“Date of Death” is a revealing episode, though not because it’s especially insightful. No, tonight’s Fear the Walking Dead is a showcase for the show’s most frustrating and endearing quirks. Even the episode’s title suggests a clinical approach that isn’t actually borne out. This is, after all, a Robert Kirkman show, so life-and-death peril often takes a backseat to dialogue-intense strategizing and moralizing.
Unfortunately, the major conversations — the ones that find characters talking up the momentousness of their melodramatic decisions — don’t really work. It’s a matter of self-sabotage through timing: How can we take Chris and Travis’s split seriously given that they’re on the verge of a reunion by the end of the episode? And more important, why does the scene in which Chris parts ways with Travis feel so unmoving?
In that sequence, Chris gets into a pickup truck with Brandon and his friend to set off for San Diego. Travis begs him to reconsider, but it’s clear that Chris has made up his mind. Although it’s an inherently compelling scene — after all, it does further confirm the notion that family may be an unsustainable concept in a postapocalyptic world — Chris’s good-bye speech is utterly lifeless. It’s a very Kirkmanian moment, an attempt to evoke Chris’s inner life while also trying to convince us that this split really matters. What stinks is that “Date of Death” doesn’t quite nail Chris’s defining lack of sentimentality. Instead, he comes off like a petulant child whose father is embarrassing him in front of the popular kids.
To his credit, Chris seems to have a genuine emotional breakthrough in the scene where he tricks Travis into hugging him, giving Brandon and his crew time enough to murder James. Still, the episode doesn’t dwell on the normalizing qualities that Chris might take away from Brandon’s group, revealing an utter lack of sympathy for them. Apparently, Brand’s guys aren’t even worth a moment of compassion.
That’s why the scene where Chris says good-bye to Travis has to count. It has to convey a resentful teen’s need to branch out and be independent. It glances against that target, but never quite hits it. Chris passive-aggressively consoles Travis, saying, “By letting me go, you are [taking care of me].” He spitefully adds, “This whole time you had me thinking I was broken. But I’m not […] I was adapting.”
This speech recalls previous scenes — namely the one where Chris tells Travis that morality has no place in a zombie apocalypse: “There is no more good or bad, right or wrong. It’s us or them, kill or be killed” — but it simply doesn’t work. That earlier one felt more true to Chris’s character since it sounded like something a cocky teenage boy would say to his dad. When he says good-bye to Travis, though, he doesn’t sound like a puffed-up kid. He just sounds like a fictional construct designed to deliver a writer’s most portentous metaphor. I believe that Chris thinks he’s smart enough to survive his dad’s fuddy-duddy ethics. I believe that he pities Travis for not being able to change with the times. I don’t believe that, after betraying his father to his new friends, he would pat his dad on the back, and then boast about changing.
Think about it: He’s just picked a side, but he’s having second thoughts. He’s leaving his dad behind, but his blood is up. “I was adapting” makes sense in this light … but “this whole time you had me thinking I was broken”? That smacks of a writer’s attempt to ground their characters’ actions with background information from previous episodes. No real teenager talks like this, let alone thinks like this.
“Date of Death” suffers from several similar lapses in judgment, starting with the throng of refugees who confront Madison’s group after she briefly turned on the hotel’s lights. When Travis is admitted to the hotel, slipping in past the refugees without much difficulty, it’s hard to believe that Madison’s group is bothered by this crisis. Do the refugees actually pose a problem? They eventually agree to take in 43 refugees, checking them all out for life-threatening bites and wounds, but it’s hard to tell what motivates their change of heart. One or two of them talk back, like the guy who calls the hotel “a castle” and the refugee who laments that Madison’s group has so many resources. Still, it’s hard to know how much these people have gotten under the group’s skin. Alicia reflexively shrugs off her accusers, apologizing in choppy Spanish, but this reveals nothing about her character, just like the later scene where she checks out one victim’s baseball-bat-inflicted wounds. I can see that she cares, but I don’t know why.
I was similarly unmoved by Madison’s big heart-to-heart with Alicia. I’m not really sure what led Madison to tell her daughter about her late husband’s suicide. There’s no pressing reason for this conversation to happen in this specific moment, no inciting incident that suggests Madison and Alicia’s relationship needs a big cathartic moment. It seems that the scene only serves two purposes: To push the plot along, and to build Madison and Alicia’s story by any means necessary. Fear the Walking Dead is a show about the emotional complexity of living in a future that doesn’t value the past. It’s exciting when the show wants us to consider its characters’ motivations, but episodes like “Date of Death” feel like a jumble of pseudo-momentous confrontations.
- Brandon to Travis: “You can come, but ya gotta stop with all this yap, yap, yap.” Maybe it’s just the way that the character is performed, but I don’t buy that Brandon would be so brazenly disrespectful. Sure, he’s high on his own power. But he strikes me as a “talk about people behind their backs” kind of guy.
- Major red flags went up as soon as Chris told Travis, “Because his life still matters. And we’re not disposable.” I don’t know why Travis didn’t see that, but I suspect it’s because of Elias’s death.
- Nice crane shot over Elias’s grave after Travis buries him. More like that, please.