"Captives" is a relatively frustrating comedown after last week's action-packed episode. There's ultimately too much rhapsodizing about guilt and responsibility and not enough, well, action. The few exciting developments we do get don't appear to be motivated by any sense of responsibility.
Nevertheless, "Captives" does reassure us that virtually every major character has something they want to get off their chests. That's what makes an episode like this one impossible to dismiss: At its heart, Fear the Walking Dead is essentially a multi-character-driven drama. The traditional narrative becomes more prominent as "Captives" goes on, but it's most interesting when episode writer Carla Ching focuses on the skeletons that motivate each character to clean out their respective closets.
Travis's family is a democracy now that Nick, Madison, Strand, and even Chris are helping to make major decisions. The only problem? They're all forced to make decisions that inevitably haunt them. It's like what Daniel says about the men he knew who deserved to be feared: None of them needed to boast about themselves to be fearsome. Likewise, there comes a point where I can't help but wonder why these characters spend so much time — most of tonight's episode, really — talking about what makes them feel guilty rather than actually doing something about it.
The show's talk-centric approach to conflict resolution is arguably most annoying when Chris and Madison discuss their respective feelings of inadequacy. Chris is, predictably enough, most annoying. It's a familiar cycle: He feels guilty, attempts to solve problems while creating others, and never deals with the fact that his latest actions also have negative consequences. In this episode, Chris laments that he let Reed and his crew aboard the Abigail. He wants to make things right. And while the show's creators leave the cause of Reed's death a mystery, it seems pretty obvious that Chris kills him because he regrets not having been more decisive. He could have done something but didn't, as he confesses to Nick.
So he presumably tries to make amends by dispatching Reed. Chris's acting out makes sense. It also makes sense that he would, after killing Reed, hide from his family. But the fact that he just vanishes after he (seemingly) lies to them about how Reed needed to die — he supposedly appeared to be on the verge of turning into a zombie — is what makes Chris's story so dissatisfying. There's no accountability, nor any sign that Chris regrets what he's done. He just leaves it to Madison and the others to clean up his mess, proving once again why he is the show's most annoying character.
Madison fares a little better when she confronts Nick, telling him that she's uncomfortable with how much responsibility he's taking on. She fears he's become too "comfortable" with a gun, and chews out Strand for letting him be the one who made contact with Luis. Madison tries to be more proactive, essentially grounding Nick, and takes his place by negotiating a hostage swap: Reed for Travis and Alicia. That hostage swap goes wrong, thanks to Chris's reckless actions. But Madison's decision to take responsibility — and act like one of the remaining parents in her own family — is a stirring one. Unfortunately, she goes from helicopter mom to levelheaded badass in one fell swoop. Madison's motives are interesting in theory but don't practically add much to her rote actions.
Travis's motivating sense of guilt, on the other hand, is compelling both intellectually and viscerally. He's confronted by Alex, a character whose return seemed unlikely at best this time last week. To be frank, her return is rather contrived and preposterous: She was rescued by Connor because … he thought he could use her? I get that Connor's deal is that he's always on the lookout for new talent, or maybe just new recruits whose skills he can exploit. But I tend to doubt that Alex's assets were immediately apparent after she dealt with Jake.
Still, Alex's return forces Travis to recognize something: He's just as responsible for Alex's near-death experience as Strand is. He may not have set her adrift, but, in Alex's eyes, Travis knew enough to know what he was doing. This leads to a theatrical but emotionally satisfying confrontation between Alex and Travis. Actress Michelle Ang really nails her lines when she backs Travis into a corner, refusing to let him off the hook: "You put us in the raft. You did that […] I saw your face. You knew what would happen. And you chose." In an indirect way, Alex's decision to give Abigail's location to Connor's crew is also Travis's fault. There's no wiggle room here; Travis has to accept that he messed up, and even recognizes that apologizing to Alex simply won't cut it. He made a choice, and it backfired. Who knows? He may even be affected by that decision in future episodes!
Then again, the strengths of Travis's character arc in "Captives" speaks to one of the reasons why Fear the Walking Dead's second season has generally been superior to its first: Actions usually speak louder than words ever could. Characters have learned to adapt, seen more horrors, and gone to more unexpected places in the last four episodes than they did throughout season one. Series co-creator Robert Kirkman's eccentric, dialogue-intensive approach to drama has never been consistently effective, not even in the comics. But in the last few episodes, he and his fellow Fear the Walking Dead creators have embraced the idea of using the plot to tease out nuance within the characters, not the other way around. To think otherwise would be like putting the proverbial cart before the horse, and that approach was … well, not that effective last season. Tonight's episode isn't as strong as it could've been, but its weaknesses say a lot about what makes the series so compelling.
Jack to Alicia: "Do you trust me?" I'll answer for Alicia: Hell no! Why should she trust him? Why does she trust him? Travis needs to sit Alicia down and talk some sense into her. Because, holy cow, how did Alicia spend so much time getting sucked in by Jack? I thought she was conning him, but she wasn't! This girl's got a few screws loose.
Did anyone actually believe that Reed had it in him to be as bad as Daniel? Or maybe just dangerous beyond a superficial all-bark-no-bite kind of way?
I can't help but dwell on this: Why would Connor immediately trust Alex enough to heed her advice and take Travis into his midst? What exactly did she do to earn his trust so quickly?
Alicia's mini-monologue — "Maybe it was always that way. Maybe we spent a lot of time convincing ourselves that the laws of nature do not apply" — is irresistibly soapy. It's like it was airlifted from an old episode of Dark Shadows!