Fear the Walking Dead
Season 2, Episodes 14 and 15 - "Wrath" and "North"
Kim Dickins, Frank Dillane, Colman Domingo, Alycia Debnam-Carey, Mercedes Mason
Regular airtime: Sundays, 8pm
US: 2 Oct 2016
The Trouble with Walls
It’s tempting to believe Fear the Walking Dead was always meant as a response to Donald Trump’s promise to “build a great wall”. AMC announced the Fear the Walking Dead project in early March 2015, and began filming in May. Trump’s declaration didn’t come until mid-June, as part of the speech announcing his candidacy for president. Then again, the brave band of survivors at the heart of Fear the Walking Dead didn’t actually head toward Mexico until the second season, which premiered in April 2016, at which point it was clear Trump was the likely Republican nominee.
More importantly, it’s hard to ignore the way the show has gone out of its way to highlight Mexico: the simple fact that the Manawas and Salazars sought refuge in Mexico after Los Angeles was destroyed by the American military makes a powerful statement about the precarious nature of “walls” between nations and the idea that our provincial notions of one country as superior to another. As if to drive this point home, we’ve seen reflections of racist American attitudes in recent episodes, particularly in the figures of Brandon (Kelly Blatz), James (Israel Broussard), and Derek (Kenny Wormald); at one point in this week’s “Wrath”, Brandon tells Derek it smells like “Mexcrement” in the car park.
The two-part finale (“Wrath” and “North”) begins with that actual wall between the American-Mexican border—at least the wall that currently exists—with Ofelia (Mercedes Mason) picking her way around it and through the desert, back into America. Both physical and metaphorical walls play an important role throughout these two episodes.
The second half of season two has focused on two compounds, both protected by walls: the hotel Madison (Kim Dickens), Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), and Strand (Colman Domingo) discovered, and the Colonia that took in Nick (Frank Dillane). Both places were carefully constructed as safe havens: the hotel by Madison, who managed to clear the walkers from the grounds and forge alliances among the surviving factions, and the Colonia by the mystical Alejandro (Paul Calderon), who’s drawn a community around himself with the story of his miraculous recovery from a walker bite.
Almost immediately after they were formed, however, both communities began setting up other sorts of boundaries, metaphorical walls designed to protect human from human. Following Strand’s stabbing, for example, Madison insists that anyone who harms another in the community must be banished from the compound. Such “laws” seem necessary in order to re-establish some sense of civilization. Their creation in the show hearkens back to social contract theory in writers like Locke and Rousseau and questions about how best to build a just society. The Walking Dead has explored this theme in depth, especially over the last season.
For all their necessity, however, these laws become walls of their own, stifling human behavior and keeping us walled off from one another (Robert Frost’s “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” notwithstanding). When we think of them in relation to physical walls, it’s clear that such protections not only keep us safe from outside threats, but keep us trapped on the inside. So, for instance, Alejandro insists no one be allowed to leave the Colonia, turning the haven into a kind of prison as well.
The trouble with walls, physical and otherwise, is that they are rigid structures. The irony for Madison is that her husband Travis (Cliff Curtis) breaks the very law she instituted, forcing she and her family to flee the hotel. As she pleads with the others, she argues that Travis had good reason to react in the way that he did: grief and stress drove his behavior. Yet the law offers no room for mitigating circumstances. The wall must remain inviolable, even when it comes up against logical exceptions.
Alejandro’s personal wall is of a different sort, a mythology that he’s built up around himself about having survived a walker’s bite. He insists on absolute faith among his followers, turning himself into a sort of extension of the chain link fence that surrounds the camp and protects those within. Here again, the wall is a source of safety and protection. As Luciana (Danay Garcia) insists, it’s faith that keeps these people from giving up entirely, even as Alejandro’s unwillingness to abandon these walls ultimately puts the entire population in danger. It’s only when he relents, allowing his own personal wall to drop, that they’re allowed to leave, saving them from the coming attack. As if to make one final point about the dangers to be found in erecting walls, these very attackers, having entered the town, find themselves trapped by that same fence they sought to breach, unable to escape from the walkers who crowd in upon them.
The end of this two-part finale takes place essentially where it began. In the opening scenes, Ofelia makes her way back into America. In the final scenes, Nick and Luciana lead their people to a highway border crossing. It’s difficult to miss the symbolism apparent in the long line of parked cars that stretch out in both directions from the checkpoints. The plague sent thousands from both sides of the border to this place, all desperately in search of a safe haven. The plague, however, has no respect for borders. In this post-apocalyptic reality, borders are a fiction that no longer serves any useful purpose and offer neither side any real escape.
Even so, both Ofelia and Nick see America as a land of salvation. Ofelia has apparently gone in search of her fiancé; Nick believes a refugee camp lies just over the horizon. Instead of reaching salvation, however, both find themselves taken by what appears to be some kind of paramilitary troop.
In the end, then, walls are breached, but other walls rise in their place. For while our central characters may have finally realized something about the nature of safety and the way that an obsession with safety comes with its own set of problems, the rest of the world’s survivors clearly haven’t. Walls are driven by fear, and fear remains a powerful motivating force in the show. We’ll have to wait until next season to know what new walls may be erected in the Fear the Walking Dead universe.
As for our own universe, we should find out in early November whether fear will ultimately win out.