How much mileage can you get out of a single reanimated corpse? This question may sound preposterous, but it’s the key to your enjoyment of “The Dog,” Fear the Walking Dead’s most inconsistent episode yet. Tonight, Travis and Madison drift further apart: He believes that nothing can change humanity’s status quo while she fears that humanity has irrevocably changed for the worse. Thanks to the gift of hindsight, we know that Madison is right: Zombies will take over, because the postapocalyptic events of The Walking Dead must inevitably come to pass. We also know that Travis is wrong when he ironically declares that “Cavalry’s just arrived. Things are gonna get better now.” But the fact that events end on an optimistically high note should ostensibly lead viewers to hope that maybe Travis could be right. Likewise, while Madison’s pragmatically downbeat perspective is more sympathetic, we’re supposed to see her as more than just a Debbie Downer since she exhibits the same humanistic impulses that Travis does.
Which brings us to the aforementioned reanimated corpse. “The Dog” hinges on the zombification and disposal of Susan, Madison’s next-door neighbor. Madison stumbles into Susan after Madison’s house is invaded by a zombie. Nick suggests that they find the shotgun that Patrick, Susan’s husband, keeps in their house. So they sneak through their neighbor’s labyrinthine backyard maze (nice wind chimes!) and find the gun. They also find Susan: She attacks Alicia after Alicia goes back to Patrick and Susan’s house to retrieve shotgun shells. Since Susan is a victim of the zombie virus, she mindlessly wedges herself into a crack in the fence that separates Travis and Patrick’s abutting properties. This leads to a canned dilemma that is drawn out long enough that it covers much of tonight’s drama: Is Susan a lost cause?
Nick gives voice to Madison’s concerns when he declares that “[Susan’s] not sick: She’s already dead.” This is a point that the group should reach independently but is hard to accept since Susan was once a welcome presence in Madison’s family life. Madison tells Liza about how Susan was there for Madison when she needed her most. “She watched my kids when I went to work, took care of me after my husband died,” Madison says. Liza then refers to Susan in the present tense — “She sounds like a good friend” — but Madison corrects her: “She was.”
That style of overstating heavy thematic concerns is typical of The Walking Dead. It’s not made any better by the fact that Madison is not completely over Susan. While she asks Liza to kill her in the event that she becomes a zombie, she doesn’t go out of her way to kill Susan either. In fact, Madison not only doesn’t kill Susan after she approaches her with a ball-peen hammer, she also hesitates to kill her later when she dazedly asks Travis if he thinks Patrick is dead, too. Still, while Susan arguably has to stay mobile (though not alive) in order to underscore Travis and Susan’s different perspectives, she’s an entire person leaning hard against a skinny-child-size fence gap. How does this make any sense?
Let’s say you buy the notion that Susan is small and frail enough not to burst through Travis’s fence (even though she’s single-mindedly leaning against the fence and sticking one whole arm through it). Why wasn’t Travis and Madison’s flight-or-flight response triggered, exactly? Why are they debating over something so urgent? We’re in the phase of the zombie pandemic where that level of caution is not de rigueur. What’s the last thing Susan does before she sticks her arm through the fence and growls like, well, like a zombie? Oh, that’s right, Susan attacks Alicia.
Realistically, this integral lapse in logic/major nitpick is more of an issue with Fear the Walking Dead’s central premise. The show asks viewers to go back to a time when there were characters that didn’t know that zombies were a thing. That pre–Night of the Living Dead era is something Kirkman has tried to foster since The Walking Dead’s comics. When he started writing the comics, Kirkman decided that no characters would know that zombies were based on pop-culture references. This decision was made to prevent The Walking Dead from lapsing into a humorous, pomo zombie narrative, like Return of the Living Dead.
Fear the Walking Dead expects viewers to go along with Susan’s continued existence despite the fact that Susan is clearly acting as if Alicia is dinner. What gives Susan away? Is it the sustained rasping? The zombielike gait? Or the hungry look in her milky-white pupils? I’m also going to go out on a limb and assume Susan smells putrid/like death. How does she last until episode’s end?
None of the above, apparently, because Travis is somehow able to stay in denial. Susan (kinda) survives long enough to be dispatched by soldiers that follow Patrick home. But until then, Travis can’t believe what’s going on around him. He never wavers: Everything’s going to be fine, so he gets mad when Daniel Salazar teaches Chris how to hold and load a gun. He also tries to dispose of the corpse that Daniel dispatches for him (the zombie that broke into Madison’s house earlier) by packing it into a garbage container. This leads to one of the best, most surreal moments in “The Dog”: Travis briefly makes eye contact with a neighbor while he putting out his trash (who knows how many bodies Travis’s neighbor is getting rid of …).
As for Madison, one minute she’s sympathetic, but not pragmatic: She gives some of Nick’s drugs to Griselda Salazar. Soon after that, she icily asks Liza to kill her if she ever becomes a zombie like Susan. Finally, Madison is rebuked by soldiers that dispatched Susan: “That wasn’t [Patrick’s] wife anymore.” This point feels moot, especially given that Nick has already reminded Madison that she lives in a cold, cold world when he warns her, “I don’t need you, Mom: I need my medicine.”
That’s the problem with an episode that has a single zombie to remind us of the humanity that the living dead take away from survivors like Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead, or Travis in Fear the Walking Dead. If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and you do buy that Susan is sympathetic and weak enough to stay undead throughout “The Dog,” you may find yourself enjoying tonight’s episode. If you’re like me and think Susan should have been dispatched as soon as she was discovered, you’ll probably think Fear the Walking Dead has reached a lamentable mid-season low.
- Anyone else wonder why they’re leaning so hard on poor Nick? The Walking Dead has always had a broad moralistic streak, but why is Nick being treated like a proto-zombie, right down to his zombielike shuffle and the way he robotically looks to score by breaking into neighbors’ homes? Why does being a drug user make Nick a bad guy?
- Madison to Travis: “Oh, yeah? Who’s going to stop it: you? You can’t fix everything, Travis.” This line is supposed to sting like a slap in the face. But Madison deserves applause, not rebukes.
- Best sequence in tonight’s episode, hands down: the city lights shutting off while Travis drives home to Madison.