Mercy abounds in the fifth episode of the first season of Fear the Walking Dead. The characters either show it or deny it to others, and mercy is part of a cover term known as Cobalt. As always, I tend to try to shy away from spoilers but you should really go watch this episode before you read any further.
Cobalt is a strange choice for a military cover name. Usually, you have two words joined together, but whoever added the military to this show wasn't worried about the accuracy. What we're seeing is the breakdown of society and the California National Guard, all at once. This is due to the fact that the whole thing is coming apart and there aren't any resources to stop it--everything is collapsing in this episode and you can feel the tension rising. They've given up on the Human Terrain System because they're losing soldiers left and right. Inside of the compound where Travis and Madison are trying to keep it together, they don't know how good they have it.
We're introduced to a fantastic character who saves Nick from being euthanized. Strand is played by Colman Domingo and I hope he makes it to next season. Heck, all we're doing right now is setting it up so that Season Two becomes a much-heralded event, so you know there will be cliffhangers and suspense next week. What we saw in this episode was astoundingly good television.
I'll break this into five parts because that's what we have to try and follow here--five segments of the same puzzle being masterfully laid out before us. This show has been written at an extremely high level and acted superbly. The direction, the sets, the level of detail--everything about this show surpasses all expectations. And it's no mere spinoff, either. The resources dedicated to this season are considerable.
Daniel and Ofelia Salazar are holding out hope that they get Griselda back from wherever it is that she has been taken. In order to do that, Ofelia has used the trust of a young soldier to try and get information. Daniel, a veteran of living in El Salvador during periods of tremendous violence and unrest, knows that the only thing to do is bleed it out of him a piece at a time, and so he does this, utilizing the torture techniques that he had to witness and were used on him when he was a boy. He was corrupted by his experiences in El Salvador, and knows the methods of torture that will work on someone and get them to talk. Mercy is not in his vocabulary anymore. He is uncompromisingly strong in this episode even though he has given into the same fear that exists on both sides of the torturer's chair. I don't know how a character like this can gain any sympathy now that he's been revealed to be just as bad as anyone he might encounter--perhaps that will make him an asset when tough things need to be accomplished. Madison is a small part of this story, and fades into the background in this episode. She was a badass up till now and what we get is a lot of moping around. She shows a flash of her past self when she asks Daniel if he found out what they needed to know. That made me smile--that's Madison in a nutshell. She's a realist. Daniel's efforts reveal that the Army made a lot of bad choices in the immediate aftermath of civil unrest. An arena full of them, to be exact.
The second bit of story features Strand, who I mentioned above, and Nick. It is evident that they are in a quarantine area and they are not there because they want to be. Strand is a person capable of reading others and he breaks down Travis' neighbor Doug, the man who lost his mind, abandoned his family, and was taken away by the soldiers. Doug is mentally broken, and Strand talks about the attractiveness of the wife he left behind because he was weak. She is hot so she will get with a man who can protect her. Strand has corrupted one of the soldiers (yeah, the Army looks awful in Season One and I had to laugh when an actual recruiting commercial played in the last third of the show) and is able to trade away some personal effects for the key and for Nick's help. We'll see how that goes in the season finale next week. Nick does not strike me as being reliable or loyal. Strand's mercy is self-serving, as will anything resembling Nick's idea of what mercy could be.
The third story line is the help that Travis' ex-wife Lisa gives to Dr. Bethany Exner. Yes, there really was a medical facility and it's breaking down. They're running out of people and supplies and Exner really does value Lisa as a nurse. The problem is, it's taking Lisa far too long to figure out that the captive bolt gun (hello No Country for Old Men and Anton Chigurh) she sees being used is a mercy she wasn't expecting. This is the most direct reference to the pilot of The Walking Dead. When Rick stumbles out of the hospital and onto the loading dock, he sees the aftermath of what was considered mercy--the sheets stained with the same captive bolt gun wounds that are happening all around Lisa. Will Lisa keep following Exner now that she knows the truth or will she refuse to leave the medical facility once she sees the people in cages? Mercy is motivating Lisa for now, but, deep down, I think she's just as much of a realist as Madison or Daniel.
The fourth story line revolves around Travis' son Chris and his step-daughter Alicia. They are bored so they engage in fantasy. Chris is definitely not her type but he is a willing accomplice. They see how a wealthy family has lived and Alicia asks, "where are they? Where did they go?" and that references back to how Rick's group arrived in Alexandria and found houses with photos of the families that once lived there. We've seen this throughout the original series, with the ghosts of people who are long gone everywhere. They trash the place because looking for resources and scavenging useful stuff just hasn't occurred to them yet. They're using their precious time to lounge about in fancy clothes and then they do a number on the house. Unfortunately, that's probably what people would do if they weren't aware of the fact that the world is coming undone all around them. I know this was supposed to suggest some sort of sexual tension between the two kids, but Alicia's playful banter and off the shoulder looks are wasted on Chris. How did they get her to ride a bike in those short shorts anyway? Someone in costuming really wasn't afraid to get a Lolita moment out of Alycia Debnam-Carey.
The fifth and last story has Travis out with Lt. Moyers and a small group of men. One of them is an NCO but he's not wearing any rank so I don't know what's happening with him. He should have been a Staff Sergeant, at least, and he should have had more control over the soldiers. The unit, however, is breaking down--they're all in the act of getting ready to desert and go look for their own families. Unit cohesion is collapsing little by little and there's no morale. Lt. Moyers is not the guy to actually raise morale. All he has is his rank and what little power he has left. He takes the men out on a run with Travis ostensibly to go to the facility where everyone is being held. But they never get there. Travis sees the Army for what it is--incapable of dealing with the hidden menace that's out there. They stop and Lt. Moyers puts Travis to the test. Can he show some mercy and take a shot and remove an infected person from the population? Travis looks through the scope and sees her name on a name tag--of course he can't pull the trigger (and the question is, will Season Two be a waiting game before he does take one out?) and so he has to have his manhood insulted. We watch them respond to a frantic call for help--the soldiers are still there for each other even though they are not really helping anyone else. And then we get a really good closeup of a SINCGARS (Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System) radio and the horror of having to face the infected in close quarters. Quarantining people didn't turn out to be such a hot idea. Travis watches in horror as what's left of the squad gets in the Humvee and gets ready to desert. They do drop him off at home but I'm surprised they did that. They should have said, "hey man--get your own ride" and then left him there to fend for himself. That's probably the most mercy you're going to get out of a guy frantically trying to get a Humvee ride to San Diego.
Now, I geeked out when the SINCGARS appeared in this episode and I laughed when what passed for discipline among the soldiers was revealed to be the usual small unit bullshit. The show has thus far made the Army look like a collection of inexperienced douchebags and I'm sure someone will complain about how AMC has made the troops look bad. I'm talking Abu Ghraib bad here, and I half expect season two will have some retribution for whatever is left of the California National Guard. Everything they do has been shown, in some way or another, in the popular culture. When you see how the troops treat their fellow Americans, you can't help but remember scenes from The Hurt Locker or any other Iraq War movie that came out when Hollywood was trying to capture that subject. It's sickening but necessary for the horror genre story unfolding before us.
Mercy is in short supply and next week we'll see who gets some of it when Cobalt goes into effect. We see the troops bugging out but we don't know where they're going to go because the herds are coming, son. The herds are coming.
I'm not holding out much hope for a clean resolution or rescue, but I am hoping we see another powerful example of how the beginning of the collapse of civilization because of the zombie outbreak should really center around gathering food and water and guns before it's too late. If you were hoping that someone would be taking care of their future, you're going to be disappointed in this episode. Everyone still acts like those pallets of MRE's (Meals Ready to Eat) are never going to stop coming.