This Fear the Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
Fear the Walking Dead Season 5 Episode 12
Here we are, midway through the back half of Season 5, and yet Fear the Walking Dead feels as aimless as ever. It makes me sad to contemplate what’s become of this underdog show I used to love, once upon a time. We didn’t know how good we had it, back in the Dave Erickson days. Fear’s first three seasons were far from perfect, and yet they had a darker, more subversive tone that the series has been lacking since Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg took the creative reins in Season 4. The original cast was largely gutted as Fear seemingly devoured itself from the inside out, leaving behind a hollow facsimile of the show that made its bones following the Clark family through the early days of the zombie apocalypse.
That’s not to say Chambliss and Goldberg haven’t delivered some strong episodes along the way. This season’s “Channel 4” is both visceral and fun in a way that manages to keep the narrative fresh and inventive—no small feat after five seasons. But season 5 has marked a real low point for the show, serving as a grim reminder that perhaps Fear has run its course.
Unfortunately, “Ner Tamid” does little to buck this downward trend. The episode also continues the trend of adding new characters to an already burgeoning cast. This week’s newest face is Rabbi Jacob Kessner (Peter Jacobson), the lone occupant of Temple B’Nai Israel. Like the Bridgeview Mall in “210 Words Per Minute,” the wayward synagogue is largely untouched and unnoticed by the living, though it still has its share of the undead to contend with. That Charlie finds the temple almost seems like a miracle. At least, that’s what Rabbi Kessner would have her believe. In Charlie, he finds someone to talk to; in the Rabbi, she finds a place for the growing caravan to call home. This is the germ of a great episode, but the idea never takes purchase the way it could.
Indeed, “Ner Tamid” gets bogged down by unintentionally silly moments that go against the grain of this show’s DNA. The episode’s not “San Antonio split” bad, or even “beer-shaped hot-air balloon” bad, but it’s pretty darn close, especially when you factor in John and June’s attempted parking lot escape. But more on Fear’s “shoots and ladders” scene in a bit.
Any time the Walking Dead universe dabbles in religion, it tends toward Christianity. (Think TWD’s Father Gabriel, or season 5’s “Them,” in which a group of survivors hiding in a barn is spared from a tornado’s wrath.) So it’s nice to see the scales tip toward Judaism. Rabbi Kessner’s faith isn’t a plot gimmick, nor is it the entire sum of his character. Yes, he’s devout enough to stay Kosher even during the apocalypse. And yes, he does ask John Dorie to wear a yarmulke (which the cowboy does without hesitation or complaint). And, yes, the rabbi is committed to keeping lit the eponymous ner tamid (the eternal flame). Keeping this flame lit is, in the rabbi’s words, “a mitzvah unto itself.”
But in the end, what defines Rabbi Kessner is his lack of faith. Were it not for his doubts, he surely would have perished along with his congregation at the beginning of the end. Again, this is a compelling idea, the notion that a disbelief in God spared the rabbi a fate worse than death, but Fear doesn’t know what to do with this revelation. Rabbi Kessner doesn’t seem to be consumed by the same kind of guilt or grief that routinely incapacitates Morgan. If we’re to believe Kessner, he’s just going through the motions, invoking the rhythms of a bygone world where tradition and faith once went hand in hand.
In other words, the rabbi’s eternal flame is just smoke and mirrors, nothing to see here.
As for the aforementioned parking lot escape, it’s easy to see how using a ladder as a portable bridge to bypass zombies might sound like a great idea, but in execution, not so much. Even when you remove John and June’s obvious plot armor from the equation, it never feels like the pair is in much peril anyway. This whole “Jacob’s ladder” scene feels more like a romp, a detour until they’re reunited with the caravan.
The caravan’s nomadic existence is certainly something we haven’t seen before in the Walking Dead universe. At least, not quite on this scale. While there’s safety in numbers, the logistics behind supporting a caravan of this size flies in the face of logic. You’d figure this far into the apocalypse that the country would be enduring the kind of scarcity that plagued Depression-era America. Think the Dust Bowl, and John Steinbeck’s heartbreaking tale of desperation and sacrifice, The Grapes of Wrath. We’ve gotten very little of that in Fear, where everyone has walkie-talkies and malls are still somehow well-stocked with everything from medication to jellybeans. I’m not asking for realism here—just some semblance of it.
Which brings us to Dwight and Sarah, whose tanker truck has been separated from the rest of the convoy when Logan’s crew finds their temporary camp. This leads to a very abbreviated chase followed by a laughable “going down with the ship” agreement that is almost immediately rendered null and void when John and June roll up in the SWAT truck to save the day. This isn’t drama, it’s just a facsimile of it. After five seasons, viewers deserve a show that’s committed to legitimately upping the stakes every week, even if it means losing characters along the way.
Put another way, Fear is a lot like Rabbi Kessner: The show is simply going through the motions to reconnect with a bygone world that’s never coming back.
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