"Fear" continues its reign as the best series in the franchise with incredible performances, heartbreaking twists and a sense of danger long missing from the parent series.
It's perhaps never been more glaring that "Fear the Walking Dead" has effectively become the flagship series of the franchise than watching this mid-season premiere on the heels of those largely unnecessary, overly indulgent and boring bonus "Walking Dead" episodes we just slogged through.
While the parent series has been treading water for a few years now, "Fear" is delivering all of the adrenaline, heart and character moments that the OG series used to be known for (pre-Glenn's death). With this return, the first spinoff cemented itself as the gold standard for this universe and proved that there is still plenty of life in this undead franchise.
There was a time when "The Walking Dead" was the most exciting and unpredictable series on television, scoring higher ratings even than broadcast television. Now, quietly in its shadow, "Fear" has emerged to usurp that title, delivering one of the most exciting and unpredictable hours of television we've seen in a long time.
Unpredictable because the biggest danger of the hour came from one of the most unexpected places, but in a place that felt fully earned by all of the characters. On top of that, the performances from the actors was just stellar on top of incredible plotting and scripting.
Garret Dillahunt's John Dorie has long been the heart and soul of this series, the one who fought for Morgan to live when the latter was ready to throw in the towel. Now, those tables were turned as we checked in first on Dillahunt alone and back in his cabin, preparing to take his own life.
Everything was full circle for John, along and lost without June, dealing with walkers washing up on the beach in front of his cabin and not sure what to do with his life. He was a broken man, awash in failure for being unable to solve Cameron's murder, and riddled with guilt for the lives he'd taken.
Even finding out that Virginia had captured basically all of their friends -- which he had to know included June -- wasn't enough to pull him out of his misery. And Dillahunt's performance in this suicidal anguish was devastatingly flawless.
This week's episode was yet another character study, with our focus firmly on John and later Morgan and Dakota, after he found them in the gas station he adorably rents movies from still (and leaves reviews). The pair had gotten separated from Charlie and Alicia on their way back to Morgan's dam compound.
That created a microcosm of complexity, as John and Morgan have become effectively best friends through their time together, both trying to serve as the moral compass of the show, both struggling with the darkness within and both having to prop the other up when needed (as friends do).
This week, it was definitely Morgan's turn to be the pillar of strength that John needed, though at every turn he was coming up short in convincing his friend not only to join him, but that life was still worth living.
At the top of the hour, we saw John attempting to kill himself, losing his nerve at the last second (and with every walker interruption). He never quite overcame that sense that he was ready to be done with this world as the hour progressed, no matter what Morgan said.
Then throw in the character of Dakota, herself broken in so many ways by growing up with Virginia as her sister and seeing how ruthlessly her community is run. In a casual conversation with John, she reveals just how little she regards life -- a far cry from Morgan's "all life is precious."
At the same time, she doesn't come across as evil, just someone who's fundamentally flawed because of their influences. Virginia doesn't see individual lives as worth anything, control is all she's after. So it's not necessarily a surprise Dakota would feel that way, nor does it say much for future generations that come up in this brutal world where life sometimes is cheap and death just a means to an end.
And yet, through her brokenness, John started to see a glimmer of hope for himself, perhaps even a purpose for his life. John is an inherently good man forced to do bad things, but he's never lost sight of right and wrong. Perhaps, he can serve as a mentor to Dakota and help her -- and in so doing, help himself and maybe believe in the future of this world again.
Putting that piece of the puzzle together right before Dakota got attacked by that walker and saved herself with her knife only dug that knife in deeper. Despite her efforts to hide it from John, he saw and recognized that blade.
Suddenly, the pieces clicked together. It was Dakota who had killed Cameron. And why did she take a life? Because he exposed her secret way in and out of Lawton to Virginia and Virginia closed it up. His life was forfeit because she lost her way out.
That's how little human life means to Dakota, making her even more fundamentally broken than John realized. She again preached that what she did was no different than anyone. The ends justify the means, though this sounds more like petty anger and a twisted sort of revenge.
But the ends justifying the means is why she callously pulled John's gun on him. Now, he knew her secret, making him a threat to her getting what she wants, which is to get away from her sister.
Morgan's dam compound is the answer, so far as she is concerned, but this truth could threaten her being welcomed there. In other words, if John tells she might miss out on this chance. And if life means nothing, well you can guess what happened next.
She not only shot John, which didn't kill him, but pushed him off the bridge and into the torrent.
She did not ultimately take the shot when she saw him hanging onto a piece of driftwood (or door) and floating downstream.
That's probably either because she wasn't sure she could make the shot, she wasn't sure it would matter anyway, or simply because Morgan showed up. And then she tried the same tactic on him, trying to force her way still into his compound.
It was a more difficult task, though, as she wanted something out of him so she couldn't just kill him. And might we add, the complexity of emotions and torment this broken character displayed in this scene with Morgan was just an acting class by Zoe Colletti. She was incredible here, tortured and angry and obsessive and more than a little crazy.
And then she rocked Morgan's world by revealing that it was she who'd patched him up and left him supplies and food so he could survive. But again, she didn't do this because she cared about Morgan. A casual disregard for life means she can save and take in equal measure, and neither with any actual care for other humans.
"You are breathing because you are the only person left that can end her," Dakota told a stunned Morgan. She saved him so he could kill Virginia and free her from her sister. That's all she wants. She shot John for the same reason, to keep that dream alive.
To be willing to save and take life in equal measure so long as it serves your own interest makes Dakota as callous and soulless as her sister. Is she evil or broken? Does Carol need to have her look at the flowers and blow her head off or can she be fixed? It's too soon to tell, but she certainly made her mark here.
Morgan was broken in that moment, because here was his mysterious benefactor, the person who gave him hope of goodness in this world yet, and there was absolutely no goodness in her motivations for saving him. Hope of helping her literally gave John a reason to live and then she shot him.
Virginia may be a cold-blooded killer, but she's a villain through and through. In so many ways, Dakota is the far more interesting character now because she's just self-serving, but in the most frightening and dangerous way. She's like Strand, but even he can be reined in. Can she?
Will anyone even bother to try after the closing moments of the hour when Virginia (at Morgan's insistence) arrived at John's camp with June in tow to parlay with Morgan. When John washed up, June rushed out to try and save his life.
In a beautifully heartbreaking scene, the undead John slowly crawled toward June until she finally pulled out her knife and lovingly ended his undead existence, allowing him a true death. The impact of this loss on her, on Morgan and on the show at large is incalculable.
Garret Dillahunt is an incredible performer who elevated everyone around him. But he was also that intractable moral center. June seemed to find that center with him eventually, but what happens now that he's dead. Even though Dakota did it, Virginia bears much of the responsibility. And June saved her life!
On top of that, neither Dakota nor Virginia has the capacity to care about John's life in any meaningful way. He was a tool that is no longer useful, so neither really cares that he's gone, making it worse for those who do.
Morgan's vision of reuniting his family is now destroyed forever, and yet he still needs Dakota as leverage. Will he ever be able to trust her? Is there a redemption arc for her, or is she just trade bait now and who cares what happens to her? The moral compass is gone and revenge will start to look pretty good.
Complicating that, Dakota's behavior wasn't evil so much as it was just self-serving and indifferent. Is that better? Does that deserve a different kind of consideration than Virginia's more deliberate attacks?
On top of that, now that Dakota has probably ruined her chances of getting what she wants, what is someone morally bankrupt willing to do in that situation? Could she become even more dangerous, because we know she hates her sister already, and if Morgan and company are no longer the answer, she is a lone wolf with no regard for life. That sounds pretty dangerous.
"Fear the Walking Dead" has never been more dangerous, or exciting, as the season carries on, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.