- SPOILERS AHEAD … AND LOVE IN A TIME OF APOCALYPSE …
Forget your rom-coms with their “meet cutes”, their getting-to-know-you montages and their misunderstandings resolved at the airport. Or your romantic poets like Lord Byron and William Wordsworth. Your songs of fidelity, enrapturement and eternal devotion. Or your Harlequin romances piled high on the bedside table …
Real love, of the most unexpected kind – who actually falls in love in the apocalypse? I mean, really (OK Glenn and Maggie but … okay, and Sasha & Bob Stookey/Abraham Ford and Nick and Luciana … and … and …) – made an appearance on Fear the Walking Dead, and we are all the better for it.
Hasn’t there ever been a more sweet and caring man than John Dorie (Garret Dillahunt)? A more unwilling object of affection and desire than “Laura” aka Naomi (Jenna Elfman)? Or a weirder “meet cute” than John dragging her near lifeless body from atop a canoe in a sedately-flowing river more commonly full of fish and the undead?
His rescue of a near-dying law Naomi – he starts calling her Laura when she’s unwilling to divulge much of anything, including her name and the fake moniker rather endearingly sticks – from a location where walkers normally wash up after falling through a gap in a bridge upstream is the sort of normal, decent thing that a man like Dorie does without thinking.
An ex-policeman with some work-related trauma in his past, he is sweet, kind and caring in a way that revives your hope in the basic goodness of humanity; despite his profession, he is avowedly anti-guns and anti-violence – something he confides to both Laura/Naomi, and Morgan (Lennie James) at the end of the episode – the kind of guy who writes his name on the video rental sheet at the local general store, even though there’s nobody left alive to care.
It’s hard not to fall in love with a character as genuine, real and down-to-earth as Dorie – yes, as Laura/Naomi amusingly points out, it is the name of a fish species and that Disney character (John rather nicely points out that its name is spelt differently) – since he is a rare person indeed in the apocalypse who has kept pretty much all his humanity.
Not only does he save Laura/Naomi from the river in which he later, quite patiently, teaches her to fish – it starts as the simple acquisition of an additional survival technique for his new companion but soon becomes a way for them to connect and time in which to talk – but he tends to her wound (not a bite, people, NOT A BITE! Phew), makes a privacy curtain for the bed which he gives up for her exclusive use and even cooks her up bouillabaise because he’s that kind of guy!
Laura/Naomi’s arrival, shrouded as it is by a million protective mechanisms that means it takes a good long while, even with John’s TLC techniques on 10 with a bullet, for her to even acknowledge he’s a done a good thing, let alone smile at him, saves John just as much as the woman he ends up caring a great deal for.
The first of the episode showcases a lifestyle that would be bucolically peaceful, a rural idyll (now with added random zombies!) were it not for the fact that John is completely inherently alone.
He makes beautiful dinners, watches his videos, cleans his guns (yes, the ones he uses only under extreme duress; this turns out to be when Laura/Naomi is in a ditch under a pack of zombies and in danger of dying), plays Scrabble for one – the only time he talks is when he’s working through good words to use in his solo games – and sleeps very little.
This is a man who’s safe yes, but withdrawn and desperately alone, and one of the joys of “Laura”, one of the many joys it should be emphasised in a sublimely good, exquisitely well-wrought episode without peer in Fear the Walking Dead, and it’s had some damn good ones, is the way he gradually opens to the presence of Laura/Naomi.
His humanity is innate so looking after her in the way he does is second-nature; but it’s the way he gradually, and rather profoundly opens up to her that is so beautifully touching.
It’s even more remarkable when you consider how much is stacked up against this happening at all – not only are people reluctant to form bonds because someone you love could be snatched away with little to no warning, but that reluctance is layered thickly upon all the hurts and reservations that preceded the end of the world.
We all have these emotional obstacles to overcome, but their effect is amplified in a world where grief and loss are a near-constant feature of existence and surmounting them is a tall, near-impossible order; all of which makes John’s opening up to the possibility of Laura/Naomi as more than a person he’s rescued and her return of those same feelings as a stirring feature of the deeply-immersive narrative of “Laura”.
The episode is gloriously exemplary TV writing in just about every way.
It near-silently explores what happens to two people effectively end up rescuing each other, their two quite separate worlds intertwining in a way that most people avoid like the literal plague that has infected the dead.
Fear the Walking Dead has always told these kinds of character-centric stories with admirable elegance and emotional-resonance, part of the charm of a show which, while it doesn’t eschew action-oriented sequences – the hordes of river-borne zombies who infest John’s front yard and must be fought in the middle of the night is a case in point – doesn’t use them to bludgeon the storyline into shape or keep it moving at some sort of frantic pace, nor does it allow to subsume the stories of the characters themselves, which has happened all too often in The Walking Dead of late.
“Laura”, though studded with zombie killing, keeps its priorities impressively clear – tell the story of John and Laura/Naomi, use it to show how something as surplus to survival (if you’re being brutalist about it) as love can happen in a time of death and destruction, and sadly underscore that even when something that wonderful happens, that its shelf life, at least for one of the party (guess who) is agonisingly, sadly short.
When Laura/Naomi does depart, even after the “I love yous” have been said and John delivers one of the loveliest tributes to anyone that – “If you’re alive, this whole world feels alive” – it’s not surprising but still wrenching, as a decent good man, who is that way simply because it’s the right thing to do has to say goodbye, in absentia, to a woman who, due to the loss of a child and the innumerable apocalyptic damage to her soul that has followed, is outwardly out for herself.
It’s a study in contrasts and similarities of heart so heartbreakingly and inspiringly well-executed that “Laura” is not only a standout episode for Fear the Walking Dead in particular but television generally, ending with John affirming to his apocalyptic soulmate Morgan that for all the loss and damage he has endured, both before and after the end of the world, that he still believes in peace, non-violence and the better angels of our nature.
In a world so broken that many people assume vengeance, death and war are the only way forward, it’s a refreshing, optimism-reinforcing stance that is far from weak or naive; on the contrary, given what people like John and Morgan have endured, it is one of the most powerful, knowingly insightful and muscular statements ever made, one, I suspect, that will play a key role in the onward narrative of Fear the Walking Dead, especially with Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), Victor (Colman Domingo), Luciana (Danay García) and Althea (Maggie Grace) on an unsettling The Walking Dead-like path of vengeance, from which very little good can come.
- Next on Fear the Walking Dead … the end of the end of the beginning in “Just in Case” …