Fear the Walking Dead: “The Beacon” and “Six Hours” (S7, E 1 & 2 review) / World Beyond: “Exit Wounds” and “Family is a Four Letter Word” (S2, E 3 & 4 review)

(image courtesy Bleeding Cool / Photo credit: Lauren “Lo” Smith/AMC)

FEAR THE WALKING DEAD

SPOILERS AHEAD … IRRADIATED ZOMBIES, NARRATIVELY CONVENIENT RADIATION LEVELS AND UNNECESSARY NEGAN-NESS …

Hands up those of you who, on top of a zombie apocalypse and a nuclease fallout-saturated landscape want another Negan-style Big Bad?

Yes, yes I see you hardcore, rusted-on The Walking Dead watchers, I get that you live for that stuff, but the rest of us, those who value nuanced, humanistic storytelling, a measure of hope and the sense that their alternate end times stories to be told, are not buying that particular tub of narrative been-there-done-that bilge thank you.

And yet, after six seasons of telling reasonably thoughtful stories about the human condition under extreme and constant duress, ones where family and kinship with your fond brethren was chosen over more base, self-serving motivations, Fear the Walking Dead looks dangerously close to going down the Negan route.

It’s not entirely unexpected in one sense.

The show has been flirting with going big battle against great evil for a couple of seasons now but mostly pulled back from the violent, senseless abyss in the nick of time; and yes, Victor Strand (Colman Domingo) has always nursed a propensity to going hard, cold and ruthless at the drop of a zombie chunk-covered hat.

But then, he’d also shown a real growth as a person, growing closer to Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) whom he admits in “The Beacon” he’d come to see as a family – though it could be he was saying what he thought needed to be said so who really knows if he meant it? – and trying to do the right thing, at least a little bit.

Still, after feuding, sometimes violently, with Daniel (Rubén Blades) and coming close to betraying many of the people he might call family including Morgan (Lennie James), Victor was one of those people that had every chance of going bad … real BAD.

But the way Fear employed his character up to this point was more as a foil to the more altruistic impulses of Alicia and Morgan and the others, the bad egg always coming close to choosing self over the group, and in fact doing it more than once, but ultimately being enough of man straddling two worlds that he could bring some thoughtfully complex layering to the storytelling.

No more – Victor has gone hardcore Negan, setting himself up in “The Tower”, an office block which, you may recall, was a last-minute bolthole for him just before the world went all mushroom cloud at the end of season six.

(image courtesy Bleeding Cool / Photo credit: Lauren “Lo” Smith/AMC)

There he met Howard (Omid Abtahi), a onetime history professor who had gathered around himself all manner of historical artifacts to enable future generations to make sense of what could be a new and hopeful world.

He seemed decent but at the start of season 7, he has gone all faithful Victor follower, a man who enforces a draconian code for his lord and master where people might have access to food, art, yoga and safety but have traded away all their freedoms where inclusion in their new non-radiated home is at the whim of a nasty, calculating man. (We see play out as Victor plays like a cat with a mouse with Will, played by Gus Halper, who’s been outside for 50 days in the hell that is now post-nuclear Texas and who might know something about someone Victor claims to care for; he does his best to stand up to Negan 2.0 but you can tell it’s all going to go south at some point, and lo, rather predictably it does, and in sensationally bloodthirsty and brutal fashion, too.)

It’s all so tired and old when it comes to storytelling in The Walking Dead universe and it’s so tiring to see Fear give in to the senseless death and violence cycle; mark my words, no good can come from going this dead end narrative path.

In “Six Hours”, we rejoin Morgan and Grace (Karen David), still stuck aboard the submarine with adopted daughter Mo (Avaya Jeniel), and grappling with the same dilemma as Victor (though in his case, it’s less grappling than dictatorial certainty) – how do you rebuild in a world as broken and irradiated as this one? (Morgan wants to push on, Grace, still struggling with the loss of Athena, her stillborn daughter, has had enough, choosing grief over survival and in a sense understandable so – after all, how much can one person take?)

In their case, it eventually comes down to fleeing the submarine in a car, and while we see them all kitted out in full PPE (personal protective equipment) at various times, they do find it eerily easy to ditch the masks and breathe the air, even as they talk about the danger of being out too long.

Leaving aside Fear‘s new-found love of whatever-gets-the-story-told narrative convenience on an impressively blithe scale, the real core of this episode is what you do next when your options are very, very limited.

There’s radiation everywhere, and playing fast and loose with it is deadly – well, if you have the misfortune to be a non-core main character such as married couple Bea (Maren Lord) and Fred (Derek Richardson) who found some nose-melting fallout along the way and lost facial beauty and a child to it – something which means that Morgan and Grace’s race to a new life somewhere not in Texas, possibly in a mysterious, supposedly safe location called “Padre”, ends almost as quickly as it begins.

So, back to the sub they go after killing some zombies – the ones who died in the blast are apparently not good to kill, splattering you with body-eroding goo; delightful – only find Victor’s smarmy henchmen waiting for them, who steal all their supplies, and leave but only after saying they’ll take Grace and Mo but not Victor, as if people are now a consumable commodity you can pick and choose between.

It’s nothing we haven’t seen before and as Morgan and Grace face off against Howard and his thieving rangers, it’s becomes depressingly clear that Fear has once again opted for Big Bad bullying after some clumsily-executed but reasonably nuanced interactions between Morgan (who has a killer after him, too) and Grace.

Fingers crossed that as we look ahead to episode three “Cindy Hawkins” and episode four “Breathe With Me” that Fear will reclaim its non-Negan soul and offer some meaningful storytelling that doesn’t assume life in the now two-headed apocalypse is a zero sum game with no place hope and authoritarian violence the only option …

(Photo credit: Steve Swisher/AMC)

THE WALKING DEAD: WORLD BEYOND

SPOILERS AHEAD … AND FREEDOM VS. SAFETY, LIES AND TRUTH … VENGEANCE, JUSTICE AND DIALYSIS …

How do you confront tyranny?

Granted, it’s not a casual question, tossed into conversation so lightly that no one really notices; in fact, it tends to land like a large boulder on a picnic rug surrounded by shocked people eating pate and drinking champagne and completely ruining the chilled mood.

But it is very much front and centre in World Beyond episodes “Exit Wounds” and “Family is a Four-Letter Word” where the members of not-so-merry-anymore cross-country group find themselves slowly making their way back into each other’s company … and then not.

Wait, what, why would Hope (Alaxa Mansour) and Iris (Aliyah Royale) pass up the chance to reunite as the close and devoted sisters they are, especially when said reunion comes with closeness to their long-lost dad Leopold (Joe Holt) who continues to walk a thin line between being a good and loyal servant of the Civic Republic (CR) and fighting hard against for the sake of his family.

Well, because dear readers of this review, the sisters have ended up in different camps, literally and philosophically, with Hope deep within the bosom of a CR outpost, check-by-jowl with Jennifer Mallick (Annet Mahendru) who is finding herself increasing unsure that the CR is all that and the future of humanity.

In fact, far from being its saviour, it could very much be authoritarianingly marching it to the precipice, enforcing its will with an iron fist and a considerably less mercy than a zombie would show, evidenced by their brutal willingness to wipe out 100,000 people – yep humanity is down to a rump population and they do this – in Omaha and the adjacent Campus Colony.

Hope definitely has her doubts along with Malick aka Huck but she is valuing safety above discomfort right now because it means being close to her dad and a certain handsome, curly-haired young man named Mason (Will Meyers) who doesn’t seem even slightly bothered by Hope’s endemic surliness.

So, on one side, an increasingly doubting Huck and a surly but resigned Hope while on the other side, and just a short unauthorised drive, sit Iris, Felix (Nico Tortorella), Elton (Nicolas Cantu) and Percy (Ted Sutherland), the latter two newly brought into the Perimeter by the son Dev (Abubakr Ali) and daughter Asha (Madelyn Kientz) of its founder, Indira (Anna Khaja).

The Perimeter was actually founded well beyond the world went dead, but persists because of its rigorous rules and its uneasy arrangement with the CR which supplies Indira with dialysis drugs and lets the villagers do their thing providing they toe the party line.

In reality, they want nothing to do with the CR but needs must, and of course, when Elizabeth Kublek (Julia Ormond) asks you to do something, you do it because, well, Omaha.

(Photo credit: Steve Swisher/AMC)

While Hope has made an uneasy truce with the CR, Iris and Felix, and his newly-found boyfriend Will (Jelani Alladin) know that the CR was behind the zombie herd decimation of Omaha and want nothing to do with Kublek and her masked drones who preach a bright and sunny future while invoking the very darkest and most authoritarian parts of human history.

You can understand their reluctance to go back with Huck and Hope back to the CR compound – well, Iris and Felix anyway; Will, almost killed by them has to lay low, and Elton and Percy are happy to stay put – because they know the rot within is very much in evidence and they want nothing to do with it, safety and security be damned.

It’s this great tension between working from the inside and without that fuels these two episodes, which for a show that is building up to some big smash back against the establishment, feel weirdly inert at times.

There’s nothing wrong with slow-build, nuanced storybuilding of course; it’s lacking from a lot of the more sensationalist modern shows and while it’s slow to get off the narrative ground, it pays off big time later on with a richly-realised final act.

It’s entirely possible World Beyond will get there and astound us all with a titanic showdown between freedom and tyranny, but right now, pleasant though it is, and rich with some interesting relational dynamics, it’s doesn’t feel like a show leading to anything utterly memorable.

Before it does, though, it will have to resolve the fact that Elton hates Hope because she killed his mother – to be fair, she didn’t know the woman who threatened her on the night the world ended and whom she accidentally shot was Elton’s mother but still … AWKWARD – and both Percy and Felix want to kill Huck because she killed someone they love and betrayed them on a fairly fundamental level respectively.

Percy tries to get his revenge but is stopped by Felix and Will who realise that Huck’s disappearance won’t help anything and will simply send the full force of the CR down upon the tiny David of Perimeter.

It’s all very complicated, which is fine if obtuse as a Facebook relationship status but difficult where simply staying alive takes up a lot of time, let along talking through all kinds of relational issues.

Meanwhile, Silas (Hal Cumpston) is stuck out at the CR’s culling facility – the aim, rather cleverly, is to kill all the zombies in the nearby area, seal it off and let people roam free; kind of like ridding land of ferals so the native population of animals can live safely – trying to get away but stuck in a place that feels like Dante discovered the undead.

While the guy is charge, Dennis (Maximillian Odinski) is kind of nice, he’s also enforcing the rules with extreme prejudice because it’s the only way he can get back in CR’s good graces – he and Huck are in a relationship and were both disgraced when Dennis did something he shouldn’t and Huck tried to help him – and so Silas, who’s desperate to find Hope, Iris, Felix and Elton again to warn them Huck is bad news (yep, the know bud), keeps straining at the leash trying to get out into the world and save his friends.

It’s all very messy and difficult and interesting to watch in its own way but you can only World Beyond will rev things up just a little bit more since it is only a limited series and has but six more episodes to tell whatever the hell story it is trying to tell.

Coming up … episodes five and six, “”Quatervois” & “Who Are You?” …

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