SPOILERS AHEAD … RADIOACTIVE CLOUDS, LOVE SWEET LOVE AND BUSTED VENDING MACHINES RIPE FOR THE TAKING …
It is a rare thing indeed to watch an hour of apocalyptic television – and by that I mean TV of an apocalyptic nature, not reality TV whose sheer banal awfulness signals the impending downfall of humanity, with or without zombies – and feel a giddy sense of releasing joy.
After all, the world has ended, civilisation is kaput, humanity hasn’t just fallen into the dustbin of history, it’s re-decorated and is now calling it home, and there is precious little to be joyful about; next to nothing, in fact.
But in the mid-season five finale of Fear the Walking Dead, which featured walking, intestinally-linked zombies, an exploding nuclear reactor and some pretty terrible inflight service (not even a juice box was served although broken vending machines were provided for raiding later), there was joy.
Lots and lots of joy.
The kind that signals that maybe, just maybe, humanity has happy gas left in the existential tank, and there is a possibility for love, the universe and everything to take on some right and vibrant tones, throw a feather boa gaily around the neck, apply the lipstick and hit the town for the night … or even longer.
Granted, not your first reaction when you’re watching zombies stumbling forward ready to wreck things yet again, and yet in “Is Anybody Out There?” – the title is drawn from the opening line of dialogue used by Morgan (Lennie James) and the others when advertising that they’re here to help via radio; a strategy that led them to get booted from the denim factory when Logan (Matt Frewer) – that sense of heady elation is everywhere.
Well, mostly everywhere.
The reality is that the course of things, even in the apocalypse, don’t run smoothly, and this applies even when you’re desperately trying to get a plane that has seen better days up in the air before a radioactive cloud swallows you and kills you and everyone you’re trying to save.
Which, of course, will turn you all into zombies and who wants that when you’ve gone to all the trouble NOT to be dead?
But in a sign that the writers of Fear the Walking Dead are more than happy to embrace good old nail-biting, 1950s-cinema serial storytelling, the episode was chock full of “Will they make in time?!” moments.
Take the eternally-frustrated attempts of John (Garret Dillahunt) and Dwight (Austin Amelio) to get back to the plane in time.
They find a car … car breaks down. Find another car. Petrol is rotten – that’s happening a lot it seems which rather imperils the group’s mission to make friends and help people as the Care Bears of the apocalypse – and the new car also goes to automative heaven. Rinse, repeat and wonder why the apocalyptic gods are against you. (They’re undead fellas; you’re never going to get a decent response from them, no matter how nicely Morgan talks.)
In the middle of all this frantic driving, and let’s face it, just as much non-driving, John and Naomi/Laura/June (Jenna Elfman) have an exquisitely moving conversation which pivots on the harsh reality that John may not make it back in time.
Neither of them wants to admit that they might lose the one big precious thing to emerge for them from the end of the world, but it’s staring them in the face – their great, against-all-odds love affair might not be big and strong enough to survive the apocalypse.
Oh come on! Of course it is! With seconds to go before the plane lifts off the road-cum-runway – Naomi/Laua/June makes the heartbreaking decision to jump on the plane rather than to try to hold off the advancing herd of zombies – John and Dwight come screaming around the bend in the road, fling themselves out of Sherry’s abandoned car (she’s gone but she helps Dwight one last time!) and make the flight just in time.
It’s heady, edge-of-your-seat nervewracking stuff – some of the zombies want on board the plane but none have a valid boarding pass so see you later guys – and it’s romantic as hell, the guy or (literally) doe-or-die stuff that The Walking Dead franchise doesn’t do enough of.
Instead of the everything’s shit approach, Fear the Walking Dead sticks to its core narrative focus which is celebrating the possibility of new life, hope and rebirth when all evidence points to the contrary, allowing John and Naomi/Laura/June to not only keep their grand love affair alive but to get – awwwww – get engaged on the flight.
It’s literally one of the best scenes in the franchise period, but more importantly, it reaffirms the idea that holding onto hope and the idea of helping others and living a good and satisfying life into the bargain is not delusional thinking; in fact, in the face of everything gone royally to crap, it’s really the only sane response or you risk falling into a chasm of despair from which you’ll never recover.
Morgan and Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) are very much in this same headspace as the plane goes careering around the radioactive cloud, up and over the mountains and down onto a runway which has been lit up, thanks to Daniel (Rubén Blades), Sarah (Mo Collins) and Wendell (Daryl Mitchell), with a ridiculous amount of Christmas lights.
Ho ho ho everyone!
They talk about, with smiles on their faces (a nice change from the spectre of grim death), about not just talking to people about helping them but actually going and helping them, and more to the point living brilliantly wonderful lives themselves.
Neither has any idea what this will look like, or how to do it, but the idea is enough for now, especially when you’ve just escaped death by mere seconds.
Kind of puts things in perspective right?
They can rest easy in the fact that they saved Grace (Karen David), who in turn saved Alicia with a timely shower that washed the radioactive blood off her, and the reactor kids, and their overall mission which looks a lot less like speaking plaintively into a radio microphone and much more like actually getting into the trenches and do the hard slog of making peoples’ lives better.
It was, miracles of apocalyptic miracles, an uplifting episode which dared to give us a happy ending, a hearty affirmation of humanity and its innate capacity for doing good and remaking something from nothing, and which chose the future of humanity over its infighting-ravaged, nihilistically-violent end.
Sure the apocalypse looks, at first glance and in its immediate afterwash, like the end of all things but Fear refuses to accept that that is that – unlike The Walking Dead which is in a narratively unsatisfying death spiral to nowhere good or worthwhile – championing humanity’s well-documented ability to rise, Phoenix-like from the ashes of its destruction, and keep going, damnable odds be damned.
Yes, the episode ended with an ominous sense that all this optimism and goodwill could be undone by a looming absence of petrol and the fight needed to obtain supplied lurking out there somewhere (if Logan is to be believed) but overall, the first half of season 5 ended with a giddy mix of tension, terror, hope, love and a real, substantial sense that trying to make things better might actually work.
It might actually WORK!
Until next time everyone ….
That’s it for now, my friends … season 5 part 2 returns on Sunday 11 August (Monday 12 August in Australia) …