SPOILERS AHEAD … RADIOACTIVE ZOMBIES, FRIENDLY CATS AND THE SOUND OF GOOD INTENTIONS COMING UP HARD AGAINST HARD REALITY …
Continuing the season 5 theme of doing good even when everyone else is doing bad, or at best, being protectively ambivalent, “The Hurt That Will Happen” celebrated the idea that, regardless of the opposition you encounter or the seeming pointlessness of your mission, doing good is a good thing, even at the end of the world.
It’s not foolish, stupid, suicidal or any one of a thousand different accusations that might be levelled at the actions of someone who sees the grim Darwinian reality of the zombie apocalypse and decides they’ll do something to make it better anyway.
You could be forgive for thinking it is a thankless task as the sheer enormity of the horror show that is now human civilisation comes home to roost this week as Morgan (Lennie James) and Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) discover, as they pick through the ruins of their downed plane, that those radiation signs as not just someone’s twisted idea of situationally-appropriate apocalyptic decorating.
They are, in fact, warning signs that going beyond those points will result in the acquisition of way more radiation that is good for you, the result, it turns out, of a reactor melting down, scattering its deadly fallout over the immediate surrounding area and killing the people who were sheltering at the nuclear plant.
These poor misbegotten souls are now lumpen, disfigured zombies – well, more lumpy and disfigured than your usual walker who, it must be said, are behind the eight ball when it comes to good looks at the best of times – and one woman, Grace (Karen David), the onetime operations manager at the plant, is hunting them down, one by one, seeking to eradicate them as a threat.
It’s an Herculean task and it would be tempting to either dismiss it as unimportant, as an uncomprehending Alicia does at first, or consign it to the the bin of impossibility.
After all, so much of the world is ruined, what does this even matter anymore?
It matters, of course, for the same reason that Morgan kept everyone doing good from Polar Bear’s plant, even though the prevailing wisdom of the apocalypse is to either look after yourself ahead of all else, because if you don’t do it, who the hell will?
It may look like misguided civic pride, but the truth is if people don’t start reclaiming the defining more laudable elements of their humanity, then we’re dead on our feet existentially even if we somehow manage to avoid becoming zombified.
It’s a critically-important point that Fear the Walking Dead is making far more articulately, elegantly and with more nuance than its parent show, The Walking Dead, ever achieved.
After all, as Morgan says to Alicia one night when he’s encouraging her to look ahead to a place where she has escaped the funk she’s been in ever since her mother and brother died, if people don’t start celebrating the better angels of our nature, if they don’t try to make things better, then what’s the point of staying alive?
You might as well lay down and die, something that no one really wants to do, not after they’ve gone to all the effort to stay alive.
So if you’re committed to living, argues Morgan, and Laura/Naomi/June (Jenna Elfman) to a slightly dubious John (Garret Dillahunt), then you should be doing something worthwhile with it.
The reason why Fear the Walking Dead‘s articulation of this philosophy is potently powerful is that it has moved beyond the realm of The Walking Dead‘s tired, important discussions where realpolitik and self-interest always lost to basic, good humanity, and made it something real and tangible.
Regardless of what the naysayers may say about Morgan or Grace, they are at least trying to get people to a point beyond the crisis, beyond the dying and destruction, where perhaps things can be rebuilt.
As books like Station Eleven have beautifully argued, the idea that there is civilisational life after death isn’t so far-fetched or fanciful, and that if no one treats it seriously, then of course it will go nowhere.
Morgan, Grace, who is weighed down by the weight of her calling but pushes on anyway, and Laura/Naomi/June and the others could be seen as hopelessly idealistic but Fear the Walking Dead makes the point that what they are doing is powerful, far more so than the self-interested Darwinists who are only looking after themselves, happy to let humanity get sucked down the end of the world’s drain.
It’s good to see the franchise not just talking about the idealistic stuff but living it and taking it seriously, since humanity has a proven track record of tenacity and resilience and really, why would that change in the apocalypse?
Sure the obstacles are bigger and the stakes higher, but it’s the same old scenario – shit’s coming the pipe — are you going to let it cover you and or find a way to nullify and move beyond it?
Fear the Walking Dead is arguing for the latter, and while in episodes like “The Hurt That Will Happen” it acknowledges that things won’t always go your way – Grace losing all the friends to a meltdown, Morgan and Alicia losing Al (Maggie Grace) and all their supplies to a mysterious enemy – that doesn’t mean you should try in the first place.
On the other side of the existential coin, Victor (Colman Domingo) tries to make peace with Daniel (Rubén Blades) who is having none of it.
Oh sure, Daniel’s cat Skidmark likes Victor, and initially it looks like peace may be possible between the two, but by the end of their scenes together, Victor is ordered out into the zombie-filled night beyond the rebars sunk into the front of his compound, consigned by Daniel to a limbo where no one ever changes.
You could well argue that Victor has changed a great deal, sobered up by recent events and by the Gospel of Morgan but Daniel is having none of it, adamant that people don’t change, especially not in the messy environs of the apocalypse.
This is where the idealism that so percolates through this episode comes to a screeching, ignominious halt, the victim less of cynicism that good no longer exists in the world than it doesn’t exist in Victor.
I think it does, and there’s an authenticity to Victor’s protestations to Daniel that he has changed and is continuing to change, proof that Morgan’s Gospel, while annoyingly delivered at times, has legs, validity and truth.
Daniel may not be buying it, and nor are a whole lot of other survivors, but increasing numbers of people are, and all you need in the end is a critical mass of people to take the idea of civilisational rebirth seriously and it can happen.
We’re a long way from humanity scaling the heights of the world just gone, but baby steps are being taken, and Fear the Walking Dead is taking them seriously, acknowledging the odds are against humanity but cheering on the taking of these steps all the same.
It makes for cleverly-written, nuanced, affecting television that doesn’t dwell in trite cliches or banal discussions leading nowhere, but lives in the real world where hope might be seen as a luxury but isn’t dead and buried just yet.
Next week on Fear the Walking Dead in “Humbug’s Gulch” … mysterious things are afoot, everyone relives their favourite Western and Luciana (Danay García) says there’s a difference between words and action, and they, at least, have taken action …