Fear the Walking Dead is confusing now. Characters we got to know on previous seasons or The Walking Dead don't behave like they used to. Motivations are undercooked. Conversations repeat. The geography can't be mapped. There was a hot air balloon shaped like a beer bottle. It's like the show crash-landed into the Zone from Stalker in the Season 5 premiere, and reality is unstable. People aren't even dying. Eight episodes without a death is unprecedented on either show in the franchise.
In the Season 5 midseason finale, Morgan (Lennie James) and his merry band of rescuers finally got the plane they'd spent the half-season trying to repair back in the air and went home. They flew away from the melting down nuclear power plant with the new friends they picked up while they were on the other side of the mountains, Dwight (Austin Amelio), Grace (Karen David), and the orphan kids who have not yet done anything to make their presence on the show feel necessary. Before and after they got the plane in the air, there were action sequences that felt inconsequential because there was clearly no real danger. Obviously, they're not going to leave John Dorie (Garret Dillahunt) behind no matter how self-sacrificing he acts, and of course he's going to jump into the plane at the last minute, and there's no question if they'll be able to land the plane even if the runway lights have gone out. Every action sequence feels like the first act setpiece in a PG-13 adventure movie.
Around that plot development of the return home, a whole bunch of "hmm?" stuff happened:
- Logan (Matt Frewer), the guy we met for two minutes in the premiere when he who tricked them into thinking they were flying out to help him so he could take their home base, decided the home base didn't have the notebook he was looking for, so he left without incident. He came back a little bit later to ask the rescuers if they had the notebook. Luciana (Danay Garcia) did, so he asked if they all would help him find what sounds like an active oil refinery, but the dialogue was so imprecise that it's hard to be sure.
- The dialogue has been getting frustratingly vague and simplistic, to the point where we're watching conversations like this one between Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) and Morgan:
"What do we do now?"
"We're gonna make it back. Then we do what I said. We keep looking for people to help, but we make sure we're living, too."
"How do we do that?"
"I don't know. It's what we're going to have to figure out, Alish."
Limp dialogue has been a problem around Morgan since The Walking Dead, where the ghost of a man he watched die followed him around saying "You know what it is" for several episodes.
- Salazar (Ruben Blades) returned from "seeing an old friend" or whatever he was doing when he left a few episodes ago. His explanation for why he came back was especially confounding. "My daughter Ofelia, she's been gone for awhile now, but I couldn't let her go and let myself say goodbye, but now I could," he told Charlie (Alexa Nisenson). "So I'm back." Well, that was easy!
- We retroactively got an explanation for why the rescuers had to fly over mountains (mountains I don't recall ever seeing, even in CGI) instead of driving: the roads are deteriorating and the gasoline is going bad. Sure, whatever.
- Alicia is apparently fine after getting a mouthful of irradiated walker blood in last week's episode. Grace, who had been warning everyone to stay far, far away from the extra-deadly growlers from the moment she arrived on the show, was like, "You're going to be OK." Alicia answered that there's no way for Grace to know that, but Grace seemed weirdly confident that Alicia was just peachy. We'll keep an eye on Alicia for symptoms when the show returns, but if that's really the end of that, that's anticlimactic to an unprofessional degree.
- John proposing to June (Jenna Elfman) with a hard candy wrapper twisted into a ring was a nice moment, at least.
Fear the Walking Dead feels increasingly adrift. It started Season 5 with some strong episodes, especially the premiere and the episode that introduced Dwight, and Al (Maggie Grace) and Isabelle's (Sydney Lemmon) standalone episode was terrific, even though it seemed to exist entirely for the purpose of building hype for the Rick Grimes movie. The three episodes since then have been the weakest since the show rebooted, which is cause for concern.
Fear used to be a post-apocalyptic family drama, but since the second half of Season 4 it's mostly been a show about the derring-do of survivors faced with external obstacles — high school English teachers would characterize it as "man vs. nature." Sometimes that works if the stakes feel high enough, like in the episodes of 4B about the hurricane, but in this run of episodes, the main question driving the plot was, "Will they be able to fix their plane?" That is just not the kind of conflict most fans want from this show. The Walking Dead shows are at their best when they're exploring the gray areas of what people have to do to survive with morally ambiguous characters on both sides of the conflict. Fear the Walking Dead isn't that anymore. It's about to become Mad Max, where people are trying to secure gasoline. Hopefully, the people working at the refinery are more interesting than the kids from Season 5A.
Fear is still capable of quality, it's just not the best version of itself right now.
Fear the Walking Dead Season 5 will return Sunday, Aug. 11 at 9/8c on AMC.