SPOILERS AHEAD … AND ZOMBIE BOWELS WOOHOO! I MEAN, WHO DOESN’T LOVE ZOMBIE BOWELS?
If there is one thing that The Walking Dead has always struggled with, it’s the humanity that should be sitting at the very heart of its storytelling.
Sure, Dale (Jeffrey DeMunn) used to bleat on, reasonably ineffectively, about the need for people not to leave the better angels of their nature behind in a pellmell dog-eat-dog race for survival, and Rick would mention the need to be doing good and building something inspiring out of the burnt ashes of civilisation, but the truth is, much of the time the franchise has been far better at grim depictions of humanity as the true monsters of the apocalypse rather than as the its possible saviours.
We got the rise of the zombies as the end of all things, as the engine of humanity’s Darwinian descent into no-holds-barred survival, but nothing about of any real substance about what might come after.
In its fifth, so far brilliantly-realised, season, Fear the Walking Dead continues to right that entrenched narrative misdeed, offering up the idea, and a cogently argued one at that, that it is possible to rebuild and do good without looking like overly-earnest Boy Scouts during bob-a-job week.
No doubt recognising that it would be all to easy to dismiss talk of helping others and doing the right thing as sentimental mush, the show demonstrates in ways that are muscular and bold, that taking on the role of civilisational Good Samaritan is not a fool’s errand, a cutesy, mushy pile of sentimentalist garbage, but something that really matters, both to its recipients and as Luciana (Danay García) admits, to those administering it.
In a conversation with Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), who is slowly finding her way out of the morass of grief and loss and discovering some kind of purpose beyond killing zombies, she says she’s glad they took the skies, even though the plane crashed and they almost died, because it meant they were acting to do something good, not simply talking about it.
That, is by any estimation, some gritty commitment to a cause going on there.
It exemplifies the fact that the mission Morgan (Lennie James) convinced everyone else to take on, which is, to steal some Christian parlance, to be a light in a dark world, isn’t some wafty namby-pamby affair of good intentions and warm and fuzzy moments.
It’s a down in the trenches deal, a warts-and-all messy wading into the intestine-filled abyss of the apocalypse – yep, the zombie gates roped together with entrails are everywhere still, and it turns out that the perpetrators are the last people you’d expect – and Fear the Walking Dead is making it feel very real, hardcore and yet, miraculously heartfelt as well.
Bringing the gritty and the sentimental together is something that The Walking Dead rarely managed to make feel authentic but Fear does it without breaking a sweat, bringing humanity into the front narrative seat and helping to expand the punitive world of the zombie apocalypse into something that is far more than kill/destroy/rinse/report, which speaks to the ability of people, even in the most dire of situations, to hang on, cling to hope and eventually put some flesh on those hopeful bones.
It’s long overdue but “Humbug’s Gulch”, which draws its name from a chain of Texan Wild West theme tourist traps where John Dore (Garet Dillahunt) used to work as a theatrical sharp shooter – a skill which comes in handy this episode when he saves a newly-arrived in Texas, nice guy Dwight (Austin Amelio) from death by converging zombies using one axe, a gun and some nerves of steel – is proof positive than you can have a humanitarian storyline that doesn’t rely on the often mindless bad guy vs. good guy endless cycle of The Walking Dead.
There’s nothing boring or uninvolving about the kind of storylines that “Humbug’s Gulch” executes so beautifully and movingly; indeed, as you watch John and Naomi/Laura/June (Jenna Elfman) try to get Dwight to safety in more ways than one, and Alicia, Luciana and Morgan trying to save Dylan (Cooper Dodson), Max (Ethan Seuss) and Annie (Bailey Gavulic) – who actually don’t need saving at all as it turns out – there’s a potency to the drama that underlines how much narrative power there is in humanity working to make an horrific situation better.
And the zombie apocalypse is as horrific as it gets.
Quite apart from the helping, sharing and caring theme that ran through an episode where Dwight returned, Morgan didn’t freak out and Naomi/Laura/June and John got to spend some special zombie-killing, suicidal person-rescuing time together, what also emerged in “Humbug’s Gulch” was the bright shining, affectionate warmth of love in a time of the undead.
Yes, that would make a damn good apocalytpic novel title, and yes, I have already spoken to my agent, but that aside, watching the way in which John and Naomi/Laura/June relate to each other through an episode which had more than its fair share of harrowing moments, was really touching.
There was such an authenticity to the affectionate touches, knowing glances and the intimacy that expressed in ways substantial – John admitting that he was going to let go of the idea that he doesn’t Naomi/Laura/June or their quietly-rich love affair – and lighthearted (NLJ probing John of exactly what he did at something as cheesy as faux-Western tourisy trap).
Couples have often gotten short shrift in the world of The Walking Dead, and not all have felt truly authentic, but John and NLJ feel very much like the deal deal, a gorgeous twosome who don’t just love each other in cutesy lovey-dovey ways but who have seen their love survive assumed death, separation and the constrant threat of death, grief and loss.
Theirs is a rich, robust love affair, one whose hard-won lessons don’t just mean a huge deal to them but which play a pivotal role in saving Dwight from suicide – he doesn’t feel he’s worthy of finding his wife who he’s been tracking across the country – in a way that feels as true as it gets.
John and LNJ’s vibrant and heartfelt relationship and the robustness of the group’s Good Samaritan mission combine to infuse “Humbug’s Gulch” with dramatic vitality, emotional resonance, and a sense that at long last The Walking Dead franchise is finally admitting, and even better demonstrating, that there’s a great deal of life left in humanity coming back from the collective dead, and that maybe, just maybe, the better angels of our nature may once again get a seat at our table.
Next week on Fear the Walking Dead in “Skidmark” …