Spoiler alert: Do not read until you watch “Fear the Walking Dead,” Season one, episode four, titled “Not Fade Away.”
With nary a walker in sight, Sunday’s fourth episode of “Fear the Walking Dead” was a somber yet gripping look at the effect a large-scale disaster has on a small community. Closer in spirit to the mournful apocalyptic drama “The Day After” than to “Resident Evil,” this utterly absorbing installment expands the emotional scope of AMC’s zombie franchise, and introduces something that’s been missing from the spin-off so far: an actual plot.
Carefully structured like a standalone short story, the episode – titled “Not Fade Away” – opens to the melancholic sound of Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” a song that begins as an ode to life’s simple pleasures, but ends with the ominous warning: “You’re going to reap just what you sow.”
“It’s been nine days since the lights went out and the fence went up,” says Chris, sitting alone on the roof of the Clark house. After three consecutive episodes that took place over a mere 48 hours, this jump forward in time gives the series some much needed breathing room.
In the distance, smoke billows from burning buildings, while, much closer, razor wire surrounds the East L.A. neighborhood. With soldiers patrolling in armored vehicles and signs cautioning that curfew is strictly enforced, this impromptu stronghold bears more than a passing resemblance to the fortified town of Woodbury, Georgia, home of the Governor in Season 3 of “The Walking Dead.”
Suddenly, a flash of light from an apartment in the supposedly vacant demilitarized zone changes everything. Whether this flickering signal is a mirage or not provides the crux of the story.
Though things appear momentarily under control, tensions are simmering in the Clark home. “My house is a refugee camp and my daughter’s room is an ICU unit for strangers,” complains Maddie. On the other hand, Travis thinks it’s only a matter of time before things return to normal. Unlike the previous episode’s ham-fisted Monopoly game, the argument over what color to repaint the living room seems far more believable given the deceptive calm of the situation.
While on his way to meet with Lt. Moyers, the National Guard’s commanding officer, Travis barely has time to listen to Chris’s story about the flashing signal he spotted in the DZ. It’s not that he doesn’t believe his son, necessarily. It’s that he can’t handle any more complications.
“We are on the offensive! The tide has most definitely turned,” boasts Moyers in a speech that sounds positively Rumsfeldian. “You guys are the lucky ones!” he continues. “So relax, count your blessings, be nice… so I don’t have to shoot you.”
New to the series, actor Jamie McShane’s witty performance as Lt. Moyers steals the show. Listen to the way he pretends to care about Travis’s interest in cars while enlisting him to coax a disturbed citizen into participating in the creepy health screenings. He’s part Lt-Colonel Kilgore from “Apocalypse Now,” part Maj. Frank Burns from “M*A*S*H,” and his addition to the cast is welcome indeed.
Meanwhile, everyone is getting a little end-of-the-world “me time.”
Alicia breaks in to her neighbor’s house and carves a do-it-yourself tattoo of her dead boyfriend’s design on her arm. Considering how jumpy the soldiers are about blood spatter, digging a bite-size gash into your flesh might not be the wisest move at this juncture.
At the same time, Ofelia and a seemingly well-intentioned soldier (played by Shawn Hatosy from “Southland”) are making out on the edge of the perimeter. It quickly becomes clear, however, that she’s using him for access to medicine for her mother.
Speaking of meds, Nick is busy hiding under the bed of a dying patient and stealing a taste of his morphine drip. It’s a ghastly image of drug addiction, perfect for an episode that began with a song by the artist to wrote “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin.”
In the show’s most suspenseful sequence, Maddie sneaks into the DZ to investigate the flashing light that Chris told her about earlier. Amid a noxious stench, she finds burned out cars, a massive memorial wall, and scads of bodies that appear to have been shot while still healthy.
With Maddie stuck hiding under a truck to avoid patrolling soldiers, Liza meets Dr. Bethany Exner, the woman in charge of the mysterious health screenings. Imagine Elizabeth Ashley’s icy character from “Coma” dressed in a wardrobe from Urban Outfitters and you’ll get an idea of what the dubious Dr. Exner is all about. Her name alone sounds like a perfume designed by David Cronenberg.
Unable to confide in Travis about what she found in the DZ, Maddie tells Daniel instead. This kicks off the best moment in the episode, as the soulful barber delivers a powerful monologue about a similar scene of violence he witnessed as a boy in El Salvador. “If it happens, it will happen quickly, and you must be prepared,” he warns, echoing the same sentiment Tobias delivered at the start of the season.
Viewers who’ve been waiting for someone to slap some sense into Nick might be temped to cheer when his frustrated mother finally cracks and beats him after discovering he’s back on drugs. That would be a mistake, as the scene itself is anything but cathartic. Directed with understated naturalism and acted with raw emotion, it’s a purposefully ugly moment between two people who love each other dearly, but who’ve reached the end of their tether.
Later that night, Dr. Exner and several soldiers arrive at the Clark home to pick up Griselda and Daniel, who’ve been promised medical care at a nearby facility. Instead, the soldiers take Griselda and Nick, who’s dragged away at gunpoint. Here we see the kind of sudden violence that Daniel predicted earlier.
Unfortunately, casting the military as villains in a zombie story is about as fresh as a week-old corpse. Let’s hope there’s more to this cliché than presented here.
As the soldiers toss Nick in a truck, Dr. Exner convinces Liza to come with them.
The episode ends with the shattered family blaming each other for a situation that’s beyond anyone’s control.
For the first time since the series began, mysteries are developing. Why kidnap Nick instead of taking Daniel? This cliffhanger is exactly what “Fear the Walking Dead” has been missing so far, and bodes well for the rest of the season.