After a rocky first half, "FTWD" kicks off Season 5B with a confident hour of television as the group refocuses on their mission of helping those in need and an old danger rears its head again.
An interesting thing happened during the short mid-season hiatus on "Fear the Walking Dead." It suddenly found itself with a fresh found footage format so successful it's already disappointing that it apparently won't be sticking around beyond this episode.
There was an immediacy to the events, even as confessional footage clearly placed some of it in flashback, and a surprising emotional resonance to the story of Tess and her son as it related to Morgan's past, and even touched on Alicia's as well.
"The Walking Dead" shows are about loss as much as anything and about how to deal with that loss. As much as this week's installment was about offering the show a much needed reset button after a meandering first half to the season that lacked any real conflict or danger, it also served really well to showcase the growing sense of community, as well as the emotional work that needs to be done.
Morgan said that they would find people to help and they would make a difference in the world, but he also told Alicia that they would start living, too.
It's nice to see that the latter remains a work in progress, as these are seriously damaged people Perhaps it's more appropriate to say that this is a show about the trauma of loss and trying to come to terms with that.
As further proof that the first eight episodes of this fifth season were effectively a waste of time, we learn in passing that the group basically gave up on that dam factory they were so gung ho to get back, becoming instead a group of wanderers, traveling in a caravan to bring their help to anyone who needs it.
They'd expanded their operation, too, adding more trucks to their fleet, including a fuel truck, and even more cameras to chronicle their good works. And it was this conceit that made the episode feel so much more intimate and connected than we've seen from the show in a very long time.
There was some very good work from the cast in those confessionals, with particularly poignant performances from Lennie James (Morgan), Alycia Debnam-Carey (Alicia), Austin Amelio (Dwight) and Karen David (Grace). Their candid conversations about how much the mission means to them individually almost overcame the abrupt transition from the previous episode to this one.
It is absolutely inexplicable that we got in a voice-over and quick flashback the revelation that the group simply decided to abandon Logan on the side of the road after setting him up in a major way in the closing moments of the mid-season finale with his revelation about the gas going bad and some organization working on refining fuel.
That was perhaps the most jarring tonal transition for the entire episode, and especially because we left on that tense exchange and picked up as if it had never really happened. There was no real payoff from that scene in a way that felt authentic and equal to the setup.
It was as if the show was playing that writing exercise where you leave the story on a cliffhanger to challenge the next writer, only they didn't care for your story s they essentially ignored your cliffhanger to tell their own, only tossing in a quick line to explain how it was dismissed. In this case, it was done with a cheap time jump.
At least the show didn't abandon Logan and his obsession with the oil fields completely as that would have been a complete waste of Matt Frewer's talents. And while they're setting him up right now to be the big bad of this back half of the season, he's yet to come across as competent or commanding enough to really carry that role. That said, Season 4B had a crazy woman as its "big bad" while 5A had ... radiation? Kids? A mountain?
At least there's the promise of yet another confrontation with Logan, and this time it will be personal after Sarah dumped him on the highway. It can't be worse than building up a battle for a homebase over eight episodes only to have Logan leave as soon as they arrived. And then find out in the next episode, they abandoned that base anyway.
In most seasons of this show or the parent show, the whole scene with Tess trapped in her house surrounded by land minds, and the fact she'd not stepped outside in two years (is that how long they're saying it's been since the dead rose? That's it?!), would have lacked this emotional resonance. Even the time Strand and John were trapped on an island after the flood failed to connect so intimately.
It all comes back to Al's interviews and that found footage style. It inspired the writers to get inside the characters' heads in a way that straight narrative wasn't allowing, and it helped to peel the layers back. Morgan in particular got to really explore the pain that he's been grappling with since the pilot of "The Walking Dead" revealed his dead wife coming to the front door each night.
And through those intimate exchanges, we got a glimpse of how much this moment with Tess meant. And it's everything to do with how much they'd been failing at their mission to help people and just how much they were able to make a difference in Tess' life. She was effectively shut in, afraid to step outside, and by the end of their time with her, she'd helped rescue Morgan from an IED and even joined their caravan of hope.
Tess symbolizes that they can do this thing they'd so ambitiously set out to do. And perhaps more importantly, it proved that there are good and decent people yet left in this world who need their help. It's so easy to become disillusioned and give up on humanity -- as we've seen so many "Walking Dead" characters do -- when faced with the worst of mankind, so it's important to get reminders that there are still decent and innocent people about.
"If You're Reading This, You're Still Here." It's a message Alicia found painted beautifully on a tree, and it's a message that's given her hope in a way Morgan's meditation and staff exercises can't. So now she has a mission to find the person who is painting them.
Grace revealed that she is determined to live every moment she has left to the fullest. Victor is embracing his second chance to do right, while Daniel is trying to become a man his daughter would have been proud of. Dwight is seeking as much redemption as he can find for his darker days of yore.
Everyone has their individual motives for being committed to this cause, but the writers need to be careful as they move away from this confessional format that the individual characters and their motivations and their personalities don't get lost. Already, we've seen the diluting of Luciana's character over the past two seasons, with Charlie failing to develop much of an identity in that time, either.
It's a large ensemble cast, which makes it ever more important to take the time to focus on as many of them as possible, even if it's in small intimate moments. Fans of "The Office" fell in love with the show when it gave moments to every background character, moving them into the foreground with enough interesting snippets to make them feel unique and well-rounded.
Characters in desperate need of some love and depth from the creative team behind the show include Luciana, Charlie, Grace, Sarah and Wendell. Victor is in danger of fading into the background as well, while Dwight needs to forge his "Fear" identity in a stronger and more definitive way as well.
That's a lot of character work to do, but as we saw in 5A, there is a lot of hours between now and the finale in seven episodes. It can either be filled with the same repetitive nonsense we've seen ad nauseum or they can build on the momentum established here and put this show back ahead of "TWD" in creative satisfaction.
Can they do it? Who knows. If 5A is any indication, we could be in for a bumpy ride. But as Morgan and his troops are out there trading in, we can always hold onto our hope that they will find a way.