Fear the Walking Dead stayed true to the precepts that had earned it angry backlash from plenty of folks — and grudging admiration from a handful of us — in its season finale.
It continued to put a very personal face on the zombie apocalypse. It kept up a filming style that limited our view of the bigger picture of just what was happening in zombie-infested Los Angeles (though a late aerial shot of the city's smoldering skyline was a stunner). And it saved the real payoffs for intimate character scenes. The episode and season's biggest death was handled face to face, one on one. As it should have been.
Yet the episode also, for all intents and purposes, finally kicked the characters into the world of The Walking Dead. It balanced those smaller scenes against a riveting action sequence that sent everybody racing one step ahead of a giant zombie horde through a military field hospital. And it concluded with the sense that no matter what happens, everybody's screwed. That sounds like the show that gave birth to this one, all right.
But it was also stronger, more confident. I argued a couple of weeks ago that this first season has been more consistent and just plain better than season one of its parent show. I'd say "The Good Man" nicely solidifies that argument.
Here are the seven surest signs of the world's end from this episode.
1) Travis just starts killing everybody he meets, basically
There's been a lot of grumbling from fans about Fear the Walking Dead's character-first approach to storytelling. And that's easy to understand. It kept viewers from seeing too many zombies this season, with the only horde appearing in tonight's episode, while the characters themselves are only fitfully interesting, at best. (If I were being less charitable, I might say that they've been ripped almost completely from the zombie movie archetype handbook.)
But, man, it was all worth it to have an episode where Travis finally decides that his and his family's survival means he's going to have to start being just a little bit more ruthless. And by "just a little bit more ruthless," I mean pummeling Andy to death with his fists when he shows up and pulls a gun on Daniel right as the group is trying to leave the field hospital.
I suggested last week that one of the interesting things about post-apocalyptic stories is that they force the characters into situations where they abandon long-held political ideals. Since this is Hollywood, the characters usually abandon stereotypically left-leaning ideas in favor of right-leaning ones — like how Travis went from hating guns to toting one around for protection.
Intriguingly, the show is also setting up Travis's polar opposite — a rugged individualist who mostly only cares about himself — in Strand. It will be interesting to see where the show takes his personal agenda in season two.
But Travis's evolution is about more than politics. It's about marking a signpost that suggests where the old world ends and the new one begins. The Travis of a few weeks ago hated guns and was something of a pacifist. This new Travis can't afford to be either of those things, because the world that allowed him to be that person has disappeared out from under him.
2) The only person with useful skills dies
Poor Liza! I was frankly stunned she got out of that kitchen battle alive, and in the episode's closing moments she revealed that she had, indeed, been bitten by a zombie. After passing along all of the relevant medical information the others need to survive the zombie apocalypse, she requested to be shot before she could die and turn.
What's worst about this is that Liza's medical skills would have come in handy in the new world these characters inhabit. Sure, she wasn't a heart surgeon or anything, but she knew quite a bit more than anybody else. You could argue that, say, crack shot Daniel is just as valuable as her, but everybody in the group can learn enough shooting prowess to gun down slow-moving zombies with time. Medical knowledge is going to be much tougher to come by.
3) Los Angeles is on fire
I mentioned this above, but it bears repeating: The shots of a slowly crumbling Los Angeles taken from the air were at once beautiful and disturbing, especially as a Los Angeleno who followed every twist and turn the characters took to avoid downtown and thrilled to see the familiar waters of the Pacific at the end.
There are few more typical ways of conveying the apocalypse has arrived than setting a major city on fire. It took a while for Fear the Walking Dead to get to this point, but once it did, it made those moments count.
Side note: Seeing recognizable Los Angeles again at episode's end made me realize just how much the series had been missing such a thing. I realize that shooting in Vancouver saves the show lots of money, and it's not like the location has drastically impacted the show's quality. But there's just something about the LA location that can't be faked elsewhere. Here's hoping the show finds more room in its budget to shoot in LA in season two.
4) Everybody's hanging out at the compound of a person who's either a crackpot or the only sane person left
Strand has been a shot in the arm of the show, a character with a genuinely unique and fascinating point of view whose personal philosophy naturally places him in conflict with others — but also pushes him to make sudden, unlikely alliances. It doesn't hurt that Colman Domingo, the actor who plays him, is so immediately arresting and compelling.
And I love the way the series is willing to let him seem like he might have completely lost it in the wake of the apocalypse, or how he might be the last sane man on the face of the planet. His plan to survive — which involves relocating to a boat named Abigail — makes some degree of sense, especially if you think that, say, Hawaii has remained zombie-free. But he's also a guy who has decided that anything not in his own immediate, ruthless personal interest isn't worth considering — which makes him a dangerous person for our heroes to be around.
That dichotomy looks likely to spice up season two considerably, especially as we watch the other characters slip more toward his way of thinking (or, perhaps, resist it).
5) Giant hordes of zombies are here!
Seriously, you might have missed that above. Look at them!
6) The military is done with this
The most telling moment in the episode might be when the military helicopters, which have a chance to evacuate the field hospital before the horde completely overruns it, simply fly away, headed out of town.
Really, with all of that weaponry, a few thousand zombies shouldn't have been such a massive struggle for the military to overcome. But the episode makes it clear that the sheer hassle of clearing out the entire LA metropolitan area — especially when there are so many zombies and so few military leaders left — is eventually going to consume more in the armed forces than the task is worth. Holding back the zombies has the military stuck in a quagmire, so they simply leave.
That makes for an exciting set of action sequences, yes, but it underlines just how alone everybody in the show is. They're going to have to make their way through this on their own, without outside help.
7) Nick keeps surviving, against all odds
By far the most surprising moment is when Nick manages to escape that giant hallway of zombies closing in on him and Strand, thanks to the timely arrival of Liza and her keycard. He even did the thing where he put his hand up against the window and mouthed the word "Go!" to his mother, so she'd know he understood his death would be a noble one.
But nope, he keeps on living. That has to annoy some of the fans who've found the character insufferable, but I sort of liked his philosophy that the world has now been dragged into his own personal apocalypse. His addiction to drugs meant he didn't know whether any given day would be his last, and also meant he was never sure how he would manage to keep going. Yet somehow he did, because even when we might want to give up, our bodies keep forcing us to take in oxygen, find food, drink water. Surviving doesn't have to be living. It can simply be a baseline level of competence.
Now everybody on Earth is finding that out as surely as Nick knew it for years — if they're not already mindless flesh gobblers. I argued way back in week one that the best apocalypses are personal ones. Fear the Walking Dead has brought that idea to bruising life.
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As always, I have a question for you, too: With the premieres of Leftovers, Good Wife, Homeland, and The Affair, as well as finales for Fear the Walking Dead, Rick and Morty,and The Strain, it was one of the bigger TV nights in a while. What did you watch? And what did you think of it?