[This is a review of Fear the Walking Dead season 2, episode 7. There will be SPOILERS.]
Even though it is repetitious at times, both Fear the Walking Dead and its sibling series The Walking Dead rely on the question of "How are these people going to survive?" in order to tell the majority of their stories. Both series have delivered memorable hours of television answering that question while also demonstrating a skill in preparing to ask it again soon after (and again after that). The question works for these series because of the thrills, action, and suspense required in getting to the answer. It provides the necessary sense of urgency and energy both series sometimes forget is crucial to each and every episode, as they often become bogged down with characters pondering what they have become in the wake of a world that has collapsed. The thing is: While the lure of posing these philosophical questions is understandable, too few of the characters asking them warrant further exploration of the subject.
This is no more evident than in Fear the Walking Dead's midseason finale, 'Shiva,' which brings the recent story of Celia and the Abigail compound to a close with fiery results that leaves the core cast divided physically as well as ideologically – sometimes for ludicrous reasons. The hour swings for the fences in order show just how split everyone has become since making their way to Baja, so that Strand could be reunited with Thomas just long enough to say goodbye and put a bullet in his brain.
The effort is commendable, as it serves to shake up the status quo and leaves the audience wondering whether or not the show will follow two separate storylines when it returns in August, or if characters like Travis, Chris, and Nick will be off the radar for the time being. But commendable effort or not, this half-season of the series didn't do enough to warrant a shake up, for the specific reason that it never quite managed to establish what the status quo was in the first place.
Earlier in the season, Fear the Walking Dead was on the cusp of becoming a high seas adventure series set against the backdrop of a world gone to pot thanks to a viral apocalypse that turns the recently deceased into shambling corpses. Appearances are deceiving, though, as the season turned away from the possibility of new settings, characters, and storytelling challenges every episode to settle into a familiar serialized structure that wasn't interested in playing to its strengths. There's nothing wrong with a show branching out and exploring different areas of interest from time to time, and while Fear the Walking Dead may have begun life as a sometimes successful and claustrophobic family drama, that formula worked best within the confines of the Manawa-Clark household in East Los Angeles; everything changed the second they all set foot on the Abigail.
'Shiva' wants to be an exploration of how the trip on the Abigail upset the tenuous bond between these people, so that the decisions they make late in the hour feel significant on an emotional level. But the motivations driving these choices just don't click; they don't match up with the characters' underlying desire to survive and so they ring false for the most part. Travis' decision to abandon Madison, Nick, and Alicia – not to mention Daniel, Ofelia, and Strand – to be with Chris, who is struggling to come to terms with the death that surrounds him and his role in it, reads like an end point that was written to, rather than the other way around.
The same holds true for Nick, who has been one of the series' most interesting characters so far, fueled by Frank Dillane's wonderfully weird performance. But here, Nick aligns himself with Celia's belief that the apocalypse is not the end but rather the beginning of eternal life. Nick may not buy into Celia's philosophy all the way, but the basic tenets of it are enough to get him to turn his back on Madison and the rest of his family. Strand attempts to explain that Nick is vulnerable thanks to his addictions and so Celia's beliefs somehow prove too alluring for him to resist. It's a decent effort to explain Nick's decision, but it relies too much on secondhand analysis instead of the evidence provided in Nick's actions up to this point.
Moreover, the events of the finale might have been a compelling if they weren't grounded in something the audience has already seen before. Not only does it hit the reset button on the quest for a safe haven, but it also plays out too much like the events on Hershel's farm in TWD season 2. The exception here is, the drama of the estate burning to the ground is not compounded by any sense of compelling conflict. The Walking Dead had the culmination of Rick and Shane's ongoing feud; Fear has Madison turn into a cold-blooded murderer because of one woman's half-baked idea that zombies are somehow enlightened beings.
As with most everyone else in 'Shiva,' Madison's actions feel like they were developed to fit her specific endpoint. Aside from Strand, character motivation is written to suit the needs of the plot instead of the other way around. And because of this, the seams are showing in just about every scene. Cliff Curtis and Lorenzo James Henrie get the worst of it, as Chris' ongoing deterioration creates an even greater disconnect between the characters that reads like the series trying too hard to get the audience on board with the themes it wants to explore. The weight of death is a constant theme here, but the audience hasn't been given enough from Chris for him to become a primary channel through which that idea is explored. Daniel is the only one for whom these themes feel genuine, and even then the story relies entirely on his mostly unseen backstory as a rebel in Central America, which mostly fuels the worn-out plot device of a character having utterly convincing hallucinations.
Like much of what transpires in 'Shiva,' the weight of Daniel's delusions feel unearned on a character level, and uninspired in terms of how deliberately they turn the wheels of the plot. The series heads into hiatus with its characters scattered and with questions about how or if they'll ever be reunited. It's clear the intent of the finale was to shake things up and to inject a spark of conflict into the drama, but maybe the transparency of that intent is why it felt so perfunctory.
Fear the Walking Dead season 2 will return with eight new episodes in August 2016 on AMC. Check out a preview below:
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