Fear the Walking Dead, S1 E5: “Cobalt”

Oh Fear the Walking Dead. Why must you be like this? The penultimate episode of the season should spark and crackle with dramatic tension, not flail around in expository dumps and unsubtle critiques of torture. As per usual, a few isolated segments shine but the  rest of the material ranges from dreary to dull to downright dumb. There’s always one kickass shot in every episiode, and this one was at the very end: Daniel standing at the stadium as the chained doors bulge at the strain of thousands of hungry walkers. The look on his face was perfect, a mix of revulsion, horror, and disbelief.

Too bad we still have to talk about the rest of the episode.

I literally just finished watching “Cobalt” and have already forgotten how the episode begins. This was an episode full of a lot of important people infodumping and a lot of random people talking to fill the airtime. But the particular arrangement of the conversations has more or less slipped my mind because none of it really means anything. The characters learning the inner workings of the zombie apocalypse either can’t do anything with the information or won’t, while everyone else behaves as if they’re reciting a monologue for an audition. It’s the kind of dialogue real people never say, the kind you only hear in movies and television shows helmed by a creative staff more interested in pushing a point than in telling a good story.

At the field hospital Liza gets all the intel on the plague straight from the source. Chekhov’s bitten soldier will likely cause a ruckus next week, but for now all we got was Griselda rambling about demons in Spanish until Liza brained her to keep her from turning. The only really interesting thing in the hospital is Strand, the oddly creepy dude in a suit who is playing a game only he knows the rules to. I suspect he’s locked up not for medical reasons but for being a rabble rouser. He set poor Doug off into a crying jag, thus getting him dragged off to wherever the sickest ones go. Who knows why – maybe Strand wants to reduce the number of potential threats to his personal safety or maybe he was bored – but his shit-stirring hasn’t gone unnoticed.

When it’s Nick’s turn to get carted off, Strand trades him for a pair of cufflinks to a skeezy guard. Strand sees something in Nick not even the audience does, but if it means not having to go through Nick’s drug issues anymore then I’m all for it. Strand is single-handedly the most interesting character alive by virtue of being completely unique in the Kirkman zombie universe. Obviously he’s up to no good, but all I want to do is ditch the Clarks, Salazars, and Manawas and follow Strand around. Dude is awesome. Give me all the Strand you have.

FTWD-S1E5_1

Chris and Alicia spent their time like they usually do: being sulky, obnoxious teenagers. This time the setting was some probably-dead rich family’s house. They played dress up and smashed a bunch of expensive crap because I guess the writers think we didn’t already understand how disaffected and frustrated the kids are with their lot in life. The only thing I got out of the whole ordeal was a seething and instantaneous loathing of the potential romance between the two. No, Fear. Stop it. Don’t even think about it. Just no.

Their parents, meanwhile, were off in their separate corners being useless bystanders. Maddie stood aside to let Daniel do all the flaying in a misguided attempt to get her son back and showed once again that while she’s willing to do terrible things to protect the ones she loves she also willing to let others carry the brunt of the responsibility. Travis got to ride along on a zombie killing spree gone haywire. What little we know of his personality was restated as well with him unable to execute a “skinbag,” much to Lt. Moyers’ chagrin and delight. Travis is a coward but he’s also just a guy who’s stuck in an awful situation his civilized suburban lifestyle hasn’t prepared him for. He’s the antithesis of Daniel Salazar.

Speaking of the tortured and the torturer, Ofelia and her father kidnap her boyfriend. I get why the writers had Daniel skin him alive (who’s the skinbag now?), but unfortunately for them the script didn’t support the behavior. Nothing in Adams’ demeanor indicated he wouldn’t gladly tell them everything he knows. The show pointed out time and time again that everyone beneath Moyers was a kid who wanted to go find their families. Daniel and Maddie probably would’ve gotten more reliable information faster if they’d reasoned with him. Hell, that other private practically walked off the job in the beginning of the episode, and two more abandoned their post and left Moyers to fend for himself when the walkers overwhelmed them in the office building. But working together doesn’t fit with wanting to bang on about how torture is horrible except when it works, in which case it’s a necessary evil but one we shouldn’t aspire to but it’s fine if you do because…um…wait, what’s the message here? The torture worked because it got them answers, but they were the same answers they would’ve gotten without the torture so it wasn’t necessary. Does Fear even know what it’s saying?

FTWD-S1E5_2

A more dramatic version of this story would have Adams team up with Maddie and the Salazars to foment rebellion amongst the civs and the soldiers against Moyers or, really, anything other than a half-baked diatribe against the War on Terror. It’s all talk with no follow through. None of the speechifying means anything unless it either reveals something about the characters or pushes the plot forward. Anything else is wheel-spinning. And 42 minutes of wheel-spinning is a big problem.

Fear wants to say a lot of smart things about the arrogance, violence, and terror of unchecked power. It also wants to rant against how modern society has made us soft and weak, how corruption begets power as much as power corrupts, how easily civilization crumbles in the face of desperation. If it were a better show, even slightly better, it might be able to get those points across. Instead, it’s a show full of middling to great actors spitting out dialogue and making bold decisions meant to push a specific plot rather than to shed light on personalities.

The Walking Dead struggled with the same weighty issues in its early seasons when it was still playing at being Breaking Bad but with zombies. It didn’t really get good (and I use that term loosely) until it shed all its highfalutin aspirations and settled with being a solid horror/drama. There’s nothing wrong with being a solid B show. It’s good to aim high, but if the script consistently fails to reach those expectations then settle for what is manageable and achievable. Fear will be a good show when it stops trying so hard. AMC and Robert Kirkman have either totally failed to learn any lessons from their many past mistakes or took to heart the wrong things, because if they had been paying attention Fear would not be chin-deep in a rehash of every single thing that went wrong with TWD.

Final Thoughts

  • “Mr. Mayor wants to go downtown.”
  • “You don’t want him hurt or you don’t want to know?”
  • Forgot to mention that “Cobalt” is the military codeword for getting the hell outta Dodge and burning it down as you go. Basically the military will pull out of the camp at 9am after killing all the humans to prevent them from turning or being killed later.
  • So, wait, are we done with the mystery lights or did everyone forget about them? If Maddie’s fence hole and the flashing lights aren’t dealt with in the finale I’m going to be mighty annoyed. Well, even more annoyed than I already am.
  • It’s a moot point by now, but how many people are in the East LA safe zone? If 11 people can be taken away and yet there are still enough remaining who aren’t personally affected by the kidnappings, that must mean the population is fairly large, right? Then how did Travis end up the default mayor? Surely there has to be other neighbors interacting with the military. Why hasn’t Travis encountered them yet?
  • You know what’s not fun? Watching Nick go through withdrawal. You know what’s even less fun? WATCHING HIM GO THROUGH IT 3 FREAKING TIMES IN 5 EPISODES.
  • And why is Nick still wearing the dead old man’s clothes? He was home for nearly 2 weeks. He couldn’t even bother changing his clothes?
  • Time for a geography lesson! Daniel apparently walked from East LA to the LA Arena. That’s a good 7-10 miles. In the middle of the night. Under 2 freeways and over the LA River. With no weapons or supplies. While encountering no walkers, civilians, or military personnel.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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