Fear the Walking Dead
Season 2, Episode 12 - "Pillar of Salt"
Frank Dillane, Kim Dickens, Colman Domingo, Alycia Debnam-Carey
Regular airtime: Sundays, 8pm
US: 18 Sep 2016
A professor of mine once said that James Joyce’s magnum opus, Ulysses, was one of those books that couldn’t be read, only re-read. What he meant is that the novel comes at you with so much at once—undoing and reinventing itself right before your eyes—that it’s simply impossible to appreciate it on the first read. What’s happening to you on that first read doesn’t make sense: moments occur, for instance, that won’t be contextualized until the end, by which point you’ll have forgotten them. The best you can do is hold on and try to enjoy the ride. Once you’re done, once you can look back at it all and see it as a whole, oh, what a magnificent creation.
I suspect something like that may be at work in Fear the Walking Dead. I feel as though I spend a lot of time in this space defending the show from its critics. I’ve tried to point out that it’s not designed to offer the high-octane zombie-battling action that marks out The Walking Dead, that it should be judged on its own merits rather than as a mere extension of that show. I’ve tried to suggest that the focal point is our own behavior, driven by “fear” of the walkers, rather than the walkers themselves. I’ve argued that it has some deep thematic intentions more important than the plot itself.
Ultimately, these defenses may not be enough. I think the real challenge Fear the Walking Dead presents for the viewer is in the way it withholds the larger picture, forcing us to wait patiently for that picture to reveal itself. As TV viewers, we’re not especially good at that kind of patience, and it remains to be seen whether Fear the Walking Dead can train us to accept it, teach us how to view it; however, that doesn’t mean there’s not something seriously brilliant happening, whether or not we realize it.
Victor Strand (Colman Domingo) offers but one simple example of what I mean. The very first time we encounter Strand, he’s locked in a cage, held like many by the military that controls Los Angeles. In the way Fear the Walking Dead always seems to work, we’re given no context for Strand, and no explanation of how he relates to the main characters the show’s already established. Instead, we must take him as we find him, try to sort out his character based purely on his words and behavior. And we do: we discover he’s a business man of sorts, a wheeler and dealer convinced he can turn the whole “walker” situation to his advantage. He’s high energy, high intensity. He scares us a little. He scares Nick (Frank Dillane), who eventually winds up in the same cell with him. As time goes on, however, his character shifts and changes in unexpected ways. We discover that beneath his bluster and his obvious sophistication lies a deep connection to a lost love, a man he’ll do anything to reunite with.
It’s tempting to label these shifts and changes—not only in Strand but in all the other characters as well—as inconsistencies in character development. So, for example, early in the series Strand seems drawn to Nick, but as things continue, that relationship disappears: there’s no clear break; rather, it just sort of fades away. Yet, in this week’s episode, “Pillar of Salt”, where we find Victor flat on his back struggling to survive a knife wound, his words to Nick’s sister Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), that she must make her mother see her, have in the back of them his deep understanding of Nick and of Madison’s (Kim Dickens) relationship to both her children.
In many ways, that’s the way the series progresses, in fits and starts, with episodes full of events that don’t always make sense at the time they occur. This week, we discover Ofelia (Mercedes Mason) is still alive. We see her in the past, receiving a marriage proposal and probing her mother for information about her parents’ past and especially their relationship. We see her in what’s apparently the present, siphoning gas. Eventually, we see her driving in the direction of the United States. Yet here again, we’re offered no context for her actions, no description of how she escaped the hotel, no explanation for why she did so, where she’s going, or whether or not she still matters to Fear the Walking Dead‘s universe.
These scenes aren’t exactly presented as tantalizing clues. In other parts of the episode, we come to realize that Madison’s new friends at the hotel share a coincidental connection with her: Elena’s (Karen Bethzabe) son works at the black market warehouse where Nick and Luciana (Danay Garcia) have been trading. Likewise, in the episode’s last moments, we see Travis (Cliff Curtis), on a hillside, watching Madison briefly turn the hotel lights on. Such moments create dramatic irony and ultimately suspense. They drive us to watch the show, give us something to hang on to, to hope for from episode to episode.
Ofelia’s scenes are of another sort entirely. They don’t hold out the possibility of a connection, or the hope of resolution. True, we’re surprised to discover she’s still alive, and that solves something of a mystery that’s been held in suspense for the past two episodes. But these scenes don’t connect to that suspense in any direct way, nor do they hold out any sense of what might be to come. Indeed, they seem very much like an end to her character arc, and yet they’re far too anti-climactic to serve that purpose.
What then do we do with this show? How do we make sense of it, or enjoy it if we can’t? I think for many viewers what’s left is a feeling of frustration, a sense that nothing much really happened in this episode and many others, that those moments are simply wasted time; however, that underestimates the long view. Ofelia has a part to play, and what we learn about her in this episode will be significant. When it will become significant is anybody’s guess, and frankly she may make the episode boring; at least for the first go round. When it’s all said and done, when we have the chance to go back and re-watch the series from beginning to end, suddenly it’ll take on a brand new life.
Or, at least that’s my hope. The thing with Ulysses was I had a professor telling me once a week that the novel was worth reading, even if it didn’t seem like it. I didn’t simply have to trust Joyce as I struggled blindly through. No one can tell me though, how all the pieces of the Fear the Walking Dead puzzle might eventually fit back together. Instead, I have to take it on faith, not something I’m used to when I watch television. Maybe it’s something I’ll get better at.