Fear The Walking Dead: 106 “The Good Man” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
It’s been a bumpy road for the abbreviated first season of Fear the Walking Dead. There’s been flickers of inspiration, a clear skill in zombie horror when it actually tries to show walkers and periodically interesting drama, but Fear has never really managed to master both character and horror – the fact that it’s chosen to focus heavily on character drama, which it’s easily worse at, only creates the perception that there’s a great show in there somewhere if different choices had been made by the writers. Still, it’s not been a poor season of TV by any means, and the show managed to build up a little momentum heading into the finale. The question is: did Fear wrap up for 2015 on a high note?
Generally speaking, yes, though The Good Man continued to indicate the lopsided nature of the show. This was a far more impactful and intense a finale than I genuinely expected, and that’s mainly because it, for a good chunk of the run-time, focuses on what Fear does best: zombie horror. Finally, after five episodes of understandable yet frustrating reticence, Fear absolutely let loose here, eagerly compensating for the absence of walkers in previous episodes with a horde of quite literally thousands of walkers. It’s not just the numbers that makes this all-out battle work – it’s the shaky, fearful way the army is shown to be brutally overwhelmed as the walkers swamp the compound; as the watchtowers topple and soldiers fall, Fear has never felt quite so visceral as it viscerally shows the weight of the carnage going on. The Good Man is unafraid to be brutal, too, with an almost sadistic scene where a bitten army general stumbles into a helicopter’s blades. It’s not gratuitous, however – all of this is in service of making the audience really feel the weight of what’s going on as the well-armed soldiers helplessly topple to the sheer number of flesh-eating walkers. Is it credible that an army regiment with machine guns and explosives could be that ineffective? Perhaps not, but Fear manages to make it seem entirely natural and almost realistic that would happen, thoroughly delivering on its remit on a more grounded take on the zombie apocalypse’s origins. However, it’s the actual mechanics behind this undoubtedly terrific final scene that does expose a notable flaw in this finale.
On one level, Salazar strolling up to the compound and nonchalantly informing the guards to save their ammo is a textbook, cathartic badass moment. It’s the sort of thing Rick would do on The Walking Dead, and it’s therefore effective in an instinctual, ‘cool’ way. Unfortunately, delve into the idea a little further, and it doesn’t work quite as well. It’s really quite hard to justify Salazar letting the horde in the stadium loose and dozens (probably over 100?) of soldiers and workers killed to save two people, neither of which he has particularly direct links to. It’s an act that bypasses the effective moral ambiguity his actions were rooted in last week, and becomes a straight-up evil, unquestionably villainous act. To make matters worse, no character challenges Salazar about this, and the act itself isn’t really portrayed by the show as a particularly bad thing to have done. It’s a puzzling one, because the act unlocks the best set of scenes of the entire season, but, frustratingly, it’s a storytelling choice that makes it extremely hard to root for our heroes when they’re taking advantage of an act that got dozens of innocent people killed. It’s easy to see the intentions behind this, but it appears the writers really overshot their mark here, turning an act that was probably intended to be a tad morally questionable into something that eroded this viewer’s sympathy for the band of ‘heroes’ entirely.
Grumbles aside – once the ‘heroes’ entered the military compound, The Good Man showed a surprisingly sustained glimpse of just how damn good Fear the Walking Dead can be. Flickering lights might be a horror trope that’s on the verge of a cliché, but the handful of scenes where the main characters are trapped in a claustrophobic environment were genuinely nerve-shredding, utilising superbly unnerving direction to imbue a palpable sense of danger and (ahem) fear. For once, no character seemed safe, with almost every main figure being placed in grave danger – which, for a show that’s kept most of its cast intact the whole way through, is certainly impressive. These excellent scenes of horror were also heightened by an effective, organic evolution of the reasonably clunky scenes where characters ineffectively tried to hurt or reason with walkers early in the season – it’s more subtle now, and there’s certainly no attempts to talk the walkers down as if they were merely ill, but the fumbling and slight air of ineptness only intensifies the scene, as there’s absolutely no reassurance he that any character will dispatch the walker with ease as there is on The Walking Dead itself.
After the pulse-pounding set of walker scenes, Fear managed to squeeze in one last confrontation. The Good Man was a notably antagonist-free (aside from walkers, but it’s hard to term them as ‘villains’) episode for the most part, with the military’s unsympathetic role dialled back even further, so the abrupt and unexpected return of the soldier Salazar tortured was a bit of a surprise to say the least. Again, the mechanics of this were pretty weak, as the soldier was portrayed beforehand as a compliant, friendly and generally sympathetic character, so his abrupt shift into a hostile character didn’t feel natural enough (especially his shooting of Ofelia, a moment that briefly saw the writers entirely lose grip of any sense of consistency), even taking into account the psychological strain he underwent during his torture. Nonetheless, it’s hard to fault the blunt, strangely satisfying pay-off Travis’ character arc gets as he goes all Rick Grimes on the soldier, savagely beating him to a pulp in retribution for shooting Ofelia. It’s the culmination of a reasonably rushed (blame this season’s short length) yet still effective journey from pacifist to fighter, and it’s the first genuine example of Fear using the zombie apocalypse to thoroughly change a character without feeling overly contrived or inorganic.
Strangely, after this confrontation, The Good Man stalls for the bulk of its remaining fifteen minutes or so. There’s a storytelling reason for this (to introduce viewers to the home base for… maybe three episodes of season two at best), but it does take the wind out of the sails a little and dulls the impact of the final scene, coming as it does after a set of languid and reasonably humdrum character scenes. In addition, Strand, a character I praised last week for being dynamic and unashamedly selfish, appears to be turning into something of a useful plot device, conveniently possessing a mansion and yacht that just happens to have been stocked up with supplies. Strand’s still a fun character to watch, but every plot point surrounding him is mired in contrivances and coincidences rather than good storytelling sense – and, besides, why exactly is a demonstrably selfish guy even bringing several people aboard to use up his supplies quicker (and if there’s a reason, it’s a little galling to have to wait several months for it)? The entertainment value of the character sweetens the pill a little, but the narrative shortcuts taken here smacks of weak and lazy scripting.
Just as it appeared that things were going to wind down for the season, however, The Good Man delivered one last sucker punch. Liza’s been far from the show’s most prominent character, but she’s certainly grown and developed in the past couple of episodes in her time at the military facility, and by the time of her death she’d become a likeable and nuanced figure who transcended the trite ‘nagging ex-wife’ stereotype she briefly appeared to emulate in episode one. It’s the fact that Travis does it, however, that provides the real impact here – beating up one guy is enough, but mercy killing his ex-wife is another, and it’s a brave choice that should give Cliff Curtis some weighty, fascinating material in season two as Travis struggles with his guilt. It’s certainly extremely encouraging that Fear the Walking Dead managed to make the death of a tertiary character really carry weight here – no matter how flawed the characters are in this show, that can only indicate progress in the character department. The finale may end on a shot of a darkening, red sea, but things are certainly looking a little brighter for this show as it heads into season two…
There’s storytelling flaws here that would drag down most episodes into ‘mediocre’ territory, but The Good Man keeps its head above water with terrific scenes of walker horror and a couple of very successful gut-punches that help this to become a solid, if not terrific season finale.