Fear The Walking Dead: 105 “Cobalt” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
It’s safe to say that Fear the Walking Dead has had a fairly bumpy start, kicking off with a sluggish pilot and showing promising signs of improvement before transitioning with a thud after an ill-advised time jump last week into what can probably be described as the pre-post apocalypse era (it’s after the apocalypse, but only just). However, with one episode after this week’s until Fear secedes its Sunday night on AMC timeslot to the mothership, you might assume that Fear would kick it up a notch this week…
Thankfully, Cobalt delivered on that expectation. It’s a notable improvement on last week, and that’s partially due to the better balance it strikes between characters and post-apocalyptic horror. The character of Daniel Salazar, who’s been ticking away with a handful of great scenes in the last couple of episodes, was finally allowed to take centre stage here in a set of uncompromising, brutal scenes that blurred the lines between good and evil to the point at which it was hard to tell who to even sympathise with (the groundwork laid last week with the sympathetic soldier paid off nicely here). Ruben Blades has proven that he has a knack for uncomfortable monologues about Salazar’s violent past, but it’s the scene where he almost breaks down trying to justify his actions when Blades really shined, delivering a compelling portrayal of a man who’s had all of his idealism and optimism corroded away, and been left with only emptiness. I might have given the Salazar family some flack for adding to the already considerable load Fear the Walking Dead had, but Cobalt went a long way towards justifying their presence, and pushed Daniel to the forefront as perhaps the most interesting and well-rounded character on the show right now.
Another element that really flourished this week was the military’s inclusion, despite the inclusion of the perpetually annoying general who had the character depth of a sheet of paper (thankfully, he died this episode, with AMC’s online companion materials suggesting that his own soldiers killed him off-screen – who can blame them?). Last week, the military seemed mostly like a single vaguely defined entity, but Cobalt managed to add a decent amount of nuance to the occupying force, revealing most of them to be frightened kids who don’t truly believe in what they’re doing; a particularly effective moment saw a military guy attempt to desert after seeing Ofelia break down at the gates. It’s a more emotionally realistic and honest depiction to take, reflecting the morally murky feeling of this episode and avoiding the simplistic ‘military = evil’ view that last episode perpetuated. The military’s actions are obviously reprehensible at first glance, but the careful work done this episode contextualises actions such as Project Cobalt as the acts of desperate, disillusioned men and continues to make sure that the viewer can’t make a complete moral judgement of either side. It’s not revolutionary stuff, but it’s a substantial improvement on what last week offered and shows Fear using the conceit of the military’s last stand for something deeper and more ambiguous than presenting the military as purely antagonistic.
Travis’ adventures with the military also yielded a handful of strong scenes – in particular, Travis’ faltering when faced with killing a walker was a notable, reasonably powerful reminder of the pre-apocalyptic mindset, with Fear the Walking Dead demonstrating that it’s not as easy as simply picking up a gun and shooting a walker at this stage in the apocalypse; the disorientating, shaky direction of this scene added nicely to Travis’ moral struggle and confusion. It’s a scene that’s not quite as powerful as it could have been, thanks to a rushed feeling that robs the scene of time to linger on Travis’ dilemma to a greater extent, but it’s certainly a stronger moment of walker-related drama than is usual for Fear.
Cobalt’s strengths generally lay in how it improved upon mistakes made in previous episodes, but an entirely new element introduced in this episode proved to be one of the best parts: the introduction of a new character, Strand, a wheeler-dealer with a knack for talking people into just about anything. Strand’s screen-time in Cobalt was minimal, but it certainly made a hell of an impact – the opening scene where Strand talked friendly neighbour Doug into a nervous breakdown was simultaneously chilling, and surprisingly impressive. That’s the fun of Strand’s character – it’s pure, unapologetic villainy that’s not mired in any kind of angst, and it’s therefore hugely entertaining to watch. Here’s hoping he becomes a more regular fixture in season two, as Strand proves to be a magnetic and thoroughly impressive addition in this episode.
Where Cobalt does miss the mark is in its occasional return to bad habits – flabby, unnecessary scenes that bog down the episode and add very little thematic depth or character development. Chris and Alicia’s scenes are the chief offender here – their ransacking of a rich family’s home is almost impressive in how it adds nothing to the episode at all apart from the introduction of Chris’ crush on Alicia, which is a pretty eye-rolling and vaguely creepy (they’re essentially stepbrother and stepsister), not to mention completely derivative, development. There’s not even a sense that these scenes could have been made compelling with a little more time – they’re just vapid, boring and steal screen-time from the far more interesting drama going on elsewhere.
It’s also at the end of Cobalt where Fear’s previously uneven approach to character development begins to show consequences. Griselda’s death is a well-executed moment that’s actually the first ‘major’ character death on the show, but it’s held back from becoming truly memorable by the fact that we barely got to know Griselda beforehand. She was just kind of there as a background fixture and as someone for Daniel to worry about, and never actually gained any real characteristics of her own. Griselda’s death is only impactful because of the person who does it (Liza, who finally got some interesting material this episode), rather than the fact that it’s a named recurring character; thanks to the lack of development Griselda received, Liza killing an unnamed red shirt would have had about the same impact.
Credit, though, must go to Cobalt for delivering a really strong final scene that sets things up intriguingly for the finale. It’s hard to believe that we’ll actually see the 2000-odd walkers trapped in that stadium all break out (it seems as if the parent show has tagged massive walker hordes as an exclusive for now), but the sight of the stadium doors rattling as Daniel looks on is a really chilling one that conjures a huge amount of images without having to even show any walkers. And of course, there’s the question: just what is Daniel doing at the stadium anyway? Will he, the most equipped out of all the main characters, make it out of the finale alive?
After last week’s major wobble, Cobalt sees Fear the Walking Dead back on track. It’s a substantial improvement on the last couple of episodes, and pushes things into place for a season finale that could open up a whole new era for the show. Some recurring flaws remain, but Cobalt is proof that Fear can be compelling, well-executed drama in its own right.