It’s notable that “Cobalt,” the first truly excellent episode of Fear the Walking Dead, begins with a one-sided discussion in a kind of detention camp, a speech of sorts delivered by Colman Domingo‘s Strand, a wondrous, insidious speaker and self-professed “closer.” As the episode opens, he’s picking at Travis’s troubled neighbor, the one who the army implored Travis to quell, and quickly finds his soft spot, remarking that the neighbor’s wife has a good shape, a body that could attract a protective mate. Soon enough, the neighbor has lost it and is carted off by the army to some unpleasant fate, leaving Strand alone in a cell with Nick. It’s one of a few times where the eloquence of speech, the directness and unfathomable power of language, becomes a real tool in the show, even as the world begins to give way to something far more primal and horrifying.
Strand strikes at something unsentimental and prophetic: the basic charms and abilities that allow certain people to live or, perhaps more pointedly, survive. The neighbor isn’t ready for that, and there’s a sense at first that Travis, miles away from the camp, is in the same way. Despite being, by all evidence, a more humane and intelligent person than Lt. Moyers (Jamie McShane), the head of the most local army unit, he is too cut down by a diptych of convincing streaks of dialogue from Moyers. McShane’s character wards off Travis’s anger and suspicion by belittling him and proving that he depends on the men who shoot the guns, no matter how he may feel about their tactics. In essence, their exchanges boil down to what makes for a survivor and a leader, and though there’s more than a little legitimacy to what Moyers tells Travis, it’s ultimately proven that the hard-edged mentality doesn’t exempt him from the plague of the undead. Most times, Moyers can get you out of the room, but Travis is the type of guy who knows not to go into the room in the first place.
Moyers condescending tests of will with Travis are also, ultimately, one-sided and tinny, productions meant too turn him away from the ugly, terrifying truth of the situation. The army, it turns out, are preparing to leave the area, executing those they see as a threat beforehand, including the sick and, in their view, undesirable elements of society. This information comes from no-less terrifying means, being tortured out of the kidnapped Andrew (Shawn Hatosy), a young soldier and Ofelia’s lover, by Daniel, who himself employed forceful, simple words to excuse and explain his truly horrid acts. As the character has hinted before, he’s seen similar actions and secrecy before, during dictatorships or violent coups, and the historical strain of humankind’s propensity for brutality and torture when threatened or fearful is reflected in Daniel’s own personal capacity to hurt others to get what he wants or needs; Griselda’s (Patricia Reyes Spíndola) dying admission of knowing Daniel’s true nature proved as haunting as anything the show’s produced thus far. As much as Travis is angered by the methods, as he was with Moyers, he also know the importance of the information Andrew gives over, even if he needs the more level-headed and hardened Madison.
Unlike Madison and Daniel, Travis hasn’t had to kill before, but he’s wise enough to know what he doesn’t know. Wisdom, however, is a long way off for Chris and Alicia, and the show’s writers show insight and attentiveness in depicting them as both increasingly unnerving and pragmatic. The scenes in the absent family’s home would count as one of the series most remarkable sequences thus far, which takes note of still-burgeoning hormones in the two teens, despite their familial closeness and, ya know, the zombies and all. As they dress up in other peoples clothes, adult’s clothes by the look of it, the show indulges in a bit of expressive symbolism, hinting at the two characters essentially taking on responsibilities that most adults aren’t equipped to handle, even as they are very much still teenagers. As they trash the people’s home, they are both acting like kids and tapping into a darker part of human behavior, feelings that are eerie and unstable if not controlled correctly. As unsettling as their seeming lack of empathy is, however, there’s also a sense that this ability to adapt to chaos like wild animals may also turn out to be the very thing that keeps them alive, when words no longer work.
★★★★★ Excellent — Awards material