SPOILERS AHEAD … ARBOREAL ART GALLERIES, FISH FRYING AND UNPUBLISHED AUTHORS KILLING FOR AN AUDIENCE …
Is art dead in the zombie apocalypse?
You’d have every reason to think so since let’s face it, there’s barely enough time to stay alive, let alone do some tasteful painting or film people for affecting vox pops or writing stories for wayward survivors to enjoy.
But in “You’re Still Here”, which draws its title from the nifty tree-adorning artwork that has sent Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) off an unexpected artistic quest, there’s art everywhere, which speaks to the need everyone has to find purpose and meaning beyond the simple act of survival.
It is a direct outflow from Morgan’s (Lenny James) thesis that they’re all not there just to help and rescue others; that in amongst all the Good Samaritan-esque deeds, that’s some real, enjoyable living should and must be done.
It’s a central human truth that The Walking Dead franchise has often neglected in its rush to be a visceral, dark, violent accounting of the very worst of humanity.
Sure, with the downfall of civilisation, the rule of law and the soothing environs of Starbucks on every corner, it’s every person for themselves, a societal vacuum that is allowing the likes of Logan (Matt Frewer) to wreak havoc on rest stops and people alike (having said that, how refreshing is it to have a Big Bad who actually feels real and human and who might feel like an asshole but at least he’s a real asshole and not some cartoonish monster, thank the zombie gods).
But this messy, messy vacuum doesn’t mean that all people stop treating each other civilly or that the more esoteric pursuits suddenly don’t matter anymore.
They very clearly do as Alicia’s quest, with Victor (Colman Domingo), demonstrates beautifully.
Stung by her former need to take out as many zombies as possible to feel like she’s alive, Alicia is trying to find another way to make life feel meaningful.
So she sets out to find the tree graffiti artist, reasoning that she needs to know who they are and that knowing who they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing will somehow make her life better.
God bless Victor who backs her to the hilt; he could easily dismiss it all as the intangible ravings of an out of touch survivor but he doesn’t, having Alicia’s back literally through her quest which ends in a most unexpected way. (More on that later.)
Alicia is, as she suspected, empowered and brought alive by the successful conclusion to her quest – even if it not as successful for everyone involved – with her new found artistic purpose proof positive that humanity is not luxurious extra in the zombie apocalypse but just as necessary as it ever was.
The joy of Fear the Walking Dead is that it never loses sight of this bedrock of humanity.
There might be skirmishes and battles and nasty confrontations such as the one between Morgan and Al (Maggie Grace) and Logan’s gun-toting “assholes” where they park a big rig across the road in an attempt to find out where the elusive oilfields are, but even here there is some humanity.
Logan might be amoral and determined to get what he wants but he’s not some sociopathic monster like Negan who was so oversized in his evilness that he veered into worthless caricature more often than he didn’t. (No, I’m not and never will be a fan; I just about choked when I saw Hallmark is spruiking a Negan Christmas ornament this year .. year, no thanks, I prefer homicidal maniacs, especially poorly-written one-note ones, nowhere near my tree.)
He is, in his single-minded way very human.
He may not use nice methods to get what he wants, too embittered and disillusioned to join Morgan’s Convoy of Existential Happiness but he’s some nightmarish ogre either, which makes what he’s after feel almost as justified as what Morgan et al wants.
In fact, given the way he’s talking, his speech littered with talk of better ways and brighter futures, it sounds like he might be connected to the people who took Rick and to whom Al’s would be girlfriend belongs, and while you might not like their driven methods, which sound brutally forgiving, there’s a beating heart of humanity somewhere in there.
It’s twisted but it’s there and it makes the interactions between Logan and Morgan feel very real and human all the time, a refreshing change from the neverendingly dark monstrousness of The Walking Dead.
Also humanising things nicely was getting to know Wes (Colby Hollman) better.
Introduced in the first episode of the second half of season 5, Wes is forthright about his belief system, which simply states that “people are people”; in other words, no matter how nice and kind you are, people will still behave like self-involved assholes.
It’s a grim view of things but given the way many people behave – right Logan? You might be very human but you’re still a jerk – he’s not far off the money.
He lies to Alicia and Morgan about why he needs to go somewhere, creating all kinds of zombie killing, teargas-laden troubles for both our would-be dogooders, but at heart, he simply wants what we all want – to protect the things that matter to him.
Which is his case is a manuscript of a short story/novella dedicated to his dead brother Derek which another survivor has taken and for which he dies (at Wes’s hands and to be fair, in self-defense).
Rather humorously in the middle of a decidedly unhumourous scene, the thief tells him the story is good, damn good, giving Wes what every writer wants which is validation; yes, even in the midst of the mayhem of the “Eater” apocalypse (loving the ever-growing list of local terms for zombies), it’s possible to get your story favourably critiqued.
Points to Wes for honesty, and to the writers of the episode, Mallory Westfall and Alex Delyle, for making this new kid on the existentially-drenched block feels brilliantly layered and real.
You may not embrace his nihilistic view of the world but you can’t fault him for being honest about what he believes and what he thinks he wants; he, like just about every character in Fear the Walking Dead, feels wonderfully real and human, allowing the storytelling to really breathe and grow and make an impact.
The heartfelt moments in The Walking Dead always felt tacked on or forced for the most part, shoehorned into a show that often traded its human soul for big, epic, bloodthirsty action.
But in Fear the moments feel, for the most part like they’re very real, almost palpably so because success in the apocalypse, if such a thing exists, doesn’t come down to how many people you kill and how many enemies you smite (good Biblical word there!) but how human you are.
It’s the drive behind the Polar Bear gang’s ongoing mission and it means that exchanges like that between Al and Morgan in the bank vault, when she’s hiding away the video cassettes (not very well as it turns out, right Logan?) and she suspects Morgan’s with her for reasons other than her own safety – running from love, he’s running from LUUUUURVVVE! Sorry Grace – ring so very true.
These are real people going through almost unreal things and Fear never ever lets us forget that and is all the stronger for it.
“You’re Still Here” may not be the strongest season 5 episode to date but it nevertheless pack an emotional wallop, reminding us yet again that the very real need to protect your body and your life doesn’t mean you trade away your soul in the process.
Coming up on Fear the Walking Dead in “Ner Tamid” …