I'm of two minds about "Do Not Disturb." The episode's strongest elements are rare for Fear the Walking Dead: decisions motivated by sharp, easy-to-follow characterizations, and action setpieces that focus on circumstantial peril without downplaying characters' emotional turmoil. But the stuff that doesn't work speaks volume about the show's tendency of not playing fair with viewers' expectations.
We see the best and the worst of Fear the Walking Dead in the scene where Alicia is trapped on a hotel balcony. Zombies are threatening to break the veranda's sliding-door glass, and we get a point-of-view shot of the ground beneath Alicia's balcony. Escape seems impossible. Enter Helena, a mysterious, all-business hotel manager who throws Alicia a bedsheet that she uses to shimmy from one balcony to the next.
All in all, it's a fairly tense scene. But a key element has been ignored, or perhaps intentionally covered up: We can't see the ledge that connects the two balconies until Helena tosses over the bedsheets. Episode director Michael McDonough — no relation to The Guard director John Michael McDonagh — gooses the tension of this scene by blocking our view of Alicia's surroundings. This is what I mean by "not playing fair." The solution to Alicia's problem only presents itself when it's convenient.
I know it seems like I'm belaboring a minor point for argument's sake, but bear with me: If we had been able to see the ledge, and known that Alicia had a way to get to safety, the scene would have felt a little more tense. There's some brick-by-brick tension-building here, what with the careful shot of Helena closing Alicia's hotel-room door behind the zombies, followed by a shot of Alicia wiping her knife on her pant leg. But it was a mistake to only show the ledge after Helena appears, a flub that Fear the Walking Dead could have easily avoided. A setpiece lives and dies on the audience's ability to know exactly where everything is before something momentous happens. I thought I knew what the space looked like … until I realized I didn't.
Likewise, a big revelation about Madison and a zombie look-alike feels as unearned as a bad jump scare. In this later scene, Alicia tries to rescue her mother from a roomful of zombies. She refuses to heed Helena's warning, and we join her as she's shocked at the sight of a blonde zombie that looks just like Madison. The way this scene is filmed — slow-motion, dramatic sting music, and a fast cut that emphasizes a crash-zoom on the zombie as it turns — makes it so that we only get a basic impression of the zombie's face. Still, the implication is clear: Madison has become a zombie. This makes the brutal speed with which Alicia dispatches this particular zombie that much more head-spinning.
Or that's what we're supposed to think until Madison is reunited with her mother. Again, this feels like a cheat: Our expectations are toyed with for the sake of delivering a cheap shock. On the one hand, the scene where Alicia takes out the Madison look-alike is grounded by a few earlier encounters where Alicia proves that she's capable of quickly dispatching zombies. On the other, we can't see the ersatz-Madison's death as a big, character-driven moment because we already know that Alicia is capable of killing zombies. There is no moment of hesitation before the kill, nor any moment afterward where Alicia contemplates her actions. This is striking since Fear the Walking Dead is usually all about the consequences of characters' actions. When a character doesn't pause for reflection on this show, we know they're not thinking about what they did. It all added up to confirm my worst suspicions: The Madison look-alike was just a cheap shock to keep us on our toes.
My glass is half empty tonight because I really can't deal with shows that withhold information for the sake of pulling the rug out from under viewers. There are too many coincidences in tonight's episode, like when Travis and Chris stumble upon a house with a well soon after Travis says that's exactly the kind of shelter they need. Sure, he soon discovers a reason not to move in, after finding three graves in the backyard. But the scene where Derek, one of three insensitive, power-tripping young men whom Travis and Chris hook up with, casually mentions that the house has a well is way too contrived.
In their weaker moments, the show's creators reveal that they're willing to take storytelling shortcuts for the sake of canned dilemmas and superficial moral gray areas. Case in point: I wasn't moved by the shocked look on Travis's face at the episode's conclusion. Until that moment, I didn't get the sense that Travis was worried about Chris's development as a young sociopath. His identification with Derek and his friends isn't that shocking: They're young, capable, and just as punchy as Chris is. So why is his decision to do as this group does so surprising? The death of an innocent man should be more disturbing, not less so.
- Helena is surprisingly well-grounded as a businesswoman turned survivalist. Just look at the way her mind-set is nailed in just a few sentences: "I contained the situation. I had the hotel to think about. We were at capacity […] I locked them in." I was initially reluctant to accept that anyone, pre-zombie crisis, could instinctively choose to quarantine an entire ballroom of people. But this line sold me.
- I really liked the elevator-shaft setpiece. That was pretty strong.
- Anyone else stand up and cheer when Chris said, "What does that even mean?" after Travis tells him, "I want to take care of you?" No, just me? Okay then.
- Derek: "Protein, bro!" As much as it made me cringe, I also believed that this character would blurt that line out. So I begrudgingly give credit where it's due to episode writer Lauren Signorino.