Though it doesn’t have much of a plot, “Ouroboros” is among the strongest episodes of Fear the Walking Dead. (It’s probably the second-best, behind last week’s “We All Fall Down.”) This atmospheric entry concerns itself with personal responsibility, a seemingly straightforward concept that gets murky in light of impossible decisions. How do you treat people who are dying by inches?
“Ouroboros” begins by introducing Alex, a survivor whose compassion proves to be a liability in the eyes of her fellow survivors. Alex not only takes care of Jake, a burn victim and fellow plane-crash survivor — she also refuses to put Jake out of his misery. The episode’s cold opening features a startling death, one that happens offscreen, and is only later implied to be the death of another one of Alex’s survivors, someone who threatened Jake’s safety for the sake of the greater good. Alex’s simple goal is a humane one: Keep Jake alive for as long as possible. In an environment where resources are perilously scarce, it’s also wildly impractical.
Thanks to Alex, Madison learns that the difference between knowing and accepting one’s limitations is a matter of realizing how far you’ll go before you’ll compromise your personal beliefs. Madison realizes that she can only push Strand so far before he pushes back. She doesn’t just confront Strand after she learns of his plan to steer the Abigail to a safe haven in Baja, Mexico; she also exposes his plan to the rest of the group. Travis understandably predicts that Strand won’t take too kindly to Madison’s power play. So, in the moment where the group meets to decide Alex and Jake’s fate, he proposes that they tow the two plane survivors behind the Abigail, and provide them with food and water. It’s a compromise that Alicia vocally objects to. But, as Madison says, “This is the best I can do.”
Unfortunately, Madison’s best is not good enough. Strand brutally lashes out, then severs the rope that links Alex’s raft to his ship. It’s a wrenching moment that comes out of nowhere, but also makes sense in light of the tension that’s been brewing between Strand and Madison since the season premiere. She and Travis — who, like all sitcom-style parents, try to present a united front in all their decision-making — refuse to listen to Strand when he says, “My boat, my rules.” As a result, Strand must retaliate. Of course, there are probably other reasons for Strand’s decision. (Prediction: Whomever he’s trying to contact via walkie-talkie will not be happy to have too many extra mouths to feed.) But for now, his choice to set Alex adrift makes sense, given that Madison and Travis already tried to bring two other sets of survivors aboard. Travis’s compromise may have been made in the hopes that Strand would not retaliate, but something had to give, and Alex suffers for it.
There are a couple of encounters in “Ouroboros” that thematically link Madison and Strand’s power struggle with Daniel’s search for supplies. For instance: When Chris discovers a human survivor with a broken spine inside the crashed airliner’s fuselage. This is the first time that Chris has ever done anything exciting on the show, so to all the Chris fans out there: Mea culpa, the kid’s not totally useless!
Ahem. That having been said: The MVP of this scene has to be makeup artist Greg Nicotero, whose consummately gross handiwork is featured throughout the episode (crabs in zombie guts and blood-brown sludge water being the grossest parts). Chris sees the unnamed survivor’s backbone sticking out at an awkward angle. We can tell that this man’s back is completely ruined by the way his spine curls out and away from him. There is no way he will survive, let alone walk again. But what does Chris think?
In a moment’s time, Chris must decide. The survivor cries pathetically for help, but Chris either doesn’t know what to do, or can’t bring himself to accept that the only way to help this man is to kill him. Still, he eventually figures it out, and starts to bludgeon the survivor to death. This sequence is harrowing: After two hard-placed hits, the man moans dazedly. He may have a prominent gash on his forehead, but he’s not dead yet. Chris, now frustrated, hits harder, faster, more frequently. And eventually the man dies. This scene is one of the most satisfying (and horrifying) in Fear the Walking Dead to date, partly because it rebukes the fantastic notion that one well-aimed shot or stab to the head will cause instant death (see: Nick dispatching the crab-guts zombie with a pen knife to the head).
Death is slow and inescapable in “Ouroboros.” A (fitfully) dreamlike emphasis on slow-motion photography and dialogue-free long takes remind viewers of the visceral terror that comes with not knowing where the next attack will strike. The scene where we watch, from Daniel’s perspective, as Alex stumbles down a sand dune in real time, is especially exciting. The filmmaking in this sequence is admirably patient; it brought to mind the slow-motion sprint at the beginning of Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, an association I’d never thought I’d make prior to watching this episode.
Season two of Fear the Walking Dead is shaping up to be a slowdown, as the showrunners remind us why living in a constant state of hyperpressurized uncertainty is terrifying (Fix the boat! Run from those zombies! Get the supplies!) At the end of “Ouroboros,” Alex, a bleeding-heart survivor, is harshly rebuked by Strand’s axe. She tells Jake that every day will be a little easier, but she can’t know for sure. That’s the only thing we do know: People live and die arbitrarily because The Walking Dead universe is not ruled by some contrived, benevolent God. People decide who lives and who dies. “Ouroboros” has some clunky dialogue, but it is as compelling as its characters are pragmatically cruel.
- Seriously, if you have ever doubted that Greg Nicotero is the MVP of The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, “Ouroboros” will prove you wrong. His special effects are so icky that they make you think you’ve seen more than you actually have. His name is attached to a slew of other recent projects, including collaborations with Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth. Watch this man.
- I got another strong Italian horror-film vibe in the slow-motion sequence where Travis surfaces from under the boat after a cloud of blood muddies surrounding water. At this point, it’s safe to say that comparisons to Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2, which also partly takes place on a boat, are not inaccurate. Then again, Italian horror buffs might have also thought of the underwater-zombie scene from Dario Argento’s Inferno.
- But that Kagemusha comparison is cray-cray, I know. Still, my mind did go there!
- Crabs in his guts! Crabs in his guts! That zombie had several crabs in his guts!
- More gross-out special effects, please.