The Pottery Barn Principle of 'Fear the Walking Dead'

Daniel (Ruben Blades) guards the water supply (Photo credit: AMC).

Season three's exploration of the politics of survival is fascinating, even with the series' over-reliance on coincidence.

Fear the Walking Dead

Airtime: Sundays, 10pm
Cast: Kim Dickens, Frank Dillane, Cliff Curtis
Network: AMC
Air date: 2017-09-17

The fall half of Fear the Walking Dead's third season begins with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' haunting version of Bob Dylan's "Death is Not the End". The song seems to comment directly on the action in the first three episodes, "Minotaur", "The Diviner", and "La Serpiente": from its suggestion that these characters have reached a "crossroads", to its mention of "cities on fire" and the "burning flesh of men". Such images that might reference the desert, the water shortage, Daniel's scars, the bartering city Madison (Kim Dickens) and Walker (Michael Greyeyes) visit in search of water, or all of these things.

The song’s chorus, however, a repetition of the title, "death is not the end", offers the most important comment on the place the show has reached. On the most obvious level, the song works as a kind of dark joke, a play on the fact that in a very literal sense, death in this post-apocalyptic landscape really isn't the end. In more immediate terms, though, it also points up the fact that the deaths in the spring, most notably Dante's (Jason Manuel Olazabal) and Jeremiah's (Dayton Callie), didn't necessarily solve the problems we thought they might. Instead, these characters continue to exercise control over situations and events. Their deaths left a power vacuum; as Strand (Colman Domingo) points out in "La Serpiente" -- drawing on Shakespeare's famous line from Henry IV -- it's always easier to criticize leaders than to lead: "Heavy lies the head that wears the crown." Or, to paraphrase Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” thoughts on the Iraqi invasion: Madison and company chose to break up these regimes; now they have to own them.

Jeremiah Otto’s death, coupled with Troy's (Daniel Sharman) banishment, was meant to bring a truce between the camp and their Black Hat rivals. In "Minotaur", Troy visit Jeremiah's grave and Walker finally buries his ancestor's bones, moments that seem to symbolize the past has been put to rest. At the same time, Jake (Sam Underwood) agrees to share access to the camp's arsenal with Walker. All is well.

Or perhaps not. The fact that Nick (Frank Dillane) murdered Jeremiah and called it a suicide continues to have repercussions. Ofelia's (Mercedes Mason) decision to poison the camp so the Black Hat could move in reverberates as well. Now in charge, Madison's decision to banish Troy is her first -- but not last -- difficult decision as leader. Later, digging through Jeremiah's blood-stained desk -- an image that reminds us he hasn’t really gone -- she discovers the water table is nearly dried up. It turns out Jeremiah had reasons for some of what seemed like uncaring attitudes; allowing in the Black Hat community has put everyone's lives at risk. Madison finds herself in the awkward position of instituting water rationing, an action she might have condemned before she took up the mantle of leadership.

Somewhere south of the camp, Daniel (Ruben Blades) and Lola (Lasandra Tena) find themselves dealing with essentially the same problem. Dante's corruption and heavy-handed tactics were reprehensible; yet, in the wake of his death, Lola's discovering that it isn't easy to satisfy the community. Their own "fears" drive them to demand more and more water, and quickly start to consider Lola the enemy, a shift that demands she view them as potentially dangerous. In short, the power structures aren't broken in the wake of a tyrant's death; they simply reassert themselves.

Importantly, almost every character from the show's original band of survivors is suddenly thrust into a leadership role in these first three episodes. Madison shares power with Walker; Daniel exercises some control over Lola and the dam. When Madison leaves in search of water, she leaves Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) in charge, with orders to maintain the water rationing. On his side, Walker leaves Crazy Dog (Justin Rain) in charge, but Crazy Dog's behavior is controlled to a large extent by Ofelia. As all this is happening, Troy's militia turns to Nick to lead them.

Each character assumes their new role with the intention of changing the system. Each finds that more difficult than they expected. Nick tells Alicia he plans to keep the militia under control and maintain the peace. Yet once the Black Hat faction begins to demand more water, he steps easily into Troy's shoes, standing guard before the well and threatening to kill Crazy Dog. Alicia, who's criticized her mother's secretive political dealings, decides to tell the camp the truth about the dwindling water supplies, expecting they will understand the situation and cooperate with one another. Instead, she sets off a fear-driven riot, with people trampling one another to make sure they have enough.

One can't predict where all of these new developments will ultimately lead, but for now, they've created a fascinating power structure. One of the hallmarks of post-apocalyptic narrative is its exploration of political ideology: society's complete destruction allows exploration of new possibilities of government. Fear the Walking Dead's sister series, The Walking Dead tends to explore these possibilities from outside. That is, Rick and company encounter one "government" after another, from Herschel's agrarian pacifism to the cannibalism at Terminus. In contrast, Fear the Walking Dead sets up the characters themselves as representatives of differing ideologies: Madison is driven by family and utilizes utilitarian tactics; Alicia is a humanitarian; Ofelia thinks along racial lines.

Even more interesting than their new leadership positions is the fact that the result is a system of difficult political lines being drawn between them. Madison finds herself at odds with Daniel over water. Ofelia faces off against Nick and Alicia. Alicia argues with her mother, and later with Nick. The conflicts Fear the Walking Dead has set up offer the potential to operate on both a global and personal level, a strategy that promises to produce impressive fireworks.

If there's a downside to this strategy, it's the heavy reliance on coincidental meetings they've used to set up these conflicts. I was on board when Daniel reappeared -- I always suspected he might have survived the fire -- and I accepted the chance meeting between him and Strand. When Madison unexpectedly finds Strand, however, the device begins to seem less believable. I fully expect Travis (Cliff Curtis) to show up again at some point; while there'll be some satisfaction in his return, that satisfaction must always be weighed against the lengths to which Fear the Walking Dead seems to want to stretch our willingness to suspend disbelief.


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