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Fear the Walking Dead, season 1, episode 5: What happens when the show gets political

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The latest episode takes on everything from torture to the zombie class war.

Travis and Madison embrace, but there are terrible things coming for both of them.
Travis and Madison embrace, but there are terrible things coming for both of them.
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Zombie stories are usually — though not always — political.

Vampire stories are about sex. Werewolf stories are about the darkest corners of the self (and, okay, sometimes sex). Ghost stories are about regret.

But zombie stories are about a faceless horde that threatens to consume the protagonists and make them just like them. There are all sorts of angles to pursue with that sort of monster, but most of them involve political and social commentary. Director George Romero, for instance, famously used zombies to play around with the idea of faceless, conformist consumerism in Dawn of the Dead, while the 28 Days Later movies draw comparisons between zombies and military occupants.

It's possible, of course, to watch these movies without once thinking about the greater purpose of the zombies. Zombie stories are also about flesh-eating monsters, after all. But zombies lend themselves to political readings so well that it's rare to find a zombie story that doesn't easily do so.

One such zombie story is The Walking Dead. Sure, if you want to stretch things, you could say the zombies represent humanity's apocalyptic obsession or climate change or something like that. But for the most part, they represent the most basic thing a zombie could represent: the oncoming rush of mortality that we're all subject to.

Yet Fear the Walking Dead has done some interesting things in terms of its politics, and they exploded in "Cobalt," the short first season's penultimate episode and a fascinating ride through the sequestered neighborhood at the show's center.

Here are some of the political ideas tackled just in "Cobalt."

1) Torture happens when the rule of law breaks down

Daniel on Fear the Walking Dead

Daniel learned how to torture when his native country collapsed into civil war.

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American television rather overdosed on torture storylines in the 2000s, thanks to the popularity of 24 and other shows like it. In those shows, torture weighed heavily on the torturer's soul, but it almost always got results, as it usually does in fictional worlds.

Torture, of course, doesn't garner usable results in our world, but it almost has to in fiction, or else the detour into horrific masochism has little to no reason to exist. So 24's Jack Bauer gets results, dammit, and the show gives little thought to how the tortured person is wrecked by what happens. The entire focus is on the state of Jack's soul, perhaps because of the country he represents.

Television eventually backed off of torture storylines, both because there were too many of them and because their connection to things Americans were actually doing in the name of their government grew harder and harder to bear. So it was a bit jarring to have one suddenly pop up in Fear the Walking Dead, when Daniel starts removing the skin of his daughter's soldier lover, solely to find out where Griselda and Nick have been taken.

The episode doesn't shy away from the gore — giving us a look at the soldier's arm — but it cuts around the actual scenes of torture. It's interested less in the information obtained by torture, however, and more in the way that torture exists in a world where the rule of law has completely broken down for one reason or another.

Daniel learned how to be such an effective torturer when his native country underwent a period of civil war, one that led him to escape to the United States. Thus, the episode doesn't present him as some sort of role model, but as the inevitable result of a world like this. This hardened man, capable of horrible things, is who these people will become — like it or not. Torture isn't some sort of valuable tool; it's the inevitable result of a society that's shattered into pieces.

2) Military occupation is tied to only horrible things

Travis won't shoot zombies on Fear the Walking Dead.

Travis doesn't have the stomach for shooting zombies.

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The season's fourth episode, "Not Fade Away," started in a place where the military occupation of East Los Angeles was treated as, at least, a sign of stability. The soldiers might not have been welcome presences, but they kept the zombies away. That was enough for some of our characters to welcome their presence (though, tellingly, not Daniel).

The semblance of normalcy, however, began to crumble at the end of "Not Fade Away," and it was gone completely by the end of "Cobalt." The episode's title refers to the planned military evacuation of the Los Angeles Basin, preceded by the termination of all living human beings, lest they become zombies.

To be fair, it's not really clear why the military would kill otherwise healthy human beings, outside of the distinct possibility that the US government has crumbled and everybody's flying without a net. But the few scenes we see inside the medical facility where Griselda and Nick have been taken (and where Liza is working) give the distinct sense that everybody's staying one step ahead of catastrophe anyway.

This is maybe best exemplified by the giant stadium full of zombies Daniel finds at the episode's end. The military realized quickly enough that it couldn't defeat this threat, so it opted to contain it instead. But those chains won't hold forever, and the zombies will fill the streets.

Zombies are behind the stadium doors on Fear the Walking Dead.

Zombies are behind those doors.

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The occupation can only hold back disaster for so long — eventually, it will have to just cut and run.

3) Economic class helps you survive — maybe

Alicia and Chris check out a rich family's house.

Alicia tries on some of the rich family's stuff.

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Seemingly the most disconnected section of the episode involves Chris and Alicia checking out the nicest, biggest house in the neighborhood, whose occupants fled the area early on. Where are they now? Who knows. But they had the financial cushion to be able to take off early on.

We've seen this in many real-life disasters, as when members of the upper classes were able to flee New Orleans before Katrina hit, but others remained trapped there. "Cobalt" doesn't devote much time to this idea, but it's there. Is the family alive out there? It's impossible to say. The zombie apocalypse has a way of eroding all class distinctions eventually. But for now, they got a better shot at survival than everybody still stuck in LA.

So Chris and Alicia react the only way possible: They destroy all the family's crap.

Alicia bashes a champagne bottle on Fear the Walking Dead.

Break things!

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4) In times of war, scientific experimentation on humans is common

Fear the Walking Dead corrals full of patients.

Liza finds the corrals full of patients.

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This is, admittedly, not as well-developed as some of the other themes. But the field hospital where Nick and Griselda are taken has the feeling of a house of medical science horrors. The patients are kept in giant corrals, where some of them slowly drive others mad. When they're taken for treatment, there's not much anybody can do. Instead, they're kept mildly comfortable until they die — at which point they're put down with a captive bolt pistol (better known as the gun that kills cattle).

We don't get to see enough of the hospital to really confirm what is being done to its patients, but everything we do see has the feeling of dystopian experimentation. The show keeps our perspectives specifically limited to the regular characters, which keeps us from knowing everything — but what we see is more than enough.

5) The fittest are the ones who survive

Strand and Nick on Fear the Walking Dead

Strand tells Nick all about his philosophy of life.

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The episode opens with a genius monologue from the great stage actor Colman Domingo (playing a character named Strand). Domingo rattles off a series of lines that seem designed to drive the fellow occupants of his cell out of their heads with his endless monologues. In the episode's first moments, one of them is taken away by the military, unable to take it anymore. But the other occupant of the cell is Nick, and when it's his turn to go, Strand decides to save him instead.

Why? Strand suggests this is not about helping a fellow human — but about obligating them to him. Strand's belief seems core to what this series is about. When push comes to shove, human relationships, systems of rule, and even institutions break down. What lasts are obligations, the things and people we feel we need to help out because we owe them. Strand has figured that out. Daniel has figured it out from another angle. And even Travis seems to be closing in on the same solution.

Just in time for everything to fall apart.

This week's culture chat starts at noon Eastern. Ask me anything you like in comments!

I've got a question for you, too: Which season premiere to air over the last week was your favorite? You can read about my favorite right here.