Sunday, August 28, 2016

REVIEW: 'Fear the Walking Dead' - Madison, Strand, Alicia and Ofelia Check Into a Hotel in 'Los Muertos'

AMC's Fear the Walking Dead - Episode 2.09 "Los Muertos"

After the fall of the compound, Madison, Strand and others forge a tenuous path forward. Meanwhile, Nick is recruited for a perilous assignment.

The midseason premiere of Fear the Walking Dead understood that slowing the narrative down could be really beneficial to character development. Last week's episode focused entirely on Nick and his struggle to survive in the Mexican countryside. It was the best episode the show has ever produced - by a substantial margin as well. This stretch of episodes could really improve the overall show by providing that same episodic treatment to all of the main characters. Of course, that always seemed like a hopeless dream. Nick ended that episode being welcomed into a new community that seemed nice but has darkness around the corners. It's not surprising that "Los Muertos" picks up after that reveal to show what this community is really like. It's just the show once again conforming to plot instead of character though. It's fine that the show wanted to continue what worked so well in "Grotesque." But it ultimately just creates an episode that doesn't really mean anything to the characters or the audience.

"Los Muertos" does feel necessary in regards to fleshing out the world of Alejandro and Luciana's community. Thematically, it felt like a beacon of hope for Nick. It was the home waiting for him at the end of his journey. That had to be the conclusion drawn to effectively end last week's episode. If it's not that, then it makes very little sense why Nick would stick around. It creates a plot for Nick. He can't just be wandering around the country every week. Even though that could be very dramatically satisfying, the show has the belief that he needs to be planted somewhere and interacting with the same characters every week. This community isn't the sanctuary he was looking for. He wanted a place where the dead weren't treated as monsters. In a sense, that is a core belief of Alejandro and his people. They are just off-putting in other ways. It's clear that the audience is suppose to judge them critically from the opening minutes of this episode as well. The first thing that happens in "Los Muertos" is Nick wandering out of his bed to the entire community rallying around sending one of their own to his death. It's a harsh and vicious moment to open on. It shows that this community isn't the happy, safe place it seemed at the end of the midseason premiere. It's not surprising that it happened. But the specifics of why are just a little too murky and not engaging enough to truly work.

So, Alejandro believes that this apocalypse is a purge. It's the latest global disaster to wipe out the unworthy souls of civilization. Only the people who survive can inherit the Earth. He believes he has been chosen. It's hinted at pretty extensively that he was bitten and did not turn. That's why he's been able to build this community of followers who listen to him with the utmost reverence. He provides them with false hope and answers. He's not afraid to pull back the curtain and explain to Nick the harsh realities of this world he has created. He's more than willing to work with the local gangs to get the supplies for his community. He's only sacrificing people to the dead to ensure that they are strong enough to protect this community from anyone who wishes to do it harm. He's using the dead to his advantage. But he also believes the dead are on a journey. Wherever that journey leads will be the next stage of existence. He believes he's been chosen. His followers believe him. But he doesn't take too well to the criticism that Nick has about all of this. Nick still wants to be the guy providing comfort to people who most need it. He's concerned about the daughter of the man sentenced to be eaten by the dead. That simple concern could destroy this entire community. That's what ultimately gets Nick to start becoming a believer of Alejandro's. He's been very susceptible to suggestions about the purpose of this apocalypse before. So, it should come as no surprise that he's following that same trajectory yet again.

And yet, the bulk of Nick's story focuses on him and Luciana going to a gang-controlled shopping center to stock up on water and other medicinal needs. It's a tense story just because Nick doesn't follow the rules. It's completely silly and ridiculous. There's no big reason why he wants to take something the community doesn't need. That's not revealed until much later. But it has the potential for many severe consequences. A lot of it does feel very introductory to a conflict that will continue brewing over the course of this season. Luciana is able to shop here because she provides the oxycodone that the gang leader's sister desperately needs. That makes it personal to Nick because he knows how to wiggle out of a situation after he's caught trying to steal. But again, it's just another instance of Nick using his drug instincts in order to survive. He's a survivor. But it has gotten very tiring that drugs are a consistent detail in everything that he does. He's unable to escape it. That could be really draining on Nick as the series goes along. But instead, it just plays as an asset here. He can manipulate it to his benefit. But it will more than likely start a war between these two communities. That would be an interesting or exciting plot dynamic if the audience knew or cared about either of them. The show is introducing these worlds through conflict. That can be effective. But here, it's simply the show trying to keep things tense instead of actually putting in the character work.

Plus, the story balance is really off in "Los Muertos." Nick's journey last week worked so well because of its intense focus on just Nick. The show drops in on what Strand, Madison, Alicia and Ofelia are up to following the destruction of the compound here as well. But they aren't given the type of character focus that Nick got last week. Because the show needs to fit Nick in here, it's unable to expand on Strand, Madison, Alicia or Ofelia. They are still roughly the same characters they've always been. There is a solid character moment between Strand and Madison as they sit at a bar getting drunk reflecting on how their lives have gone so wrong. And yet, even that moment is hardly effective because it's just silly and very stupid for them to be getting that drunk in an environment that they don't know is safe. That's very dumb and purposefully sets up a tense cliffhanger. And yet, that exciting moment in the end doesn't work at all because it's still so difficult to care about any of the characters trapped in it. Ofelia conveniently goes missing as things start going wrong. She has been a non-existent character this entire season. She has literally done nothing. It's easy to forget that she's even on the show. But she's going to miraculously save the day somehow. That's not a moment that will be earned at all. I'm already dreading to see it happen.

The story in the hotel also highlights a major problem for the series. It just does not have compelling or interesting lead characters. In the beginning, Madison and Travis were billed as the leads. They were the heads of the family struggling to bring everyone together during the apocalypse. But their character arcs have been so bland and boring. They don't represent the show at its most interesting. In fact, they produce the dullest moments. That's because their concerns have been so one-note and incredibly annoying. Madison is the protector of the family. She must keep everyone together at all costs. And yet, it's frustrating to watch her refuse to listen to rational thought just because she needs to be reunited with her family. Alicia has accepted that it's just going to be her and her mom now. Nick, Travis and Chris have abandoned them. Madison refuses to give in to that. She has an idea of her perfect family and she needs to maintain it. The world is changing and she just refuses to accept that. It's not a mindset that makes her very endearing. It's not something that makes her capable of surviving in this new world. So, it's weird seeing her continue to survive and not adjusting her expectations of reality. More importantly, this darkness has always been a part of her world. Her first husband more than likely killed himself by driving into oncoming traffic head-on. She's protected Nick and Alicia from the truth. She wants to blame that kind of darkness for driving her family apart. She just can't understand why anyone would want to leave this picture perfect family. Things are never that simple. She wants them to be. It's a conflict the show refuses to just drop and move on from. So, it's really limiting to Madison as a character. This arc could be good for her. Force her to survive on her own with this new and smaller makeshift family. That way she can be more appreciative and understanding once Nick, Travis and Chris return to her. However, that just seems like nuanced character work that has never really worked out on this show.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Los Muertos" was written by Alan Page and directed by Deborah Chow.
  • Ofelia reveals that she almost got married once. If that moment was what the show thinks qualifies as a character development, it is sadly very mistaken. All it does is reinforce the basic understanding of the character. She was incapable of living her life because of her parents. And now, she has to live on her own. Who will she become? That should be a compelling question. But it's not because the show is still way too focused on the past.
  • Ofelia understands why someone would decide to end things instead of continuing to survive. She has lost everything now. Alicia has suffered loss as well. But she still has her mother. Ofelia has nothing. That's why it's ominous when she disappears. But again, it's a hard moment to care about because she barely comes across as a character.
  • Alicia and Ofelia discover running water. Of all the characters who need a shower, Alicia is the only one who actually gets it. She didn't really need it - comparatively speaking. Plus, she'll probably need another one after she gets out of the current situation with the dead.
  • The Abigail is lost. That's just a minor detail. It happens solely to explain why Madison, Strand, Alicia and Ofelia simply don't flee to the sea again. That was an exciting and different new method for storytelling earlier this season. But now, it's more important that they spend time in a hotel instead.
  • The Abigail was an important part of the season too. So for the ship to just go missing feels like a disservice to what the vessel meant to this family this year. It represented home for this makeshift family despite the multiple issues it forced into conflict. It seems unlikely that we've seen the last of it.
  • The dead falling out of hotel rooms and crashing to the ground below only to get up again was a pretty cool visual at least.