all of the Ottos as wholly good people. Troy, for instance, is clearly still somewhat disturbed, but then again, so is Nick. When the troubled teenager has the chance to kill Troy, he doesn’t do it, and his reasoning is left somewhat ambiguous. But given that the two characters break down in laughter after wrestling with each other, I’d wager to say that he sees some of the same instability in himself. Perhaps they’re more of kindred spirits than Nick (and especially Madison) would like to believe.
Likewise, Alicia hangs out with a group of teenagers on the ranch under the pretense of watching their Christian band perform. Yes, even in the zombie apocalypse, there will probably still be youth groups. But once she arrives, the kids all smoke weed and introduce Alicia to Jeff: a severed walker head kept in a birdcage, still very much reanimated and snapping its jaws.
It’s a striking image in the Fear the Walking Dead, and yet nowhere as disturbing as one would think; at least not in the traditional sense. On one level, it’s a post-apocalyptic perversion of the teenage party game. In the old world, teenagers played Truth or Dare or Spin the Bottle. Here, they pass around an object that could easily kill any one of them. But there’s another level to all of this, too. For months now, walkers have been a devastating threat to the Clarks, wiping out everything they once loved. So when Alicia looks into the eyes of this zombie, now saddled with a humiliating pet name an existence, it’s a minor victory for her. What was once threatening has now been made into a plaything, and that’s comforting to her. She enters that den prepared to hate the rest of her peers, but she ends up connecting to them. As with Troy, these kids are definitely messed up, but not in the same was as, say, The Saviors or The Hunters on The Walking Dead. That could make it a lot more difficult for the Clarks to stick to the mission at hand.
And that’s a good thing. Although there have been strong stretches since the Clarks have gone on the lam, some of the best installments of Fear the Walking Dead are still those early episodes where they were confined to one place. Unlike its sister show, this is a series that does well when it takes its time. I’d much rather Madison negotiate her feelings toward Jeremiah than immediately drive a knife into him. As his outdated survival instruction videos indicate, he may have a few screws loose as well, but for the time being, it seems that he definitely wants her and her family in his community.
For Madison’s part, she still hasn’t ceased scheming against the Ottos, which makes for a compelling kind of tension the show hasn’t had in a while. The fact that Jeremiah’s other son, Jake, seems genuinely good and stable, only adds to that tension in the best way possible.
The only time the episode falters is when it moves away from the ranch to focus on Strand, who has sought out his and Tomas’ former business associate, Dante. Dante doesn’t take kindly to Strand showing up, and despite another fine performance from Colman Domingo that balances swagger and fear (and a surprise appearance from someone that I won’t spoil in this article), it all just feels secondary to what happens at the ranch. Hopefully, the show will get Strand there soon and keep the whole gang there for the bulk of the season. They could all use a break, even if it’s a tense one.