In the world of Fear the Walking Dead, one thing is certain: What is dead will rise again. It could take two seconds, two minutes, or two hours, but the fact remains that a lifeless corpse will inevitably transform into a monstrous, bloodthirsty machine. So perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised at the way this formerly dead-on-arrival show, which shambled its way aimlessly through five meandering episodes, abruptly jolted to life in the eleventh hour in an explosive, riveting finale that ended in one of the most heartbreaking deaths in Walking Dead history.
This show has billed itself as a “family drama” above all, a doomed tactic that led to a hopelessly staid first three episodes in which Madison (Kim Dickens), Travis (Cliff Curtis), and their gang of kids fell into the same ol’ apocalypse trap that’s bogged so much of Fear’s Georgia-set counterpart: characters spending episodes on end bickering about who’s in charge, where to go, and what to do rather than, y’know, doing anything.
But with the introduction of the callous, self-serving soldiers of the National Guard, the cowardly truth about Cobalt, Daniel Salazar’s (Ruben Blades) grisly past, and above all, the rich, mysterious Strand (Colman Domingo, the closest thing we’ve gotten to a black James Bond), Fear finally managed to pull together all the elements it needed for a terrifying, action-driven zombie drama that—surprise!—will apparently continue next season on, of all places, a yacht in the Pacific Ocean. (Zombies can’t swim…can they?)
In fact, in its brightest moments, Fear has managed a time-honored zombie tale tradition that has eluded its companion show for several seasons now: It actually has something to say. The Walking Dead loves delving into the psyches of its tortured characters and exploring the limits of humanity, but Fear seems to be aiming higher by pointing to the rot of wealth and commercialism that made modern-day Los Angeles so susceptible to a zombie attack (pity the souls who perished in some kind of sporting arena, the second-worst place to die in L.A. after the freeway.)
And it points to the arrogance and unreliability of governmental authority—embodied perfectly in the National Guard soldier who took bribes from Strand in exchange for a ride out of the compound. Hours after extorting Strand for not one, but two diamond-studded cufflinks, the man ended up lying there helpless as a walker ate him alive. “Please. Kill me,” he pleaded. “You’re well on your way,” Strand replies coldly, leaving him to die. The moment is all the more delicious (sorry) when you remember another soldier’s hubris-filled boast: “We’re the ones with the guns. We can do whatever we want.”
Sunday night’s finale came with a number of stone-cold badass moments like Strand’s, not the least of which was Daniel’s casual stroll through the National Guard’s line of fire at the compound. With two assault rifles pointed at him, the grizzled survivor of El Salvador’s civil war (a deep, painful character history that, as some have pointed out, is of the type seldom explored with Latin American characters on primetime TV) said, almost flippantly, “You should save your ammunition.” He was right: a thousands-strong horde of walkers was ambling toward the guards, ready to tear down what semblance of security they had built with those all-powerful guns.
I could go on about all the stellar moments in Fear’s first season finale but the terror-inducing hallway sequence in which Nick and Strand—who had seemed so cool and in control until then—became trapped behind a card-activated door, with lights flickering on and off, panicked screams ringing out, and a look of sad acceptance crossing Nick’s face for a moment before Liza swooped in with a (briefly malfunctioning) key card was a particular standout.
Ah, and Liza. Poor Liza, the tough-as-nails nursing student played by Orange Is the New Black’s beloved Elizabeth Rodriguez, held her son one last time before she walked out onto the rocks by Strand’s opulent beach house, exposed the lethal scratches on her side and admitted to her ex-husband’s new girlfriend (ouch) that she had been infected. That her last onscreen emotion was tear-soaked devastation—not defiance or the quiet acceptance she’d displayed moments before Travis butted in—made her death feel that much more unfair. (Screw Litchfield, we wanted a zombie-killing, teen-wrangling Madison-Liza superteam.)
Seeing these characters begin to kill in earnest also marked a significant turning point that almost—almost—made the slog of the series’ first few episodes worth it. Watching a screaming Ofelia bash a zombie’s skull in simply wouldn’t have been as jarring if we hadn’t already spent hours and hours mostly bored by her. Maybe that was Fear the Walking Dead’s endgame after all: lull us to sleep and then violently yank the rug out from under our feet. At any rate, we’ll be watching when Season 2 premieres and this zombie saga takes to the high seas.