On ‘Fear The Walking Dead,’ One Life Hangs In The Balance And It May Be Too Late For Another

Two-time Emmy nominee Brenda Strong — best known for her work as Mary Alice on Desperate Housewives, as well as roles in Sports Night and TNT’s Dallas reboot — is not cast in a high-rated cable drama only to play a minor background character, as seemed to be the case in the last two episodes of Fear the Walking Dead. Figuring primarily in a flashback two episodes ago, Strong plays Ilene Stowe, the mother of a bride in a hotel wedding that turned grim when her husband had a heart attack, turned into a zombie, and bit the face off his daughter, turning her into a walker as well.

In last week’s episode, “Pablo and Jessica,” Strong again played a minor part, offering resistance to the idea of her group — survivors from the wedding — aligning with Madison and Elena Reyes, the hotel employee who locked the wedding party into a reception hall to prevent the zombie infection from spreading into the city. The two groups aligned despite Illena’s protestations, but she remained a background character throughout the episode, even as Victor put down her infected daughter, who was then secured in a hotel room in the hopes that she would recover from the zombie infection. Strong had less than two minutes of screen time in that episode.

In this week’s episode, “Pillar of Salt,” Strong had less than 30 seconds of screen time, but they were pivotal. She knocked on the door of Victor Strand, and when he answered it, Ilene Stowe quickly stabbed him in the stomach, revenge for what she considered the malicious — rather than merciful — act of putting her infected daughter out of her misery.

It was the stabbing that set into motion the events of this week’s episode. Strand didn’t die, but his continued survival depends on proper medications and a suture kit. Madison and Elena leave the The Rosarito Beach Hotel and drive to the Pelicanos supermarket to exchange fish and ice for the necessary supplies. There, Madison hears rumors of a “gringo” with ratty hair, who she rightly believes is her son, Nick. (A better description might have been, “That Johnny Depp-looking fella.”) After nearly getting herself and Elena killed in the pursuit of more information about her son, Madison and Elena return to the hotel with the medical supplies. The writers want us to think that it may be too late for Victor Strand. His condition has worsened, and Alicia is not confident enough about his condition to assure Victor that he will live. The writers are stringing us along.

Alicia, meanwhile, continues to compete with her missing brother for attention from Madison.

“You don’t understand,” Madison yells at Alicia, after turning on the lights in the hotel. “Your child is always your child.”

“I’m your child,” Alicia shoots back, furious with her mother for turning on those lights and calling attention to themselves. It was meant to be a signal to Nick, but Nick didn’t see it. Travis, from miles away, did. At episode’s end, he seems to be traveling toward Madison and Alicia, though Chris and his cohort of douchebros are nowhere to be found. Travis is not likely to be the only person who rushes to the hotel next week.

Ofelia, who went missing three episodes ago, finally reemerged this week. As suspected, she took Victor’s truck and returned to the restaurant where her former boyfriend proposed to her. In a series of flashbacks, we learn that the devoted Ofelia turned down that proposal because the marriage would have taken her to New Mexico and away from her elderly parents. With her mother dead and father presumed dead, Ofelia decides to head north, back to the United States, where she hopes to find the love of her life.

The week’s most intriguing storyline, however, continues to be the goings-on in Nick’s village, La Colonia, where one of the villagers, Francisco, attempted to escape along with his wife and kid. Why he would want to escape a village surrounded by a wall of protective zombies remains unclear, but the desertion sets of Alejandro, who worries that the people of La Colonia are losing faith in him. Given the risks that the Francisco took not only his own life but the lives of his family members, there seems to be something more significant at play than the fact that La Colonia is running out of Oxy. Some of the villagers, it seems, either fear Alejandro or do not trust him. They can hardly be blamed for not believing in a man who claims to have been infected by a zombie and survived. Luciano, however, remains firm in her faith while a skeptical Nick agrees to do whatever his now girlfriend ask of him, which in this case means not delivering Oxy to the grocery store warlords.

After spotting Nick with a pair of binoculars, those warlords now seem to have a beat on the location of La Colonia. Conflict is all but inevitable.

The episode’s title, “Pillar of Salt,” of course, recalls the fate of Lot’s wife in the Bible, who turned back and looked while escaping Sodom and was turned into a pillar of salt. That description most befits Madison this week, who figuratively looked back for her son rather than moving forward. Next week’s episode, “Date of Death,” will surely see the consequences of that decision.

Though there were no major missteps in “Pillar of Salt,” it nevertheless had the feel of a filler episode, Strand’s stabbing notwithstanding. With the exception of Ofelia — who is headed back toward the States — the episode mostly pointed the disparate groups back toward one another. It’s unfortunate, really, because as the last three episodes have demonstrated, Fear the Walking Dead is better when it’s juggling three or four storylines than when it focuses all its attention on only one with all the major characters together.

That said, the episode did set up a major confrontation between the Pelicanos gang and Nick. It will also be interesting to see if Chris is with Travis when he finally makes his way to the hotel. Expect to learn in next week’s episode what happened between Travis and Chris after Chris murdered the farmer. It’s possible that Chris wasn’t in the episode’s final frame with Travis for a reason, and that reason may be that Travis had to kill his own son. (“Look at the flowers!”)

Chris may already be dead, and we just haven’t witnessed it yet.

Finally, we definitely haven’t seen the last of Brenda Strong, whose character is being imprisoned indefinitely within the hotel. She’s clearly mentally imbalanced. If she escapes, it could put everyone else in danger.

There are only three episodes left this season, and after this week’s fairly uneventful one, Fear the Walking Dead needs to make a dramatic push to sustain interest in the series as competition from a new season of broadcast network television begins in earnest this week.