Fear the Walking Dead: Season One, Episode Five - "Cobalt"
Is the new character Strand a sign Fear the Walking Dead has a new direction, or only that it’s still searching for one?
Fear the Walking DeadAirtime: Sundays, 9pm
Cast: Cliff Curtis, Kim Dickens, Ruben Blades
Air Date: 2015-09-27
If you’ve been following my reviews of Fear the Walking Dead, you know I try to give the producers credit each week for what I believe -- or maybe hope -- they’re trying to accomplish. The trouble is, each week seems to bring a new wrinkle, a new motif, a new direction. Perhaps the show is setting up a wide breadth of themes (and, in their defense, they do already seem to be complicating some of those), but if one week’s focus doesn’t carry over to the next, it can feel a little like aimless narrative wandering.
In this week’s episode, “Cobalt", we’re introduced to a new character, Victor Strand (Colman Domingo), one who literally promises to change the direction of this show yet again: late in the episode, he tells Nick (Frank Dillane), “The game has changed; we return to the old rules.”
For the most part, both characters and viewers spend this episode worrying over the same escalating threats as before. The military continues to act menacing from their guard posts beyond the fence, and to exercise what seems like arbitrary uses of their power. Meanwhile, the civilians inside the fence continue to grow restless, questioning and on occasion lashing out at their “protectors". But while these two sides remain in conflict with one another, smaller fractures have begun to develop within each side. Here we see again one of the structural strengths of the show, in the way it plays with dualities: military and civilians, pacifists and militants, adults and children, and the two halves of Travis’s family. These relationships do become more complex this week, as we discover that while Daniel (Ruben Blades) may be actively fighting the military’s presence, he actually has a good deal in common with them. On the other hand, staunch pacifist Travis (Cliff Curtis) spends time with a military unit and begins to understand life from their perspective. Strange crossings: the former military man at odds with the military, while the pacifist comes to accept them.
Another interesting duality also develops in “Cobalt”: one between the rich and the poor. Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie) and Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Clark) spend much of the episode exploring the abandoned home of a wealthy neighbor: trying on clothes, drinking champagne, and playing with their toys. In the end, having tried on this lifestyle, the two teens turn to attacking it, ripping up sofa cushions and throwing champagne bottles into the fireplace. On one level, the scene simply expresses the anxiety of their situation, imprisoned in a small neighborhood behind a chain link fence (in addition to developing some physical chemistry between the two characters). But their attitude towards wealth takes on greater meaning when connected to the new character, Strand, who opens the episode with a speech about his prowess as a salesman.
Strand has been using his own wealth -- watches and cufflinks -- as currency with the soldiers. In the second half of the episode, when the guards come to take Nick --who is running a fever -- Strand saves him, an act we initially view as one of kindness, a willingness to trade his own “wealth” for the life of another person. Ultimately, however, Strand’s act turns sinister. In addition to pointing out that the “rules have changed” (translation: cufflinks are worthless now) he notes that Nick, as a junkie, makes for an ideal “asset". A heroin junkie is ultimately willing to do anything he must for a fix, and by extension, anything Strand may ask him to do.
One interesting difference between Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead has to do with how the characters behave in their given situations. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the characters in Fear the Walking Dead have had little interaction with the walkers. In episode three, no walkers appear. In “Cobalt", we only see one, and she is used, in her isolation, to demonstrate Travis’s inability to deal with someone who has turned. At this point in the narrative, the action in Fear the Walking Dead has had more to do with how fear of walkers drives characters to behave. While in The Walking Dead, crises frequently pushed characters to redefine themselves, at this point in the prequel, the characters have only doubled down on their personalities. As per example, The Walking Dead’s Daryl (Norman Reedus) transformed from outlaw to humanist, and Carol (Melissa McBride), from soft-spoken housewife to the group’s chief advocate of violence. Instead, Travis holds on to his pacifism more tightly in the face of disaster, Daniel puts his military experience, including torture, to good use, Nick spirals deeper into addiction, and Strand becomes an even more brilliant salesman and master manipulator.
The end of “Cobalt” and the previews for next week’s season finale suggest change is coming to the show’s plotline and level of action. For the first time, the walkers appear as a large-scale threat (if one that has so far been contained) rather than a distant worry. Nevertheless, the careful setup work the show has undertaken so far must surely matter to the larger direction the show will ultimately take. If that’s true, don’t expect the kind of bonding that we’ve become accustomed to on The Walking Dead. All of these characters only care about their own survival.