Fear the Walking Dead: “210 Words Per Minute” (S5, E10 review)

Nothing restores the spirit quicker in the zombie apocalypse than a chat on an open street where the undead could attack you at any time (image (c) AMC)


Shopping in the zombie apocalypse is never a good idea.

More specifically, shopping in the apocalypse at a mall in the zombie apocalypse a la 1978’s iconic George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead is never really the best of options, since all that happy retailing, and napping on still-made beds (thank you Grace), usually comes attached to lots and lots of “stumblers”, this episode’s term for the ungainly undead.

To be fair, the reason why Grace (Karen David), Morgan (Lennie James) and Dwight (Austin Amelio) were in Bridgeview Mall, which looked rather nicely turned out still despite what must be a considerable passage of time – shopping is, of course, eternal … or is that diamonds? Either way, retail therapy is involved – was because they were there to “do right”.

While the rest of the convoy, including an ever-watchful Daniel (Rubén Blades) who spotted signs of a roaming Logan (Matt Frewer) who wants his oilfields back, please and thank you – yeah, the niceties aren’t part of the deal but kidnapping and roughing Dwight is in the most emotionally-taxing way possible – were driving between rest stops, Grace, Morgan and Dwight set out to find the mysterious red-jacketed Charlie (Charles Bodin) who was dying but wanted someone to him under the stars.

Even though Logan’s message to the team has been bogus, you really wanted Chuck, as he said everyone called “back when there were people to call him Chuck”, to be the real deal.

Not the dying part so much because there’s been rather a bit too much of that in recent years and some straight-up living, especially in a mall that has a bookstore (TBR piles can still be expanded in the zombie apocalypse! Hallelujah and pass me a trade paper) would be rather a nice change of pace.

But before anyone could find Chuck, who wasn’t in the security guard’s office as advertised, Grace start to feel ill, really ill.

She thought it was because of a lack of “Candy beanziz” – her mother’s term for “jelly beans” which were sitting in jars ripe for the taking at the entrance to the mall; it took Morgan to break it to her that that wasn’t the actual term for these seemingly-eternal dollops of confected lollies – but turns out it might be the radiation poisoning finally making its unwelcome presence felt.

Again, acknowledge the obvious that it might actually have manifested as cancer but hope, like we did with Chuck, that something altogether far better is at play.

Likely, that’s not the case, and Morgan and Grace spent quite a bit of time trying to get to the “Urgent Care” facility to disprove what Grace knew to be true, which involved killing sundry zombies, starting up a zombie and setting off a piercing store alarm which is not what you want to do when the undead are very much “Squirrel!”

Shopping at the mall just isn’t the same post-end of the world (image (c) AMC)

The journey to “Urgent Care”, which was never quite completed once Grace decided she’d rather live in blissful ignorance than die knowing exactly what was coming her way – she at least was nice enough to apologise for putting Morgan to all the trouble of killing and generating and grappling with the undead on an escalator – was never really about diagnosing something anyway.

I mean it was, but as we saw in the delightfully happy carousel ride – kill ALL the zombies and you can have fun kids! Let that be today’s life lesson – when Morgan, a self-proclaimed “serious guy” couldn’t stop smiling (a sign, he told her, that he likes someone; this was not a come on line but a reference to falling in love with his wife who he still misses desperately), it was more about Grace and Morgan falling for each other.

Oh yes, rom-com levels of love were in the fetid air, and while you would hope for a better culmination of all the flirting and the selfless driving into radiation hot spots, it’s the zombie apocalypse, Nora Ephron is long gone alas, and you have to take what you can get.

The only problem here? When Morgan realised what was actually happening, when it actually sunk in why he was smiling – it took Daniel, who arrived with the convoy for supplies, to point out to a normally-taciturn Morgan that he was grinning like a happy fool – he got scared, really scared.

And just after Grace, who clearly likes him really, really likes him in that Naomi/Laura/June (Jenna Elfman) loves John Dorie (Garret Dillahunt) kind of way, had told Morgan he was brave because, unlike her, a woman who over-thought things from horse rides to gym memberships and couldn’t commit, he followed through.

He was, she said with admiration, “the brave one”.

Unless, of course, you are still a captive of grief – who isn’t right? The zombie apocalypse is not exactly the place to leave all your cares and trouble behind – like Morgan is, and the idea of embarking on something like true love mark 2, even if you really, really want it, and you can see he does, is too much to handle.

So off Morgan drives, alone, ostensibly to find Al (Maggie Grace), who’s out there alone again, leaving a shocked Grace behind in one of those scenes, those deeply emotionally resonant scenes, that the writers of “210 Words Per Minutes” – a titular reference to Grace listening to audio books on her iPod on double speed; in this case, courtesy of Chuck, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities – clearly constructed to rip our love-starved hearts out.

Grace is crying, standing stunned by a newly gassed-up truck, Morgan is crying as he drives off, and we’re crying.

Goddamit, showrunners (and writers) Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg, how could you rip our tender hearts out so?

What made this scene even harder to take is that while we see plenty of violent evidence that the zombie apocalypse is hell to live through, here was proof in the most searingly emotional of terms of the kind of vicious emotional toll it takes, and how so much has been lost with death’s near triumph over humanity.

The perfect rom-com ending, for one.

And just like that Zak the Zombie’s shopping trip came to an untimely and grisly end (image (c) AMC)

The other deeply touching scene of an episode that resonated with the existential pain of humanity in freefall came when Morgan and Grace finally found Charlie.

Deciding he needed to see the stars one last time, and that he couldn’t wait for a possible someone to find him and besides, who wants to end their days sitting in the soulless, banal confines of a windowless office, he staggered up to the roof, the zombie bite close to finishing him off.

By sheer accident Morgan sees him on the newly re-animated CCTV – Grace may not have demurred on getting scanned but the running generator at least led them to the person they were there for in the first place – and they go and sit with him, keeping him company when he thought he was going to die alone.

If that’s not achingly moving all on its own, Grace runs to get a plush turtle that projects stars onto a ceiling when Charlie laughs and says that it’s just his luck that it’s cloudy on his last night alive.

It would be all too easy to scoff, and I’m sure Logan and his merry band of arsehole thugs are are scoffing merrily as they lay waste to rest stop after rest stop in search of Morgan et al, that what Morgan and Grace are doing is pointless.

After all, death is everywhere, in all kinds of forms – Grace may have cancer and if she does, does it matter since everyone is effectively dead on their feet? Hell, yeah, it does because it means she doesn’t get to live the life she wants and that still matters – and is it of any real consequence if one more man dies alone?

Of course it is, and the fact that Morgan and Grace sit with him and ease him into whatever awaits post-death – thankfully for him a knife through the head and a good old fashioned burial, complete with plush turtle headstone – speaks to the heightened importance of those vital touches of humanity that makes horrible situations just a little less so.

Those kinds of act still carry a great deal of weight, and watching Charlie’s face light up when he knows he won’t die alone, and that people still give a damn, reaffirms that while humanity may be down, they are not out and our collective soul, though beleaguered, will live on to fight another day.

Next week on Fear the Walking Dead in “You’re Still Here” …

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