Honestly, after that last two episodes of Fear the Walking Dead, I had grown a little dispirited with the series. The array of new characters had not clicked, and Morgan’s storyline had no zip to it; the Althea and June side-story last week wasn’t compelling; and the new villain, the Filthy Woman, didn’t seem all that menacing.
What a difference an episode makes.
This week’s episode brought back the best character on this series — and one of the best characters in the entire The Walking Dead universe — in Garrett Dillahunt’s John Dorie, and just to make things more interesting, the series threw in a zombie-eating alligator. Strand and John — who ended the episode exactly where they began it, stranded on the other side of road submerged in water after a levee broke — spend much of the episode squabbling about whether they should take a chance and cross the river. John endeavors to do so on a hand-made raft, which immediately falls apart, and so they pull a camper off a pick-up truck and attempt to cross the river on that to no avail. There is plenty of tension in the attempt, as a gator displaced by the storm tries to overturn the make-shift boat and devour John and Strand. There is clearly little sustenance in a zombie, given the number of zombies the gator eats and yet remains hungry.
What do we learn in the failed attempt? That Strand is clearly an alcoholic — he risks his own life in an attempt to steal a bottle of booze — and that he also feels alone, having lost his favored drinking partner in Madison. John Dorie, however, offers to take her stead as drinking buddy, but only after they’ve crossed to the other side. That, however, may take some time: The water may take days or weeks to subside, and in the meantime, they’re stranded on an island.
Ultimately, it’s a diversion that doesn’t advance the story much, but it hardly matters when Dillahunt (and a menacing alligator) are involved — Dillahunt is one of those guys who can make reading the phone book compelling, especially when he’s in “aw shucks” mode, which offers a fun contrast to the more Shakespearean pronouncements of Strand. I’m rooting for an unlikely bromance in these two.
Meanwhile, Luciana spends the entire episode searching for a beer for a dying old man. Likewise, this shouldn’t work — she literally walks from place to place trying to find a bottle of booze — but veteran character actor Stephen Henderson manages to inject some pathos into the subplot as Polar Bear, the truck driver who has been leaving supplies all along, all in an effort to make up for the time he missed spending with loved ones before the apocalypse. There is something about the reveal that hits an emotional sweet spot: This kind, dying old man has not only saved all of these people — including Morgan — but inspired others to carry on his work, which came back full circle when the beer that Jim left in a box provided Polar Bear with a final moment of comfort before he died. “What you left,” Luciana says into her walkie-talkie, “will help more than you may ever know.” To hear Morgan’s voice come out of the other end of the walkie-talkie only heightened the emotional payoff.
While John and Strand offered the episode’s bittersweet bonding moment (although, it ended with John feeling hopeless), and Luciana and Polar Bear gave it the heartbreaking one, the Filthy Woman gave “Blackjack” its “Holy Sh*t” moment. That comes at the end of the episode when Morgan makes contact with Charlie and Alicia and agrees to meet up with them, only to hear the Filthy Woman interrupt their walkie-talkie conversation. Now that she has Al’s armored truck, she’s proving to be far more menacing than I first believed, as illustrated in the final seconds of the episode when she began shooting up the 18-wheeler. “I told you,” the Filthy Woman says seconds before unloading her machine guns into the semi, “I’m making you strong.”
The moment proves to be one of two incredibly tense moments in the episode (along with the gator attacking the camper), and it works particularly well in both instances because the terrifying moments come on the heels of what feels like small successes — Charlie/Alicia making contact with Alicia before the Filthy Woman empties a round into the 18-wheeler’s trailer, and John/Strand scoring a small victory with the car horn drawing the zombies into the river. It’s one of those Fear episodes that clicks better than others, thanks — finally — to nice character work supplementing the sharp story turns. Hopefully, Fear can keep the momentum moving through the final three episodes.
With that said, it has been a disappointing back half — Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg were meant to come in and boost the series with some more energy and more creative storylines, but so far — save for a hurricane and a zombie-eating alligator — the cast has turned over, but the series itself is still stuck in a rut.