Tonight’s overstuffed finale ends on a fitting cliffhanger: Every character is moving on to parts unknown, but it’s hard to say if they’ll get there before hostile scavengers/mercenaries/soldiers stop them. The mass exodus of La Colonia’s residents may suggest a faint parallel with real-life Syrian refugees, but Fear the Walking Dead does not have a political bone in its body. For that to happen, the show would need some kind of general focus. And if tonight’s two-parter proves anything, it’s that Fear the Walking Dead doesn’t know which direction to pull us.
Travis and Madison’s encounter with Brandon and Derek should feel climactic, and often actually is. But so many inconsequential factors are taken into consideration during “North,” the second half of tonight’s two-parter, that Travis’s actions seem retroactively neutered. “North” even begins with a shot of a shell-shocked Travis after he kills Chris’s surviving traveling companions. This understandably leads to his and Madison’s group being evicted from the hotel, a decision that Madison agrees with (though it smacks of “You can’t fire me, I quit!” logic). Still, Travis’s actions get almost immediately overshadowed by Andrea’s impromptu brain surgery on Hector, a scene that confirms just how underdeveloped the hotel residents’ subplot has been. Despite the special-effects wizardry of executive producer/gore-master Greg Nicotero, Hector’s operation feels like weirdly pointless padding.
Think about it: We’ve just seen Travis dispatch Brandon and Derek, two characters we’ve been led to hate throughout “Wrath,” the first half of the finale. You can’t sympathize with Brandon even if you tried. First, he makes racist comments about “Mexcrement” immigrants and complains that he’s not being taken care of fast enough. Then, there’s that gutting flashback to Chris’s death: He drags his wounded body across the highway, and is shot by Brandon point-blank. This scene is especially haunting thanks to the physical distance that episode director Stefan Schwartz puts between Chris and us — the camera slowly drifts away from him, confirming viewers’ sense of helplessness. And then, Travis mercilessly wails on Brandon and Derek, each blow complimented by a thunderlike special effect. Here is the wrath of the episode’s title.
But where does that anger go once Travis finishes? I’m more annoyed by the fact that I don’t know what’s going on with Travis than I am with the sheer contrivance of Derek and Brandon’s death. (How was Travis able to lock Madison out of the room that he corners Brandon and Derek in?) It’s also a little unbelievable to think that two younger men can’t take one older one, but I digress. Fear the Walking Dead is a show that, like The Walking Dead before it, frequently tries to challenge its main characters’ assumptions about post-apocalyptic life. Travis’s post-traumatic headspace should be the main topic in “North.” But it’s not, and there’s no indication as to why.
Too much time is spent tonight on La Colonia’s drama, a showdown that should have been resolved in an episode’s time, but is inexplicably drawn out across both halves of the finale. So much depends on Luciana’s acceptance of the evident fact that life under Alejandro’s leadership is over. After he’s bitten by a stray zombie — and under pressure from Nick — Alejandro confesses that he is not immune from zombie bites after all. Luciana then rambles defensively about how “faith” is the only thing keeping the community together, and how that spiritual glue is stronger than Marco’s guns. Alejandro’s death-knell victory over Marco confirms what a man of faith can accomplish with a little cunning.
But can we talk for a moment about how dumb Luciana comes across? How many times is this chick going to gesture toward faith, and then belittle Nick for not having any? At what point does he finally break things off? There’s no moment when Nick seems seriously invested in a love affair with Luciana, though a strong kinship is strongly implied. Still, my main question after tonight is this: How could Luciana be so naïve as to believe that Alejandro was immune? Regardless of faith, when you are confronted with the grisly reality of a zombie apocalypse — a bloody reality that Nicotero reminds us of when he gouges out the eyes of Alejandro’s undead attacker — there’s no way you can seriously believe Alejandro’s immunity story. Sure, you may want to believe it. But if you don’t suspect something is up, then you are seriously messed up.
Luciana is both spiritual and a canny survivor, but she’s also supposed to be a foil for Nick. Her crisis should shed light on Nick’s drive to find answers to the burning questions that drive him. Remember when, during the mid-season premiere, he tells Alejandro that he’s looking for something to believe in? Why wasn’t this the subject of tonight’s finale? Why is the survival of La Colonia more important than developing our core characters’ interior lives?
“Grotesque,” the aforementioned mid-season premiere, took Fear the Walking Dead into daring new territory. In the space of one episode, a crystal-clear snapshot of Nick’s personality developed through a series of challenges that, on a strictly superficial level, provided more shocks and suspense than most of the first season combined. But with the exception of Nicotero’s violent set pieces — the man really does earn his paychecks — there’s nothing in this finale to suggest that the show’s creators learned from what they did right in “Grotesque.” There’s no focus here, no emotional center that holds everything together.
I keep watching Fear the Walking Dead because I’m more invested in the show’s world than I am in the characters. This is obviously a problem on such a character-driven show, since every group that Travis encounters is supposed to help us better understand the lead characters. That didn’t really happen during back half of season two, though the season’s standalone episodes did show promise. I still enjoy watching Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson’s characters struggle to get by, but sometimes I wonder when we’ll get real insight into what it’s like to survive at the end of the world.