Spoiler alert: Do not read until you watch “Fear the Walking Dead,” Season 1, episode 5, titled “Cobalt.”
Following last week’s gripping look at life in a suburban L.A. internment camp, Episode 5 of “Fear the Walking Dead” was a curiously dull affair that did little to advance the story or deepen the characters. Instead, this installment spent an unwelcome amount of time rehashing the TV torture debate, an exhausted plot device that should’ve ended with the series finale of “24” back in 2010.
The episode – titled “Cobalt” – opens with an image of the American flag seen in reverse and topped with razor wire. Behind it, frightened Angelenos are held prisoner in Guantanamo-like cages. Subtle, it’s not.
Above the crying and shouting, a velvet purr of a voice begins narrating a disturbing sales pitch. This is Strand (played by Colman Domingo), a stylish operator who’s busy getting inside the head of Doug Thompson, the unbalanced neighbor who mysteriously disappeared last week. Unlike the rather mundane characters who’ve populated “Fear the Walking Dead” so far, Strand is a true original.
This introductory scene plays very much like an audition for “Glengarry Glen Ross,” with Strand taking on the role of smooth-talking salesman Ricky Roma. To drive the message home, he even refers to himself as “a closer” at one point, and as anyone familiar with David Mamet’s incendiary drama knows, coffee is for closers.
Why Strand breaks down Doug’s fragile defenses, manipulating him into getting taken away at gunpoint, is a bit of a mystery. What’s obvious, however, is that his curiosity is piqued by fellow prisoner Nick.
Back in the neighborhood, tensions between the citizens and the National Guard are boiling over following the late-night kidnapping of 11 “at-risk elements to the local populace.” With morale dangerously low, Travis meets with Lt. Moyers to see about getting his people released from custody.
“If the ones you took don’t come back soon, you’re gonna have more than me to worry about,” Travis threatens. Calling his bluff, Moyers takes the pacifist English teacher on a military ride-along to see Dr. Exner at the nearby medical facility.
This leads to a disappointing sequence where Moyers demands that Travis shoot one of the “Skinbags” (i.e. walkers) to prove that he’s on their side. When Travis claims that he’s not a good enough shot, Moyers teases that with the equipment they’re carrying “Helen Keller could drill this thing.”
It’s unclear how seeing Travis refuse to shoot a zombie is meant to give us greater insight into his personality. Instead, it merely reiterates things we’ve known about him since the very first episode. Ultimately, the scene feels like yet another example of the series marking time before its finale.
Meanwhile, Alicia and Chris, bored and angry at their parents, break into an empty home and bond by playing with their neighbor’s expensive toys and clothing. “These little bastards are having the childhood we deserve!” Alicia says. Fans of classic zombie cinema might notice a striking visual parallel between Alicia primping in a mirror and a nearly identical shot of actress Gaylen Ross playing dress-up in George A. Romero’s original “Dawn of the Dead.”
Sadly, the bulk of the episode is spent with Daniel and Adams, the seemingly-decent National Guardsman introduced last week, replaying an overly familiar torture scenario in the dimly-lit basement of an abandoned house. With Maddie’s grudging approval, Daniel questions the young soldier, while slowly stripping the flesh from his arm.
“This is how we bring them home,” Daniel tells Maddie, referring to their missing family members.
Despite Daniel’s mumbo-jumbo about how “the man with the blade and the man in the chair” are not different, this tired sequence adds nothing new to an issue that’s been repeated ad nauseam on series like “24,” “Lost,” “Homeland,” “Chicago P.D.” and “The Black List.”
Honestly, do we really need to have this debate again?
Even the actors barely seem invested in it. After delivering a powerful monologue last week about the horrors he witnessed as a child in El Salvador, Rubén Blades’ flat recitation of a torturer’s mantra lacks both energy and nuance.
The sequence itself is poorly staged, with Adams never crying out or begging for his life. “You don’t have to do this,” is the most he offers. The whole thing lacks tension, since we get the impression that he could easily be convinced to tell Daniel everything he knows with just a little bit of coaxing. Instead, we’re treated to the ugly sight of a formerly interesting, sympathetic character reduced to recreating scenes from Eli Roth’s “Hostel.” It’s a major letdown.
In the end, Adams reveals the meaning of the code word “Cobalt” that Daniel’s been asking him about. It’s a command to evacuate the Los Angeles basin by 9:00 a.m. the next morning. Unfortunately, it doesn’t include civilians. They’re to receive “humane termination” from the soldiers, instead.
See that, everyone. The torture worked. Yippee?
The episode ends with Daniel somehow walking all the way from the fenced-in East L.A. neighborhood to the Los Angeles Arena (that’s at least seven miles on foot in the dark), where the soldiers have chained 2,000 zombies inside.
What’s his plan? To release them all before Cobalt can be initiated? After this somewhat tedious hour of television, the possibility of a massive horde of hungry walkers storming through L.A. on a collision course with the National Guard doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.
With any luck, smooth-talking Strand will be the only one left standing when the dust settles.