Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Fear the Walking Dead each week in a series of letters, just as they’ve done for The Walking Dead.
This week’s tradeoff is Pathetic Doug for Mr. Cufflinks, and if that’s not the greatest damn TV character trade in TV character trade history, then I’m not the Cheez-It-eating champion of my household. And Josh, I eat way more Cheez-Its than my wife.
I know a lot of important stuff happened last night, and overall this episode was a pleasure to watch, but nothing was better for me than Mr. Cufflinks’ monologue to Pathetic Doug, culminating with the “silver lining” that the weeping man’s wife was probably fine, since she has a nice body and could find someone less pathetic to do the job Doug could not. That’s just coldness for the sake of coldness, and while you wouldn’t necessarily want him as a friend (and certainly not as a cellmate), it’s fun as hell to watch.
To be fair, he did have an end game—he gets special treatment from the soldiers for everyone he drives insane, apparently, since the soldiers get nice new watches and who knows what else. And it also makes them complacent, so they get close enough to the fence to let Mr. Cufflinks steal a key.
And just when I thought I couldn’t like him any more, he saved Nick, who is one of only three other characters that really matter. I can’t imagine why he wants an addict (sorry, I don’t want to sell him short: Heroin addict) going through withdrawal in his escape, but I get the feeling Mr. Cufflinks is the kind of man that always has a plan. He’s quite obviously a sociopath, with a good amount of resentment to elite society, and the apocalypse doesn’t worry him one bit. In fact, life couldn’t be better, even inside a cage, even with zombies eating everyone in site. Some men love disorder, and he’s grinning like a cheshire cat.
Welcome to our world, Mr. Cufflinks! It’s nice to have you.
The other two characters that matter, Madison and Daniel, are both seemingly okay with torture, and we also learn that, holy shit, Daniel wasn’t one of the poor brutalized citizens under the bootheel of a tyrannical government back in El Salvador—he was the man with the knife! No wonder he became a barber…cutting seems to be his specialty.
Madison goes along with it, because she gets what Travis does not—special times call for special measures. And it’s a good thing, too, because unless they figured out the meaning of Operation Cobalt, they’d all be “humanely terminated” the next morning at 0900 hours. I don’t understand quite why the soldier held out so long, considering the fact that the entire army seems to be in mutiny—did you get the sense that the Lieutenant may not have succumbed to zombies in that building, but maybe got fragged instead?
In any case, the pacing was great in this episode, the drama was solid, and with two strong episodes in a row, we’re on a nice little upward path here heading into the season finale. I still don’t care about the kids playing dress-up and smashing plates, Travis needs to get his shit together post-haste or I’m going to give up on him completely, and I have this weird aversion to the doctor, even though I can’t quite pinpoint why. So we’re not exactly dealing with a perfect show, and we’re not dealing with the original Walking Dead, but for the first time since the pilot, I think it’s going to be super entertaining.
Anxious to hear your thoughts…
Things are happening! I thought this was the show’s best episode yet, starting with Mr. Cufflinks. At first, I thought we were seeing the future villain of Fear the Walking Dead, a Governor in the making. But now I realize that this group of survivors has a bit of an anti-hero element. Cufflinks is cold, yes, but that coldness is going to be the only thing that keeps him alive and he knows that Pathetic Doug is already a dead man. And saving Nick may have only been because he needed someone to create a distraction when he escapes, but hell, he saved Nick. I think this is one of the goodish guys and the best addition to Team Madison that we’ve got.
And let’s be clear: Madison is the alpha of this group. I know you’re already starting to pull for the zombies to eat Travis—he’s a frustrating character to watch on TV, but to be honest, I relate to him more than the rest, struggling to both protect his family and retain traits like compassion, all while the world crumbles around him. Still, in the apocalypse, you don’t want Travis (or me) leading your group. And neither would I quite want Daniel, though they certainly needed him last night.
We said before how interested we were in Daniel’s backstory in El Salvador, and it didn’t disappoint last night. Here’s another anti-hero, a former torturer for one of that nation’s many military dictators. His daughter had always assumed he was on the receiving end of the atrocities that occurred in his homeland, but the truth came out last night. We also lost Griselda last night, but not before her devout Catholicism took on new meaning. In all these years of lighting candles, she’s been seeking absolution for what her family has done. That final fever dream was disconcerting and made me regret losing her.
But the biggest reveal last night was Operation Cobolt—the “humane” extermination of Los Angeles’ survivors before the military pulls back. The atrocities they’ve already perpetrated are weighing heavy on the soldiers, but that won’t stop these battle-weary kids from obeying orders. Andrew, the corporal whom Daniel is flaying for answers, tells about locking the living and dead in the arena, and we can imagine the horror of a Hurricane Katrina/Superdome situation with the addition of zombies. Part of me thinks it’s unbelievable that the military would actively kill survivors, but the writers have actually made it seem logical. The military is fighting a losing war against zombies. They know that everyone becomes a zombie when they die—not just those who’ve been bitten. Leaving survivors behind is leaving people to their death, which is only creating more troops for the enemy.
That it seems logical, though, doesn’t make it right and gives us more reason to pull for these survivors—even Daniel who’s inexcusable torture of a nice kid who was just trying to help almost seems excusable under these extreme circumstances. Daniel’s instincts were correct here. Everyone is just trying to survive against very long odds.
And that’s what makes this episode a great one. It forces the viewer to consider what you’d do if you were Madison when the soldiers have taken your kid. When you’re Daniel, and they’ve taken your wife. When you’re Travis and you’re looking through the scope of a gun for the first time and seeing a waitress named Kimberly. When you’re Andrew and your orders are to bar the doors of an arena full of people and monsters—or when they’re eventually to put down someone you care about. Or even when you’re Cufflinks, and it’s going to require sacrificing a condemned man to get free of that cage.
I’d love your take on the military side of things, Shane. Is Operation Cobalt believable to you? When Travis saw the execution in the house on the hill when he was sitting on his rooftop, I kind of scoffed at how they were portraying the soldiers. After last night, I think I’m ready to give the writers some more respect.
I don’t think it’s exactly believable, but with a show like this, you have to be willing to look the other way on a few plot points, and I think “military plans to kill civilians” is one point I’m willing to concede. Now, since you asked, does it make any sense? No, of course not. What’s the point of even having a military presence if you’re not going to protect the people that are still alive? Why have a hospital? Why not just nuke the entire country and be done with it? But I think there are soap operatic elements to Fear the Walking Dead and its predecessor that we’ve learned not to question too closely.
Speaking of analyzing things a little too deeply, one of our chief complaints with this show has been that we never really got to see how the hell the zombie apocalypse started, which was one of the alleged drawing points of this show—it wasn’t going to skip over the origin stories. Instead, all we really got was vague hints, and that continued last night when the soldiers had to go rescue their other platoon with Travis in tow. Predictably, and sort of hilariously, the camera stayed in the car with Travis, and we just got to hear the skirmish over the radio. The reason has become pretty clear—the zombies, as they’ve created them, could never in a million years overcome an armed military unit, and there’s no way in hell you can show a battle between the two sides that looks remotely realistic. I can just picture the writers’ room huddled in conference, desperately trying to think up a scenario where loud, stumbling zombies actually defeat trained humans with machine guns and body armor, and eventually just throwing their hands up. “IT CAN’T BE DONE!” This is why we never actually get to see any zombie victories—we’re always inside a barbershop, or an army vehicle, or a house in the suburbs. Away from the action.
So on those points, I don’t think the writers deserve a ton of respect, because it’s really just a series of cop-outs designed to disguise the impossibility of the scenarios they need to happen. But again, there are certain things we have to look past as viewers if we’re going to enjoy this show, and I choose to focus on the characters and the themes. And I think you’re right, last night’s big ethical dilemma was whether Daniel’s Bolton-like flaying of Corporal Clean-Cut was justified. The shaky moral ground wasn’t explored with the elegance of Zero Dark Thirty, by any means, but I do think it came off interesting, and I think it successfully argued its point, which is that people like Daniel can be necessary in times like these. We’ve seen that kind of argument with Carol more than once on The Walking Dead, although she tends to do awful things for inexplicable reasons whereas Daniel was explicitly fighting for his wife’s, and the group’s, survival.
We have one episode left in the short first season, and I think we can expect that next week will lay the groundwork for season two. To me, that means we’ll probably see the core group materialize and reunite, and I also believe they’ll be cast into the great wide open, out of the neighborhood, and away from the tenuous safety they’ve known so far. Personally, I only want two things from the end of season one. First, I want to see all those zombies come pouring of the arena. Second, I want just one scene with Daniel and Cufflinks.
Is that too much to ask? What are you looking for from next week, Josh, to put a satisfying button on an uneven, but improving, first season?
You’re right, of course, that the soldiers getting ordered to wipe out the remaining civilians in Los Angeles is improbable, but in the context of their losing battle, it didn’t seem any more improbable than the show’s zombie premise last night. The writers did enough for me to swallow what I thought I never would through the actions and attitudes of the grunts—the low morale, the infighting, the one soldier who just says, “I can’t do this anymore.” And the lack of mourning for their asshole of a leader. The order itself seems impossible, but the way it’s being carried out speaks realistically to human nature, and as you point out, that’s really what we’re looking for in a show like this. Even if the command decision is unbelievable, I want to see believable responses.
So that’s what I’ll continue to look for. And if you’re anxious to see Cufflinks and Daniel interact, I’m looking forward to watching his escape with Nick more than anything else next week. The combination of his calculating mind and Nick’s long, strange trip should make for good TV. Although I think we’re also in for a hell of a diversion tactic from Daniel. When you’re expecting a 9am wake up call with a bullet, you can get desperate, even to the point of letting thousands of zombies loose on the streets of L.A.
But last night’s episode was crucial in setting up a good finale. The characters are established, even if the likability of some is still up in the air. The stakes are high, and the “enemy” is neither just a bunch of zombies or a a handful of evildoers but an institution that was created to protect you but now believes you’re a lost cause. That will make a huge difference between these survivors and Rick’s bunch—and one I didn’t see coming. To survive, Madison and the gang will have to become a rebel force. It started with the enhanced interrogation of a sweet, young man and may continue with outright warfare. I hope that dynamic—hiding from zombies and the military—continues into Season Two. If the government is abandoning L.A., that may be the safest place for this group to stay.
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