Remember last week, when Daniel Salazar mentioned that there was no difference between what men do out of fear and what they do out of evil? Well, Daniel put that theory to the test tonight when he tortured Reynolds. The fact that Ofelia is basically OK with her dad torturing a guy that she was making out with last week is typical of Fear the Walking Dead’s monochromatic characterizations: first Ofelia’s all about that National Guard guy, then she changes her mind completely after mother Griselda is taken by the military. Still, while Daniel’s torture isn’t something to be shrugged off, there doesn’t appear to be any character that’s strong enough to call him on it. We’ve entered the phase of season one where disillusionment has set in, and the show’s cynical streak has emerged in full force.
Case in point: Daniel slices up Reynolds with a straight razor until Reynolds reveals the National Guard’s plans to evacuate, but only after implementing “humane termination.” That revelation says so much about the show’s creators, and their conception of the National Guard. Tonight’s episode may initially seem to be a corrective to last week’s frustratingly one-sided depiction of events. But eventually, Moyers and his men are revealed to be essentially selfish, and more than a little distasteful. They go from telling Ofelia that they’re just following orders to force Travis to shoot one of the infected, but only after verbally cornering him, and mocking his reservations (“You don’t think that she’s human, do you?”).
That shift in sympathies is frustratingly preceded by the scene where Sergent Melvin Allen (Toby Levins) tells Reynolds to back off, or at least recognize that he’s just doing his job: “You think I like this shit? Acting like some power-tripping 5-0? I got a family, too.” Sadly, this exchange is forgotten when Travis confronts Moyers, and Moyers starts power-tripping. The contrast between Melvin and Moyers’s motives is supposed to illustrate the the characters’ various notivations. Instead, it reveals how indecisive the show’s creators are. There’s never a moment where the characters seem really conflicted. At any given moment, they feel completely one way or another, and rarely acknowledge that their attitudes have shifted at some point in-between.
For example, Moyers tells Travis that he has to give his men something to keep them active (“Gotta keep the challenge, gotta keep pushing”). This is shortly before he turns his back on his men when one squad leader complains that his group has been up for 50 hours (Moyers snidely offers them a hanky, saying that they’ll have to share it). Travis gets fed up, and asks Moyers point blank to help him re-unite with Nick and Liza. That’s when Moyers stops trying to be superficially ingratiating and waves Travis away: “I get that you have issues with protocol, but I can’t concern myself with civilian problems.” Episode writer David Wiener exhibits little interest in the interior life of a character like Moyers. Unfortunately, that isn’t an issue specific to “Cobalt” or Wiener’s dialogue, but rather a symptomatic problem for Fear the Walking Dead.
You never have to wonder for long how characters are feeling or what they’re concerned with for long in this show since they almost always tell you point-blank. That tic makes sense in The Walking Dead since that show concerns characters who spent a lot of time reassuring each other that life after zombies is bearable, that they aren’t alone, and that there are ways to preserve their humanity. But the exhaustively blunt nature of Fear the Walking Dead’s dialogue feels relatively out of place given that characters are supposedly still deciding what post-zombie life is going to be like.
As I wrote previously, that mid-zombie crisis questioning feels like a uniquely counterintuitive state to be in given that viewers are presumably watching Fear the Walking Dead because of their familiarity with previous zombie stories, particularly the films of George Romero and even po-mo horror-comedy classic Return of the Living Dead. We’re watching third- or maybe even fourth-generation zombie stories now, and can’t be expected to return to a pre-Romeran age where zombies are new and unpredictable.
Watching characters who aren’t as wise as us face variations on the same dilemma every week on Fear the Walking Dead is therefore a particularly frustrating experience. We already know that Travis is in denial, and that he’s unsure of what to do with zombies because of the events of “The Dog” and “Not Fade Away.” Characters have already faced the question of “Are they sick or are they already dead/past hope” in “The Dog.” So what does it matter if Travis can’t shoot Kimberly, the zombie that Moyers pressures him into sniping at?
Or, more importantly, why is Daniel’s torture okay? Again, there are supposed to be shades of difference in terms of characters’ responses to the zombie crisis, so Daniel is understandably less shell-shocked than Travis. He says as much when he talks about “people that go out on trucks, and never come back.” Travis has no such vague, pseudo-culturally specific experience to fall back on, so he is not as quick to bust out the ol’ straight razor. But what part of Daniel’s plan makes sense? Why wouldn’t Madison or Ofelia challenge Daniel’s assertion that the National Guard’s presence is an indication of the desperate the times they’re living in? This is where having a six-episode season really short-changes viewers: everyone’s complacent acceptance of Daniel’s actions would make more sense if we got to spend a couple more episodes with Travis and his neighbors, just to see what internment life is like.
Instead, we get a fast-forwarded version of events that requires viewers to see a world of meaning in portentous confrontations, like the flashing light in “Not Fade Away” or Susan in “The Dog.” I don’t believe that Daniel’s actions are meant to be indicative of the ethical free-fall that characters experience during the zombie crisis because characters aren’t broadcasting their ambivalence through obnoxiously direct dialogue. Daniel will inevitably pay for his actions as surely as Moyers’s will get punished for his. And if they don’t, that will be the lesson of Fear the Walking Dead: life has changed, and the unjust are now allowed to do whatever they want.
- Anybody else cringe during Griselda’s death-bed ramble? Her speech reminded me of Bela Lugosi’s rant in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster. Pull the strings, Griselda!
- Strand (Colman Domingo) is a welcome addition to the show. He seems harder to pin down than Travis’s group, though it’s clear that he’s up to no good, and will betray Nick as soon as he can.
- Moyers to Travis: “I don’t like doing knock-knock raids on civilians; it’s bad for morale.” There should have been more pragmatically dickish lines like this throughout “Cobalt.”
- Daniel to Reynolds: “The man with the blade and the man in the chair are not different. They both suffer.” I dunno, Daniel, do you want to try that line after switching places with Reynolds? You might find that your perspective on the issue changes…