David S.E. Zapanta

Jul 10, 2017

In Fear the Walking Dead’s tense midseason finale, the biggest threat isn’t zombies, it’s skeletons in the closet…

This review contains spoilers.

3.7 The Unveiling & 3.8 Children Of Wrath

Depending on one’s beliefs, the idea of an apocalypse means different things to different people. For some, it’s seen as a great unveiling, a kind of judgment in which the impure are purged. For others, the apocalypse is a sudden cataclysm that brings about the end of civilisation itself. And then there are those who are prepared for the end times, who view the fall of mankind as a cosmic mulligan, the mother of all second chances. The beauty of shows like Fear The Walking Dead is a more granular examination of these perspectives. Whether the apocalypse is good or bad goes well beyond a glass half-full/half-empty mentality; at the end of the day, and at the end of the world, there is no glass. What’s left is simply water, and, as we know, liquid takes on the shape of whatever vessel contains it. That’s the nature of a fluid. It seems to me the same goes for social mores. They seem to take on the shape of any given group of people, drawn along socioeconomic lines, be they Native American or Libertarian or somewhere in between. What constitutes justice depends on which side you’re on. And what constitutes a fresh start depends on the kinds of skeletons one has in their closet—or under their floorboards.

I admire FTWD’s third season for trying to take all of this on—all in the span of eight hours. In that time, we’ve delved into issues of race in a way that The Walking Dead never has. At first, it seems as though Troy Otto and his militia are taking patriotism too far by wiping out Mexican refugees as they come north over the border. But once we reach the Ottos’ ranch, it soon becomes clear that this hatred extends to brown people in general, and to Native Americans in particular. To men like Jeremiah Otto, the world may have ended, but old conflicts and old beliefs persist. The Clark family blundered into this feud. It’s one thing to throw in with the Ottos in the name of survival, but once what’s at stake becomes clear, to remain at the ranch is no longer acceptable. And yet, remain they do. Worse, Madison takes an active role in perpetrating crimes against the Black Hat tribe. What makes this more egregious—and it’s here that the two-part mid-season finale stumbles greatly—is the idea that Madison doesn’t care about which side of the conflict she’s on. Her thirst for survival takes on the shape of whatever microcosm of society she calls home. And that’s just not good enough. To ride out the conflict from the sidelines is one thing. But Madison can’t and won’t do that. She’s not concerned with the greater good—she only cares about her family’s immediate survival.

Taking a step back, the feud between the ranchers and the Black Hat tribe boils down to land—who owns it, and who can bear to defend it. Jeremiah contends that the land is rightfully, legally theirs, and while this may be true on paper, sacred burial grounds fall within the ranch’s borders. All of which eventually leads first to bad blood, then spilled blood. While it may seem like their animosity is two sides of the same coin, it’s not. Jeremiah is motivated by his hatred of “the red man,” a thuggish people who deserve to live in squalor. Walker, on the other hand, is motivated by an anger that stems from the desecration of his ancestors’ final resting place. Jeremiah would be happy if the Black Hat tribe was wiped off the map. Walker simply wants justice. Which is why he’s willing to parlay with Jake to avoid an all-out war. And for a while, it seems like peace is within reach.

Until Madison gets involved. She’s not so much interested in understanding or resolving the conflict as she is in perpetuating and escalating it. One could argue that Madison is prickly and abrasive, a hard character to like under the best conditions. Sure, she’s tough as nails, fierce, and fiercely loyal. But she also makes questionable choices that are often rooted in a me-first attitude that gets people killed. Last season was all about finding Nick, a kid who was lost even before the apocalypse. This season, her attention has turned to protecting Alicia, no matter what the cost. This would be all well and good, if this season were solely about the Clarks’ continued survival. But it’s not. FTWD’s third season has really been about the Ottos.

Understandably, it doesn’t behoove AMC to entirely shift its focus to a new family, but there has to be a better way of integrating our main cast of survivors with a new group. Once the truth about the ranch’s racist underpinnings became more obvious, the less I cared if any of the ranchers (save for a select few) lived or died. It’s not really clear who we as viewers are meant to root for, either. Logic would dictate the Clarks are the home team, but I found myself rooting for the people who lost the most—in this case, the Black Hat tribe. Walker’s killing of the search team and Phil McCarthy’s grisly fate definitely tipped the scales in favor of the ranch, but all of that went out the window once Troy murdered the Trimbols.

Indeed, I stopped caring about Madison once she blackmailed Troy to break the parlay. But it’s when she stole Walker’s reliquary that I actually began to hate her. By stealing the trailer, the show squanders the opportunity to engage in a bigger, more meaningful conversation about the toxic nature of racism, reducing it instead to a series of plot devices. Because of this, I found the finale to be wholly unsatisfying. The death of a bigot does not equal the death of bigotry.

That being said, I liked Michael Greyeyes very much as Qaletqa Walker. He’s volatile and mercurial, seesawing between magnanimity and violent rage in a way that deepens the character. Dayton Callie is likewise good as Jeremiah, presenting us with a deeply flawed patriarch who’s struggling to maintain control over a world spinning out of control. His final stand-off with Madison is one of the finale’s stronger moments. But the real standout in this episode is Colman Domingo. His finding the Abigail is unexpectedly poignant. Just a ghost ship now, the yacht is symbolic of a bygone era, of luxuriating in niceties that no longer exist. But it’s Strand’s unlikely conversation with a Russian cosmonaut that’s among this season’s most affecting moments. The two connect not only because they are survivors, but also through a shared love of literature, bridging an insurmountable distance by quoting Wilde and Chekhov. But it’s a quote from Marx that strikes a chord with Strand: “Last words are for fools who have not said enough.” The doomed cosmonaut follows this up with his own parting thought, telling a tearful Strand, “The world will not die until you die.” In other words, there will not be darkness as long as a single candle burns.

Some closing thoughts:

After being MIA for the majority of the season, revealing Ofelia as part of the Black Hat tribe was very clever. Her presence on the reservation speaks to the bigger idea of loyalty. Unlike Madison, Ofelia is very grounded in her loyalty to the community that took her in. And unlike Madison, Ofelia is keenly aware of the feud’s underlying racism. To the Ottos, she and Walker’s people are defined by the color of their skin. FTWD goes to great lengths to remind us that Madison isn’t taking sides, which is to suggest that she isn’t a racist. That the Ottos take in the Clarks doesn’t make them complicit in the ranch’s racism; no, it’s staying that makes them complicit.

FTWD needs to fix its Madison problem. As of now, she’s very unsymapthetic, to the point that her own “children of wrath” have turned against her. If her own tragic backstory tells us anything, no matter what her motivations might have been, she’s no better (or more innocent) than Jeremiah Otto.

Read David’s review of the previous episode, Red Dirt, here.