SPOILERS AHEAD … AND BEER, ZOMBIE LANDSIDES AND SOME KISSING RATHER THAN KILLING BY THE RIVERSIDE …
What do you value more – your loved ones or your vocation, the thing that drives you to get out of bed in the morning and go charging into the day?
If Hallmark was holding a gun to our head, and if they did it would be a nice flowery one full of bright sentiments and inspirational joy in zesty colours of red, purple and lime, you might be tempted to say “Why, my loved ones” of course since that’s the answer you’re supposed to give.
But none of us are perfect, not even in the zombie apocalypse – the idea that virtue is amplified in times of crisis is given short shrift in shows like Fear the Walking Dead – and this is no more apparent that when Al (Maggie Grace) admits to her CRM captor/then fellow survivor/then possible murderer/then S’mores campfire, beer drinking buddy/then would be a lover but life is cruel and there’s no swiping right in the apocalypse (and not just because there’s no Tinder) Isabelle (Sydney Lemmon) that she prioritised documenting the start of the end of the world over saying goodbye to her brother or making sure he was okay.
It’s a emotionally naked admission that is the most we’ve have found out a character who’s happy to record other peoples’ stories, as her bag full of video cassettes documents, but is notoriously reticent about doing the same thing herself.
But after being kidnapped by Isabelle, who simultaneously describes CRM as a force for future good and a return to civilised normalcy, and as an authoritarian force you want to avoid if you can – I’m going with good intent, fascist execution on this one – who’s after the tape Al made of the arrival of CRM at the scene of the plane crash, she has to talk fast to avoid Isabelle destroying the last link she has in any form to her now-dead brother.
It’s gut-wrenching stuff, and helps to humanise a relationship that begins with animosity and agression and ends with a heartfelt “I got to see the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen since the end of everything” kiss, or rather kisses, but it alsp gives a window into a woman who has acted in full possession of all the emotiona-less bravado in the world but who is, like all of us, the sum total of a mass of regret, pain, loss and insecurities.
Writers Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg, who also happen to be the showrunners for Fear the Walking Dead, have created an episode in “The End of Everything” which magically acts as both a driver of narrative momentum and a character study par excellence.
It’s not unheard of for the two imperatives to co-exist in an episode but in most cases, Fear the Walking Dead, and its parent, have preferred to let their character studies and major narrative drivers sit cosily apart.
It makes sense; in most cases, a runaway, action-driven narrative does not accommodate major character ruminations all that well.
Falling Skies, a sci-fi show about alien invaders that promised so much and delivered, by its final season, so very little, always looked more than a little ridiculous when it tried to shoehorn characters coming to grips with deep down in their souls shit and it’s a relief that Fear the Walking Dead generally knows to let character study episodes being character episodes and action ones be action ones and never the twain shall meet.
In “The End of Everything” however, it works a charm, giving us a story that is emotionally-resonant and evocative, taking the time it needs to reveal a substantial part of Al’s backstory – including the fact that her surname is a double-barrel Polish hyphenation, Szewczek-Przygocki, courtesy of parents who both wanted to appear in their daughter’s last name; the recipients of this particular revelation are a relieved Morgan (Lennie James) and Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) – while pushing the mystery, threat and possible promise of CRM along in ways that leave you both fearful and Hopeful. (Again, going with the former seems prudent even if Hallmark Morgan wants you to keep favouring the better angels of humanity’s nature.)
The beguiling thing about CRM is that, unlike the Big Bads of The Walking Dead, which possesses all the subtlety of a frat party with the volume up to 11 on a school night, is being introduced in ways that suggest a certain moral ambivalence.
Sure they may have good intentions, high-faluting ideals and a quest to restore good government, taxation and lazy weekend picnics (hell, just bring back weekends will ya?) so they’re not all bad but the slow-drip revelations so far would seem to be suggest they are a tad fascistic about the execution of these warm and fuzzy ideas.
It’s a relief frankly that the new enemy, if that’s in fact what they are, are being portrayed with nuance, reflecting the fact that good and bad exist in all of us, and that while we like our baddies to be recognisably evil, dressed in slimming blakc leather if at all possible, the reality is that good and bad are rarely that obvious, even in the apocalypse.
The Walking Dead would have you believe otherwise but the more accurate portrayal is coming to us courtesy of Fear which understands that life is rarely black and white, cut and dry and that living, and the restoration of its civilisational incarnation, very much exists in the shadows and the spaces inbetween.
Narrative subtley aside, and “The End of Everything” is delightfully awash in it, what really stays with you at the end of the episode is how changed a person Al is after her time with Isabelle.
Sure, some pretty intense stuff went down including jostling with a zombie climber while scaling a cliff and almost dying as Isabelle held a gun to her head – in the end Isabelle’s commitment to duty and protocol, an impetus Al knows all too well and regrets bitterly in the case of lost opportunities with her brother Jessie, gives way to the reemergence of seemingly lost feelings of loe, romance and the beauty of life, and the sparing of Al’s life – but what is left at the end of a emotionally-rich episode is the fact that humanity is a powerful thing that will not be denied.
It’s there in Al’s admission about her brother, something she’s not told anyone else, it’s there in Isabelle’s agony as she’s torn between duty and romantic attraction – yes, it was a same sex kiss but at the end of the day, its purity and earnestness speaks of love’s universality, which applies no matter your gender or sexuality – and it’s there at episode’s end when a rare smile crosses Al and Isabelle’s face, even though circumstyances dictate they can never realise their just-discovered feelings.
The richness of their interaction is a joy; it continues Fear the Walking Dead’s willingness to entertain the idea that yes everything has ended, and yes, it’s all gone royally to shit, but that that does not mean the end of everything good and noble and admirably human.
It’s a good and honest reminder of the fact that humanity is robust and tenacious and that though we may fall in great, dark abysses far more than we’d like or is good for us, that that doesn’t mean that all hope is lost.
Indeed, despite the fact that there wasn’t the obvious happy ending in “The End of Everything”, the fact remains that humanity won out again, proof that Morgan isn’t deluded and further confirmation if we needed it, that humanity may just have a future, all evidence to the contrary.
Next week on Fear the Walking Dead in “The Little Prince” …