[This is a review of Fear the Walking Dead season 1, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
Although it devotes time to just about everyone in the core group of survivors, the penultimate episode of Fear the Walking Dead season 1 is really defined by the actions two characters; one with whom the audience is familiar and one the audience is introduced to in compelling fashion. The latter character is Strand, played by actor Colman Domingo, and his introduction, a lengthy monologue delivered to a frightened Doug (the sobbing, bearded mess Travis had to talk to last week), is like a crash course in understanding not just one man's ethos, but in understanding the ethos that will soon be the prevailing mindset of those left in a world where everything has broken down.
In essence, Strand is the representation of one half of The Walking Dead's worldview in this particular, still-teetering-on-the-edge-of-collapse setting. Daniel Salazar, survivor of civil war and not-so-reformed torturer, represents the other half. What the episode aims to achieve, then, is to point out the ways in which, under normal circumstances neither of these men are an ideal in any sense of the word, and yet, because of the unique context of the series, they may well be the archetypal version of those who wish to survive.
The Walking Dead has an interesting history with this kind of "every man for himself" worldview. In its attempts to be a story about survival in an impossibly harsh environment, the series came by that perspective organically, even if it's debatable whether or not an exploration of the idea was a deliberate function of the narrative from the get-go. In Fear, however, such a function feels much more considered, which may be why 'Cobalt' works so well in its examination of how quickly a person's convictions can change, when exposed to the right kind of environmental stimuli.
'Cobalt' is a far cry from where last week's 'Not Fade Away' began. While the previous entry kicked off with a sense of hope and what seemed to be a return to some kind of stability, this week it is all about peeling away the pretense of security layer by layer – among other things – and showing how the world of Fear the Walking Dead is actually much closer to the end than any of the main characters could have possibly imagined. Sure, there are those like Daniel and Strand who have already keyed in to some idea of what the world on the losing end of this apocalypse will be like, but as we see at the episode's end, even Daniel isn't fully prepared for the extent to which things have actually collapsed.
The entire episode is about torture, in one form or another. Strand's monologue walks Doug right up to the front door of his breaking point, so much so that he almost seems relieved to be taken by the military officials keeping people locked away in barbed wire-ringed paddocks. His verbal torment seems to be a noxious result of his environment – which it is, to a certain degree – but it can also be seen as Strand's method of survival, his way of averting unwanted attention by diverting on to someone else.
Surprisingly, though, despite his efforts to tear Doug apart, Strand puts in a considerable effort to save Nick. Given how the episode set the character up as an opportunistic manipulator, the reasons for why Strand does what he does effectively become more and more interesting. In the relatively short span of time since the outbreak has occurred (and, probably, long before the dead started getting bite-y), Strand has come to realize the greatest currency in the (post-apocalyptic) world isn't money or shiny objects, but people. And better than just people are the people who have become indebted to him for things like, say, saving their life.
The importance of life works differently for Daniel Salazar. His goal is to remind others how much they value their own, and then use that to his advantage. The torture of Andrew Adams (Shawn Hatosy), the soldier his daughter Ofelia has begun a sort-of relationship with, is made as unpleasant to watch as possible. Even though most of it occurs off screen, the result of what happens is given a purposeful prominence in the episode's storyline. The most effective purpose being how characters like Madison and even Travis seemingly come around to how Daniel's methods produce results.
This allows the episode to take some of the focus away from what Daniel is doing – both in terms of torture's inefficacy in the real world, and it's overuse as a narrative device in fiction – and use it to draw attention to how quickly personal mores can shift during prolonged instances of extreme duress. This is especially true in the world of The Walking Dead, which ostensibly constructs it entire narrative on that very foundation. It's a disheartening prospect, but one that Fear has proven capable of exploring in surprisingly effective ways.
It may have suffered from a feeling of disconnect, but there are reasons to be glad the episode included Alicia and Chris' invasion of a posh home, seemingly abandoned by its owners when everything started going to hell. One could suppose the family was wrapped up in the initial outbreak, or they too have been quarantined, but the way in which 'Cobalt' uses the sequence to so clearly draw a line between the haves and the have nots (as this show's parent series has done in the past with some success), the implication of the house's emptiness seems obvious.
While it doesn't quite fit with the other threads of the episode, the tonal shift, offering hints of humor, anger, jealousy, and even sexuality, stands as an example of what this series has learned from the missteps of its predecessor. One of the best ways Fear has learned to do this is by including moments that may seem incongruent, but keep the series from becoming a slog of nihilism. Alicia and Chris are about as far removed from the more gruesome events of the episode as can be, given their situation. What the show establishes, then, is that taking a step back not only lets a little air in, the juxtaposition of two seemingly contradictory events makes them both stand out that much more.
Fear the Walking Dead season 1 will conclude next Sunday with 'The Good Man' @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below: