It’s the little things that have already begun to set season four of Fear the Walking Dead apart from both the first three seasons of the series and The Walking Dead. Last week’s episode established Fear as a different series with a new tone, new characters, and a new setting. With this week’s episode, Fear raises the bar for the writers’ table on Angela Kang’s next season of The Walking Dead.
There’s more attention to detail than ever before — note the organic gardening book Nick is reading over the breakfast table in the cold open or the Armadillo coffee mugs they drink out of, a nod to the baseball team who once inhabited the stadium where the characters on Fear now live. Or the Waylon Jenning’s song that opens the episode, “Mama Tried,” a clue to the direction of the series. The characters are trying to live right — honest, helpful, altruistically — like their Mama (Madison) tries to tell them, but their turn back “towards the bad” is almost inevitable, as the introduction of the villains later in the episode and their ambush of Morgan and Althea in the present timeline portend.
My favorite moments, however, come in the little foreshadowing hints we get from Charlie, the young, innocent-seeming girl without a home who Madison invites into the Diamond. “What’s your least favorite food?” Madison asks her. Charlie explains that it’s salmon patties — canned salmon, breadcrumbs, and onions — and Madison talks about what a waste it is for a salmon to spend its whole life swimming upstream only to become a patty. “Should’ve swam the other way,” Charlie says, in what may as well be a warning to Madison.
A couple of scenes later, Charlie also drops a Robert Johnson reference on Nick. “Did you know he only lived until he was 27? And did you know that people think he might have sold his soul to the devil?”
Viewers don’t understand until later in the episode that it’s Charlie that sold her soul to the devil, figuratively speaking. She’s the adorable Trojan Horse the Vultures send into new communities to sell a story about how she was separated from her parents. Once inside, she learns everything she can about the community and then takes that intel back to The Vultures, a new group of villains with a perfectly apt name. They don’t invade new communities and kill everyone inside. They don’t even kill. They hover and wait. They are chill in their RVs, busses, and beach chairs, hanging out in the parking lot drinking beers as though tailgaiting, just waiting for nature to run its course and for those inside to perish, and then they swoop in and pick them clean of all their belongings. The Vultures, however, do give their intended victims a choice: The Vultures will either wait until everyone inside dies, or the inhabitants can choose to vacate the premises and leave all their belongings behind. Everyone always chooses to “swim upstream,” and Madison and co. are no exception.
We also meet Naomi (Jenna Elfman), a paranoid woman who Madison invites in after saving her from zombies inside a silo filled with oil. We don’t learn much about her — she was a nurse in the old world, first in ERs and then in ICUs — but she keeps her backstory close to her chest, like everyone else on this show, it seems. It’s interesting, however, to see Dharma outside the context of a sitcom, and Elfman already seems well-suited to this new iteration of Fear.
The most Vince Gilligan-esque moment in the episode, however, comes late. After Charlie is revealed as the mole and she returns to The Vultures, Madison continues to build her a bedroom inside the stadium, as though under the belief that Charlie will want to return (If you build it, they will come is too on-the-nose in the context of a baseball field to be spoken aloud). Meanwhile, Luci takes the book she found for Charlie and leaves it for her outside the bus. That book? The Little Prince.
The most famous line from The Little Prince, of course, is this one: “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Madison hasn’t given up on Charlie — hence the room she continues to build for her — and through The Little Prince, Luci is surreptitiously reaching out to Charlie and asking her to see the situation with her heart, not with her eye. It’s a hint that while Charlie may be a mole for The Vultures, if she can find a way to see with her heart, she may end up becoming the inside person for Madison and Co., the little girl that ends up saving all of their lives.
This new Fear is on a completely different level.
The final scene in the episode takes us forward to the present, where Nick, Alicia, Strand, and Luci have ambushed Morgan, Althea and John. The scene tells us a lot about what’s going on while saying very little. They’ve clearly lost their home inside the Diamond, hence the heavy backpacks containing what’s left of their belongings. They’re also clearly tracking The Vultures. The Vultures, we learn, round up zombies and trap them inside structures and hang flags with numbers on them, indicating what appears to be many zombies are inside. Somehow, the flag on top of the trailer home in the last episode with the number 51 on it wound up inside Althea’s van, which wrongly suggests to Alicia that Althea’s crew belongs to The Vultures.
The question is: Is Madison dead? Are Alicia and co. tracking The Vultures to kill them and seek revenge for murdering Madison? Or are they tracking them because they’re holding Madison (and potentially Naomi and Charlie) hostage?
— What’s with the rock that Strand is fondling? The camera lingered on it for two extra beats, indicating significance.
— We don’t know where Luci went or how she reunited with Nick in between the third and fourth seasons, but we do know that Nick is never going to let her live it down. That’s one of many backstories due to be filled in.
— Why doesn’t Strand like Cole? He’s suspicious of him, almost as though Cole knows something about Strand that he doesn’t want everyone else to know.
— Nick, like Morgan, is suffering from PTSD, and can’t leave the Diamond because it triggers flashbacks of the dam. We get to see a few of those flashbacks to the end of season three, but nothing yet which reveals how Nick and Co., escaped, or if — and how — Daniel died. Likewise, we do not yet understand why Madison saved Strand after he sold them out in season three, but the show is certainly trying to alert us to its significance.