WARNING: Spoilers ahead for the most recent episode of “Fear the Walking Dead,” “Do Not Disturb.”
Whenever anyone encounters another group of strangers on “The Walking Dead” and “Fear the Walking Dead,” I just assume they’re bad news. Every now and then, they’re not, but for the most part, new faces spell trouble. While that’s not always a problem, it is becoming harder and harder for the device to feel purposeful. In order for it to work, it either needs to introduce an element of danger that’s unpredictable, or further develop one of the series’ already existing characters. Otherwise, it just becomes another case of bad guys with guns/bad guys with hidden agendas/bad guys who see walkers as people.
Tonight’s episode of “Fear” showcases these two extremes, with the more successful thread being the trio of douchebags Chris decides to steal supplies from. The three guys, who say they came from San Diego on a camping trip, are somewhat generic in how insufferable they are, and that’s the point. They exist to lead Chris further down the path of darkness; to get him to a place where he’s not just killing walkers, but killing people.
One could argue that his shooting of the farmer is the result of peer pressure, that its alpha-male aggression and territoriality inspires Chris to act like they do (Travis expects from the beginning that they’ve been pillaging from other people). But their bond with Chris is merely the inciting incident, not the direct cause. “FTWD” has been establishing for a while now that he’s coming apart at the seams, or at least adopting a more ruthless, possibly sadistic worldview. It’s why these newbies are so impressed with him to begin with. He gets more joy out of killing walkers than he should. That’s apparent from the moment they see him take down several zombies with military-like precision.
All this blood and testosterone ends up providing “Do Not Disturb” with its most potent moment of horror: Travis realizing how far gone his son truly is. It’s a legitimate nature-versus-nurture fear for any parent of a troubled child. Was it their parenting that made them that way? Was it an outside event, like a zombie apocalypse? Were they just born like that? Was it a combination of all of these things?
Either way, Cliff Curtis nails Travis’ slow-burn dread, allowing it to balloon until the moment when his son guns down an innocent man. At that point, the dread becomes full-on panic, the tiny explosions behind Curtis’ eyes signaling that he now knows the truth about Chris. He knows what he’s capable of. Even if Chris claims he was acting out of self-defense (which he probably will), Travis now has to face what kind of person his child actually is.
This has the potential to take “Fear the Walking” to some unsettling places. We’ve already seen Carol struggle with raising a murderous child on “The Walking Dead,” but Travis and Chris are a bit different. For one, we’ve gotten to know Chris a lot better than we ever did Lizzie, plus Chris is old enough to defend himself and become a bona fide villain, should the show decide to go that route. Also, Chris isn’t completely devoid of emotion. We’ve seen him connect with other human beings on a deep level that defies being categorized as a sociopath. He’s certainly crossed a line, but there’s still enough humanity left in him to where he could come back. It’s rare to see a character in the “Walking Dead” universe where’s it damn near impossible to predict at least some aspect of their endgame or even their next move, and that makes the Travis/Chris storyline exciting.
The same can’t be said for Alicia’s time with Elena. Despite a queasy opening sequence that will make you never look at father-and-daughter dances the same way again, the idea of a woman leaving an entire wedding party to die simply isn’t shocking. We’ve already seen numerous instances of this on both “FTWD” and “The Walking Dead,” of someone locking a group of people in with one or more walkers to keep the zombification in one place. Once again, narrative repetition is fine and all if it contributes at least some new element to a character, but by the time Alicia reunites with Madison, the business with Elena feels like little more than a detour. We learn nothing new about either of them; the latter’s personality throughout the episode defined solely by fear and self-preservation.
Maybe we’ll learn something more interesting about her in the coming weeks. Maybe she’ll end up becoming a vital part pf the show. But right now, her story feels symptomatic of a problem “Fear the Walking Dead” has always struggled with. It sometimes doesn’t trust its core story enough, turning to familiar subplots when the main path is compelling enough.
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