Coming off one of their strongest episodes, the self-contained “100” with the focus solely on a returning Daniel (Rubén Blades), Fear the Walking Dead pull us back into life at the supposedly safe Broke Jaw Ranch where Madison is holed up with Nick and Alicia, trying to prove their value to the suspicious community. “Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame” brings the ranch’s curious history to the forefront straight from it’s awkwardly quick cold-opener in which one of several founders – the first we, as the audience, hear of Otto having partners who helped start the ranch – awakes to find his wife has turned, making the immediate decision to end both their lives which spills over into their house-on-the-hill burning down.
The death of a founder spurs Otto to tease a little exposition about the history of the ranch, as uninteresting as it is, which only really serves to bring a bit of depth to the character. Otherwise, the first quarter of this episode is spent watching Madison as she prepares to head on out with Troy and a few others to a seemingly dead outpost. Much of the mystery which surrounded the ranch when our protagonists first arrived in episode two has fizzled with the slow-moving plot, leaving it on the characters – namely Otto, Jake and Troy – to add a bit of flavour to FTWD’s modest rise in quality.
The most meaty material that comes from Otto’s development is a growing bond with Nick, which has potential as long as it keeps moving in the kind of faux father-son arc it seems to be. The deeper implications behind their few scenes together gets at the heart of what I assume is this show’s central theme which, similarly to it’s big sister The Walking Dead, is how humanity changes in response to this zombified world. The Walking Dead has been milking this central question for awhile now, mostly with great results, but Fear the Walking Dead is still rudimentary in that sense, with Nick apparently only beginning to realise that the undead aren’t the biggest threats out there – humans are; humans who have reverted back to savagery now that supplies are thin, zombies are everywhere, and the entire world has gone to shit.
Madison’s excursion with Troy seems to further highlight the single mother’s cunning side. Her attempt to undermine Troy’s authority with mind games is an excellent way to elevate the more equipped-for-the-apocalypse side of her character, strengthening her now that we no longer have Travis to look to as the show’s underdog-badass. This excursion also brings us to one of the most disconcerting moments a horror TV show has displayed in quite some time, a lone man sitting on a cliff citing “The Little Man Who Wasn’t There” while a crow graphically picks at his exposed brain. Zombie’s chewing up people is old hat now; showing this kind of horror on-screen is rare, even for a show like this – even for The Walking Dead – and it’s ballsy moves like this that the show needs to start taking in order to truly set the tone.
It wasn’t gratuitous either (unlike when TWD killed off “you know who”); the crow scene was there to demonstrate the ruthlessness of what seems like the show’s new big bad – Walker. He’s a native Indian whose ancestors lay claim to the land on which Broke Jaw Ranch sits, and while he’s been fought off by the settlers numerous times, apparently he and his crew are ready to take things to the next level. Madison has particularly ties to this because this is the same group that tried to shoot down the helicopter, and unintentionally killed Travis.
The only part of Madison’s excursion that didn’t work was a brief detour, before arriving at the outpost, to a flipped-over prison bus. The writing is still ridiculous enough to expect us to believe that all the zombified prisoners and guards would just stay in one place for all the time, just waiting for a self-contained and rather forced montage of good ol’ fashioned zombie killing.
Even worse was the short stretches of time spent with Daniel and Strand, who have left everyone else behind and gone road-tripping on back to the hotel to find Ofelia. I’m still not quite sure why Strand needed to lie to Daniel and make him believe his daughter was alive waiting for him, but that plan quickly backfired once they reached what now seems like an absolute death-zone. Daniel leaves Strand to battle hordes of zombies by himself while speeding off; a frustrating development if it means that the writers will now have even more separate storylines to try and juggle.
Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
You can catch Fear the Walking Dead in Australia express from the U.S on FX, Foxtel, Mondays at 7:30pm AEST.
Feature Image: Michael Desmond/AMC.