Garret Dillahunt's John Dorie proves there is goodness in this hell in a beautifully filmed and near flawless character study.
There were a total of three actors on this week's episode of "Fear the Walking Dead," and it was a mini-masterpiece. One of the most affecting episodes of either series to date, this flashback episode brought genuine human connection to light in a way neither series had mastered quite yet.
We got a tease of this sort of storytelling potential in the opening moments of the season. AMC used to be known for the slow burn of drama in series such as "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad." Even earlier seasons of "The Walking Dead" knew the knack of creating scenes and moments for the characters to just breathe in. It's a powerful dramatic tool, and one that modern audiences don't usually have the patience for.
Today, audiences need constant stimulation, which is why older films often leave them bored or detached. And yet, if you take the time to really immerse yourself in the experience of Garret Dillahunt's John Dorie living alone in his shack by the riverside, you'll find a whole world to explore.
A QUIET PLACE
Dillahunt was masterful with the small moments as this episode began, bringing to poignant life such moments as cleaning his beloved pistols, playing a solo game of Scrabble and even being awakened by a singing Billy Bass toy. Like a classic Western, the music told as much of his story of solitude as Dillahunt's powerful work in subtlety.
By the time Naomi/Laura (Jenna Elfman) washed up on his beach, we had a complete understanding of this man and his world. Even his overt decency was on display just in the way he went about his business. But if there was any doubts, they were dashed the moment "Laura" came on the scene.
A WOMAN'S TOUCH
Naomi entered John's life in much the same way she came into Madison's (Kim Dickens), which takes place after the events of this flashback. She is secretive here to the point she never even gave John her real name. She is almost always working her own agenda, and she is desperate to move on at all costs. And yet, finally, she showed some moments of decency herself back to this man who literally saved her life.
Just as she tried to do with Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) last week, the first chance she got, she ransacked John's place and tried to steal his truck. And still John showed her kindness. He stitched up her wound and even told her that she could have whatever she might. "Maybe next time you need something, you just ask, 'cause my word!" he said, looking at the mess she'd made.
He made her up a curtain to give her some privacy and all the while she kept insisting that she would be moving on as soon as she was healed up enough to do so. And he acknowledged her saying that, but the look in his eye betrayed his not-so-secret desire.
A GOOD MAN
It was perhaps inevitable that John would fall for her. If nothing else, he'd been living in self-imposed exile from even before the world went to hell. He put himself there after fatally shooting a robber while off-duty as a police officer. An intended wounding shot took a mortal turn when the would-be criminal turned at the last moment. That was enough for John to swear off guns, though he still cared for his beloved pistols.
Thought it took her some time to warm up to him, Naomi -- or "Laura" as he dubbed her -- finally began to show kindness in return (though she never did reveal her real name). They tried, and failed, a few times to shore up a hole in the bridge upstream that was ditching walkers on John's front doorstep. It culminated in a pretty harrowing night-time battle when a mini-herd converged on the house all at once.
Finally, after she pushed him to it, John admitted he was in love with her. "I need you alive," he told her. "If you're alive, this whole world feels alive." But John was no fool and didn't believe she loved him back. He even offered to leave and give up his home to her just so he'd know she was safe.
A THIEF IN THE NIGHT
In the end, she did just as she said she was going to do. She recovered from her wound, the stitches were removed, and Naomi was gone. But not before she kissed John and presumably made love to him after his declaration f. Were her feelings genuine? She did leave him a note in Scrabble tiles that read, "I LOVE YOU TOO IM SORRY"
It may be that she was telling the truth, but Naomi was clearly running from something and not yet ready to deal with it as directly as John. One night on the couch, she told him, "I lost my child," but then she abruptly went to bed, leaving the moment stranded in the air. So much with Naomi always remains unsaid.
When John told her he had to get away from people after the robbery shooting because they were calling him a hero, she responded, "Doesn't matter how many people say it's not your fault. The only thing that matters is if you believe it." Words of comfort for John, but they also sounded self-reflective. Naomi carries herself like a woman carrying a tremendous burden, and one she may well have put on herself. While this episode opened up John's story tremendously, there is much yet to learn about Naomi and how she came to be where she was, and who she's become.
A TRUE FRIEND
The entire backstory, beautifully filmed, written, directed and acted by both Dillahunt and Elfman, dominated the bulk of the episode and without interruptions. A simple story of two people finding one another in a crazy, mixed-up world and maybe even falling in love. It was like a rom-com if the jokes were walkers ... a rom-zom?
As the story closed, though, we learned that John was opening up to his newest friend, Morgan (Lennie James), by telling him this story. Like Naomi, Morgan had been saying since they met that he would be moving on once he'd healed from his injury, and he resisted developing any sort of bond with John. But it just can't be done. John is the most humane person left alive in a world that should have done away with his kind years before.
It does help that he's a dead shot with those pistols of his, now reunited after last week's episode.
But instead of pushing away as Naomi did, Morgan saw something he'd long yearned for in John. Morgan had tried many times to be on the path of goodness and kindness, and here was the living embodiment of that in front of him. With John still convinced "Laura" is alive and out there, Morgan spurs him to action.
"There's no waiting in this world. Waiting. That's how you lose people," he tells him. "We are alive. We're part of the world. Let's not waste another second."
He mentioned what was left of the Clark family in passing by suggesting that Victor (Colman Domingo), Luciana (Danay Garcia) and Alicia had lost their way in their blind quest for revenge. Much more appealing is a quest for love. Something positive in this world to fight for over just another reason to kill? This show couldn't be more different than its parent series ... and with installments like this, it is so much better, too!
Also, is it wrong that after this episode, I kind of don't care if the rest of the Clark family survivors make it. I'm already way more invested in the newcomers to this series than I ever was with them.
"Fear the Walking Dead" is killing it -- pun intended -- in Season 4, Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on AMC.