TV

‘Fear The Walking Dead’ Has Finally Found Its Missing Ingredient

Fear the Walking Dead continued this week with its terrific run of episodes (as it maintains one of the most unlikely creative comebacks on television in recent memory). The talent in front of the camera in the form of Lennie James, Colman Domingo, Garrett Dillahunt, Alycia-Debnam Carey, and Ruben Blades (and previously Kim Dickens) has always been there, but more recently, the writing has finally caught up. Showrunners Ian Goldberg and Andrew Chambliss have also leaned into their strengths — telling smaller stories focused on only a few characters in each episode — and even the dialogue itself is better, in part because Goldberg and Chambliss are no longer afraid to use silence to their advantage. I have no evidence to support this theory, but I also feel like Scott Gimple has stepped back from Fear and turned more of his attention to The World Beyond, which has been great for Fear but hasn’t been working out as well for the other spin-off.

A lot of things are working well this season, too. There’s intriguing mythology surrounding “the key”; Morgan’s rebirth has been a godsend; Dwight and Sherry’s reunion has provided a lot of heart; and Strand returning to his weaselly roots has been the best thing to happen to that character in years. But the thing that is really working well for this season — the ingredient that has been missing on Fear since the beginning — is that the series finally has a formidable villain.

It’s been a problem since the beginning of this series (and it’s part of what is plaguing The World Beyond right now). While The Walking Dead is often defined by its villains — The Governor, the Terminus Cannibals, Negan, the Whisperers — Fear has never really had a great one. They didn’t even try until Season 3, which was characterized less by villains and more by “bad guys,” like Troy and Jeremiah Otto. Even when Season 4 was working, it was in spite of its terrible villains, beginning with the nonsensical Vultures before crashing and burning the hobo lady, whose only motivation to kill was the fact passersby didn’t stop and help her husband after a car accident. Season 5, meanwhile, largely revolves around a nonsensical villain in Logan, who we later learned was being controlled by Virginia and the Pioneers, who — in Season 5, anyway — were woefully undeveloped.

In Season 6, meanwhile, it feels like “The Pioneers” have mostly been scuttled, and replaced by “rangers,” who are mostly red-shirts/stormtroopers for Virginia, played by Colby Minifie, who has low-key been the MVP of this season (she was also promoted this week to series regular on The Boys).

Virginia is a terrific villain for a number of reasons, not least of which is because she’s formidable enough to have actually won. Like Negan did with Alexandria, she’s now in control of the Fear protagonists, but unlike the Alexandrians in TWD, she hasn’t broken their spirit. Virginia prefers, instead, to build her enemies up and make them work for her. For instance, she gave Strand an impossible mission, and when he succeeded, Ginny promoted him to ranger and put him in charge of his own people.

It’s that kind of relationship that is also at play in this week’s Fear between Virginia and John Dorie. Virginia, again, has fully enabled John Dorie by putting him in charge of the community of Lawton, where he has been allowed to thrive. It’s not necessarily his ideal situation, but it’s allowed Dorie the illusion of independence and freedom, and also allowed him to believe that he’s done good work for the community. There were no deaths in Lawton for months, and in his heart, Dorie takes credit.

Then a ranger named Cameron is found dead, wrapped up in the barbed wire fence, and eaten by zombies. Virginia wants to blame Cameron’s death on his drunkenness — he fell into the fence and was eaten. Dorie, however, insists on investigating, and with the evidence that he unearths, Virginia manages to frame Janis for the murder. Janis didn’t kill Cameron; they were sleeping together and had planned to run off together, but Janis did not kill him. Strand knew it. Virginia knew it. And Dorie knew it. But they all also knew that if Dorie continued to investigate the case, he’d get himself killed, so Janis basically confessed to Cameron’s murder in order to save Dorie.

Dorie didn’t want anything to do with Janis’ confession, and he sought to help Janis escape from prison before she was executed for the murder of Cameron. However, both Strand and the Rabbi double-crossed Dorie with the help of Janis herself and moved up her execution date to ensure that Dorie didn’t get himself anymore involved. By the time Dorie arrived to help Janis escape, she was already dead, and Dorie was left devastated.

And this is how clever Virginia is: instead of punishing Dorie for trying to help Janis, she rewarded him with a promotion for helping out in the investigation. The guilt, however, was killing Dorie (and that guilt manifested itself in a rotten tooth), and so Virginia granted Dorie the one thing he couldn’t turn away: a reunion with June.

Dorie, meanwhile, is left saddled with all that guilt over the death of Janis, but knowing that if he tried anything, not only might he die, but so might June. It’s a hell of a bind, and a stroke of brilliance from Virginia, who continues to illustrate the importance of a great villain, a character that viewers respect, but who we also want to see die a miserable, painful death.

In the meantime, in the episode’s tag, we see Morgan in search of Grace, using a hound dog (and a behind-the-scenes assist from his friend Daniel). However, the two men we saw spray paint “The end is the beginning” in the season’s opening episode crash into Morgan’s car. Violence ensues, and Morgan easily dispatches the two men, who we learn are after the key that Morgan took away from Ginny’s assassin. So, that key is valuable, and related to the “end is the beginning” people, who — according to Dwight — probably are not associated with Ginny. It’s an interesting mystery on top of a great ongoing storyline.

I can’t wait to see if Fear can go five-for-five with next week’s episode.

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