Whenever The Walking Dead co-creator Robert Kirkman reduces characters to oppositional talking points — as he often does — he makes viewers want to hate characters' whose worldviews are either expressed monotonously and/or ungenerously. Almost every one of Fear the Walking Dead's protagonists — Madison being the key exception — seems incapable of holding competing thoughts in their heads. "Not Fade Away," the most conceptually intriguing episode of the still-new show so far, suffers greatly for it.
Kirkman's one-dimensional characters present a particularly aggravating problem with tonight's episode, since "Not Fade Away" inevitably needs us to root against Lieutenant Moyers (Jamie McShane) and his brusque fellow military men. But so much of "Not Fade Away" concerns the debunking of Travis's knock-kneed optimism that you can't help but root for Moyers, even if you (like me) are a hard-left-leaning liberal.
That contrarian attitude is ironically the wrong foot that tonight's episode starts off on. In this introductory scene, Chris characteristically snipes at Travis in a video diary that catches viewers up on what we missed between the events of "The Dog" and "Not Fade Away." Chris sets up the buried truth that Travis will grapple with and ultimately awaken to by episode's end: The outlying area is not completely isolated. This means that Bowers and the military he represents is lying to Travis and his cordoned-off, five-mile-wide safe-zone neighborhood. Chris's evidence is pretty hard to ignore, too, but his position is hopeless. And honestly, who could blame Travis for ignoring Chris given how annoying Chris's behavior is right before he spots a flashing light coming from a distant apartment? We get it, Chris is hormonal and has yet to forgive Travis. He is of a certain age where many adolescent boys allow chips on their shoulders to define their personalities. But while it makes sense that Chris might say "another [safe zone residence] burned last night: better than TV," that doesn't mean he doesn't deserve a smack for letting his id talk for him.
Chris goes on to mock Travis's deference to Bowers: "[He] says we're the lucky ones. He'd throw those dudes a parade if he'd let 'em." He has a point, as we'll soon see, but how can you side with a petulant smartass whose motivation seems to be "complain bitterly, because daddy issues." There are no really sympathetic characters in "Not Fade Away." Madison is thankfully not punished or otherwise judged too harshly for going off on Nick after she discovers that he's been lying to her about kicking his drug habit. But the Travis-versus-Bowers face-off that Chris's discovery sets up is a lose-lose scenario for viewers, since it essentially asks us to either side with a weakling hero or a dickish man of action. In that scenario, don't you want to root for the guy who seems to know what he's doing? Travis's indecision may make him a welcome counterpoint to Rick Grimes's alpha-male can-do attitude. But episode writer Meaghan Oppenheimer really makes Travis, and Chris, unbearable tonight, making it hard to swallow almost any point they raise.
After all, a lot of the talking points that Bowers raises are not unreasonable. When he's first introduced, he comes off like a mid-level bureaucrat. He delivers a speech, and exasperatedly shouts down a group of protesters who want to know when telephone service will be restored, what's being done to replace medical supplies, and other burning questions. Still, Bowers's protest isn't unreasonable: He insists that he's required to read a speech, and therefore it's their job to just listen to the speech. Still, Bowers responds to queries with vague non-answers, and has a generally lousy bedside manner, like when he scoffs, "You're the lucky ones." Then again, he's got a point: Think of how lucky you would have to be to be inside a five-mile safe zone, one of only 12. The amenities that are missing? Important, but not so essential that their delayed arrival is somehow an indication of Bowers's evil nature.
What's really supposed to turn us against Bowers is his refusal to empathize with the people he's protecting. He plays golf when Travis nervously explains that people just want to be informed if loved ones are being taken away ("You could have notified his wife, sir."). It's an understandable request, but Curtis's character phrases it in such a servile way. He's also in such deep denial throughout "Not Fade Away" that he almost begs to be disliked when he dismisses Chris's claim, saying that it's probably a trick of the light, or something else.
But no, Bowers is presented in a bad light when he makes a tactless joke: "Be nice. Or I'll have to shoot ya." He also confirms the military=bad association that every zombie-film fan accepts as a given when he gives Travis an ultimatum regarding reclusive neighbor Doug: Get Doug to submit to a medical exam, or Bowers will have to force Doug to comply using strong-arm tactics. Bowers is also ostensibly bad because he doesn't tell Travis's family that Nick is a danger to the community because of his drug addiction. All of these things make Bowers unapproachable, sure, but what's the alternative? This isn't Nazi Germany, and order isn't being maintained for the sake of a monstrous social experiment: There's a population-decimating virus on the loose, and extreme measures have to be taken. What would you expect or even really want from a strict, military-ruled society if not dickishness and zero-tolerance policies?
Then again, by episode's end, it's impossible to take Bowers's side. Once people start getting abducted, one can't help but return to Team Travis. But it's pretty rough going until then, especially when Daniel Salazar speaks for Travis and his neighbors' frustration when he shares a ridiculous anecdote: "[My father] said that men do these things not because of evil: They do evil because of fear. And at that moment, I realized my father is a fool for thinking there was a difference." The laughable part of Daniel's assertion is that the majority of "Not Fade Away" boils down to choosing between "Fear" (Travis) and "Evil" (Bowers). Until the showrunners' priorities inevitably shift, my money is on Evil.
- Bowers: "Don't look at me like that. Not my order." Again, for the majority of the episode, we see that the worst thing you can say about Bowers is that he's not nice enough. That, and he doesn't go above and beyond to care for his charges, which is understandably more upsetting. But still: This line made me wish we got a Bowers-centric episode to show what this guy's daily routine is like. I tend to doubt he only plays golf and acts like a callous jerk all day long.
- Madison to Travis: "[The military] promised medicine, doctors, electricity, information [...] What about the phones? Don't you wonder why they can't get a landline?" Oh, come on. There's probably only so many things an overtaxed military can do when their job mid-zombie crisis is mostly "Assess, and remove all threats." Landlines may not be the top priority, just saying!
- Reynolds to Ofelia: "I like you, Ofelia. You're like the only thing that makes me think there's good in people." Oh, wow, talk about a boner-killer. Way to bring the make-out session to a catastrophic halt, Reynolds!