This Fear The Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
Fear The Walking Dead Season 4 Episode 13
Since the introduction of its new villain a few episodes back, I’ve bemoaned Fear The Walking Dead’s conspicuous absence of common decency. “Blackjack” looks to remedy this on two fronts, first by bringing back the preternaturally optimistic and lovelorn John Dorie. And second, and perhaps more importantly, by finally giving Luciana a real purpose in this latter half of the season. The success of this episode hinges not so much on kindness as it does on happenstance—and a lot of it at that. If you can suspend disbelief long enough to get past an awful lot of coincidences, “Blackjack” is very entertaining in a way that the show hasn’t been since losing Nick. And for diehard Fear loyalists, it’s good to see Strand at his best—and by that I really mean Strand at his very worst.
Strand has never been a paragon of virtue. He’s cowardly and selfish, and favors material possessions and a good wine cellar above and beyond helping his fellow man. So pairing him with a do-gooder like John Dorie, then marooning the two of them on a small island, is ingenious from a storytelling standpoint. Sure, they’re both practical, each in their own way. John’s practicality is borne of optimism, whereas Strand’s is a pessimistic reaction to the current state of the world. John is the kind to earn what he has, taking each day as an invitation to do better and be better; Strand wants everything handed to him on a silver platter. Which calls to mind the parable of the ant and the grasshopper. Except in this case, the ant is very much willing to save the grasshopper from itself.
It’s easy to take for granted how much Strand has lost since the world ended. He lost his lover, his drinking buddy, his Texas mansion. Like so many other survivors, Strand’s very existence is defined by loss. His bitterness is a sensible reaction to the trauma he’s endured. If only he had a taste for lemonade, for all the lemons the world has thrown his way.
John, on the other hand, sees only lemonade, even when all he has is the memory of lemons to keep him going. I could very easily write several glowing paragraphs on how John Dorie possesses enough hope to buoy every single survivor—Strand included. I could even go on to say that John’s makeshift rafts are the literal interpretation of “hope floats.”
And yet even John has his limits. Saddled with Strand’s dead weight and faced with a hungry gator, not even true love is enough to propel them safely across troubled waters. I’ll be honest, when John ate the candy he was saving for June, I felt a real pang of sadness for his heavy heart. I know John Dorie can’t be in every single episode, but this season of Fear is certainly better for it whenever this kindhearted sharpshooter is onscreen.
As for Luciana, the episode makes the most of Danay Garcia, who brings some much-needed empathy with her. The last we saw of her, Luciana was grappling with her place in a world that seemingly held no real purpose for her. The show could have easily doubled down on her aimlessness. Instead, Fear doubles down on hope by pairing her with a character we would least expect.
In writing this, I realize her chance encounter with Clayton (Stephen Hendersen) is exactly the kind of convenient happenstance that’s hard to see past. The plot twist—that Clayton is actually the benevolent trucker Polar Bear—is likewise contrived and not much of a surprise (at least within the context of this episode). The real groaner for me is Clayton’s dying wish for a beer. In that moment, how could anyone watching not see a direct through line leading to one of those roadside boxes—and to one of Jim’s IPAs?
Luciana’s determination paired with an incredibly likable Hendersen as Clayton renders much of this predictable inevitability moot. The more Luciana widened her search, the more I wanted her to honor this dying man’s wish. In the end, his random acts of kindness come full circle, paid forward by grifters, and thieves, and capitalists, and those simply seeking to redeem themselves. This is the very notion of hopefulness that’s been absent from the latter half of Fear’s fourth season. It’s because of this that I’m willing to see past some dodgy plot contrivances (and one very large gator).
One thing I found interesting about “Blackjack” is a comment Jim makes early in the episode, when he grows annoyed with the amount of stops the truck is forced to make. “What the hell is this, an airport shuttle?” he asks in what is probably an unintentionally meta moment. Diehard fans are probably thinking the same thing about characters like Sarah and Wendell—and yes, even Jim himself.
A final thought: Who could be the one person Clayton claims he doesn’t want to see—if not Tonya Pinkins’ character? Is she his estranged daughter? This episode’s circular logic, with its many coincidences, strongly suggests that survivors on both sides of the moral divide are more connected than they know. (Think of “Blackjack” as a riff on Robert Altman’s sprawling film adaptation of Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts, only with a storm tying disparate storylines together, instead of an earthquake.) Could it be that this mystery woman is trying to undo Clayton’s good deeds—out of spite?