SPOILERS AHEAD … STOLEN GUNS AND WACKO CULTISTS …SO BUSINESS AS USUAL THEN?
It is a rare thing indeed for any TV show to excite you with its writing so much that you punch the air and almost leap out of the chair with the pleasure of watching a finely-honed script come gloriously to life but Fear the Walking Dead managed it with both “Handle With Care” and “The Holding”, two episodes which approached some big, potential impacting events with nuance, empathy and insight.
The potential big event in question was the ever more obvious presence of a mysterious group who we find is called, The Holding, who took out Tank Town and who had Virginia (Colby Minifie) running, figuratively at least, in fear with their constant harassment of her operations.
The natural assumption is that they were just another disaffected group such as the Outcasts, to whom Sherry (Christine Evangelista), but no, no, not so fast, they are not that at all.
What they are, and this spells trouble for everyone is that they are committed, so we discover in the aptly-named “The Holding”, to a scorched earth policy above ground whereby everyone topside is wiped out because true life is going to begin again below ground.
They are the original wacky cultists, people who live in an underground parking garage which has been set up with a fearsomely well-run agricultural and cooking system, and who spend their days listening to the teachings of their leader Teddy (John Glover), one of those mung bean, peace and love types who seemed all cuddly warm and reasonable but who are in fact as warped and authoritarian-ly twisted as they come.
He keeps a zombie wrapped in a plant for god’s sake in the middle of the shared living area and encourages everyone to stare at it and find the inner truth hidden in the ghastly tableau.
Naturally, everyone there has drunk the Kool-Aid and then some, all of them uttering fervent affirmation of the rightness of everything that Teddy says and that his way, is of course, the only right way.
Now, if they were content to stay below ground and do their thing that would be fine; weird, strange and massively disquieting but as long as they stayed out of everyone’s hair, you could just ignore them.
Unfortunately for the Outcasts, Morgan’s(Lennie James) group and Victor (Colman Domingo) and the gang back at Lawton, the Holding don’t want to play in the sandbox of crazy and leave everyone else alone; rather, if you don’t agree with them, and Teddy is not the warmly, forgivingly inclusive type by any stretch of the imagination, then they just wiped you from the face of the apocalyptic earth.
It’s efficient true but it’s cold, brutal and evil and so everyone meets at Valley Town to work out what their united front will be, a piece of rare diplomacy that is followed up by Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), Althea (Maggie Grace), Wes (Colby Hollman) and Luciana (Danay Garcia) infiltrating the Holding to find out exactly what floats their messianically destructive boat.
In Fear‘s parent show, this type of storyline would have been all bombast and bravado, a couple of episodes full of military build-up, battles and cardboard cutout characters railing against each other with vitriol and venom but very little in the way of a humanistic, grounded story.
But Fear the Walking Dead, as is its wont, takes an entirely different approach, insightfully examining what might happen if a group of people knew they were under threat but wouldn’t simply consider going to war at the drop of a hat and tried to handle the situation with caution and an appreciation that simply striking back might damage them more than their opponent.
That kind of restraint rings far more true than a whole of militaristic blustering because zombie apocalypse or no zombie apocalypse, people don’t want to lose everything they love and value in the pursuit of trying to protect what they love and value.
These are people, after all, who are trying hard to make a normal life in a wholly abnormal time, an understandable pursuit that they don’t want to ruin by going off half-cocked, and thankfully in these two episodes they don’t, bolstered by nuanced writing that, as always with Fear the Walking Dead, recognises the innate humanity of the situation they now face.
The humanity of the two episodes is even more pronounced by focusing on one character each episode who has a great deal to lose if things go wrong or poor decisions are made.
In “Handle With Care” that is Daniel who is struggling with the re-emergence of old PTSD issues that arising now that he is happy and settled and has a chance, along with the other residents of Valley Town, of making a new and lasting lives for themslves.
Throughout all the disruptions of recent times wrought by Virginia, his PTSD stayed buried, held in check by a need to be alert, to be ready to act and respond as necessary; but as Daniel admits, their lives are now settled and happy and he is “hopeful”, an unexpected state of being that means his old issues have risen to the surface again.
It only becomes evident when an explosion and the theft of all the guns from the weapons hut mar the peace talks and Valley Town launches a frantic hunt to find out who’s behind the diplomacy busting before all hell breaks loose.
It’s all very Agatha Christie for much of the episode with Daniel making it clear he thinks Victor is behind it all but it eventually emerges that Daniel is behind it all, remembering none of it because it seems he’s in a fugue state when he acts.
Again, what might have been a bombastically over the top storyline in the hands of lesser writers becomes a subtle, tense and beautifully human exploration of the effects of long-term survivor stress and the way in which hope and despair sit so closely together in a world where the worst has happened and people are hoping against hope that they can find of the best once again.
Similarly in “The Holding” Wes discovers that his brother Derek (Chinaza Uche) whom he thought dead, is alive and (brainwashed) well, a true believer of Teddy’s murderously warped gospel who may yet be persuaded to do the right thing.
That doesn’t happen, of course, and the initial euphoric joy Wes feels at finding his brother alive is soon replaced by a dark and despairing realisation that he is lost to the cultic madness and cannot be rescued.
These tales of raw humanity inform both “Handle With Care” and “The Holding” with an affecting air that takes a big macro storyline of survival and political posturing and renders it accessible and real, a reminder that the biggest of narratives need to have the most intimate emotional centre if they are to truly mean something.
The end of the world might have taken away all the civilised garb people with which the good and bad folk of Fear once surrounded ourselves, but you only surrender your actual humanity if you choose to and the writing on this most beautifully and groundedly executed of shows makes it clear that no one really wants to do that and that they will fight to hang onto it with everything they have.
It makes for great, exquisitely well-written television and ensures that while the big action set pieces are exciting to watch that what we really hang around for and what hooks us on a show like Fear the Walking Dead is the fact real people are facing real challenges and reacting as real people would and that, in the end, all they want to be is happy and settled … and hopeful.