Something I’ve been thinking about lately is whether or not we need these fill-in-the-gap flashbacks on Fear the Walking Dead. For example, after Alicia reunited with her mom during the hotel’s walker attack, the next episode showed us how Madison and Victor were able to get to safety. Did we really need to see that? Was that time well spent? Would one or two lines of explanatory dialogue sufficed instead of a 10- or 15-minute-long flashback?
I consider this question again in “Date of Death.” Thanks to Madison’s impulsive move to switch on the hotel lights last episode, a crowd of locals amass in front of the hotel gates, pleading with the group to let them in. They make the harsh decision to keep the gates closed, but then Madison sees Travis among the refugees.
The title credits roll to make way for Travis’ flashback to Chris and what led to their split. We pick up seconds after Chris shot Mr. Suarez, the owner of the farm they invaded. Travis is still kneeling down and staring into the man’s lifeless eyes, while James is screaming from the bullet in his thigh. After a beat, Travis snaps back to reality and leaps to the boy’s aid. He notes the bullet went clean through the leg, so they don’t have to fish it out, and he’s soon sprinting towards the house to find any supplies.
He comes back with a needle and thread to stitch up James, who is shrieking in pain but jokes that he can handle it. His screams get louder when they turn him over, and Travis does what Alicia said in the previous episode she never needed: He sugarcoats the situation, promising James will recover.
Shortly after, Travis is burying the body of Mr. Suarez in a grave dug next to those of the other deceased family. He even hammers together a cross to mark it, but confesses, “I don’t even know your name.”
Night falls and Chris, Brandon, and Derek are palling around a campfire as they drink beer and cook chicken. Travis is sitting in the barn next to James, who’s lying on a mattress and joking that he’ll take any part of the chicken except the thigh. Travis asks about his level of pain, but James seems to be lying when he says it’s low. Travis whispers that he can’t help if he doesn’t know what’s really going on.
He then walks out of the barn to have a talk with Chris. He first tells him to wipe off the grease from his face. “You killed a man,” he says, “least you could do is let it affect your appetite.” When his son goes to take another sip from his beer, Travis smacks the can out of his hand and lays into him.
He asks what he’s thinking — if he’s even thinking anything at all — and calls the other boys savages. Typical of an infuriating teen trying to stand on his own, Chris retorts that he, too, is a savage. When asked about his remorse, he replies with a more chilling answer: “There is no more good, there’s no more bad, right or wrong. It’s us or them, kill or be killed.” It’s almost comical when Travis offers the reality check that Chris has only known these boys for two days, and his son, in turn, says (almost verbatim), “Sorry, not sorry.”
Chris then recalls his time in middle school, when he hid every day to dodge the football jocks who bullied him. He recalls how his dad told him the best way to deal was “to play along and to try and fit in.” But Travis notes Chris isn’t really acting, he’s becoming one of them. Becoming more cold to his father, Chris pleads with Travis to not rock the boat (to play along, if you will) because now he’s proven his worth as a medic. He says they need the guys. Travis believes otherwise, so he clarifies, “I do.”
NEXT: Putting a name to a face
We pick back up at the hotel gate, and it’s hard not to draw political comparisons to this moment: There’s a massive gate keeping Mexican citizens out of the hotel, but Madison’s pleas prompt the group to force an opening so Travis, an American, can slip through. Everyone else is left to shout in protest. Moments later, Madison and Travis are in one of the guest rooms, and he’s clearly disturbed by whatever happened with Chris. Madison tells him Nick wandered off somewhere after the fire, but she thinks he’s north in Tijuana. She then asks about Chris, and though he remains silent for a moment, he says, “I had no choice.” It sounds much more ominous than it really is.
The flashback takes hold again, and we see Chris, Brandon, and Derek waking up Travis and James in the barn by backing up the truck to the doors. They have plans to move out because they ate all the chicken, though Travis notes they could’ve stayed longer if they ate the eggs like he suggested, which ticks off Brandon. James is clearly not well enough to be moved in such a condition after only a week of recuperation, but the boys all want to head for San Diego — even though Travis said he saw it in flames, something Chris is now denying. Brandon shouts that this isn’t up for debate, and James, clearly fearful of something, promises he feels 100 percent.
Outvoted and outranked, Travis decides to take one last look at the Suarez graves and their house filled with photos and memorabilia. He looks through a bedside drawer and finds a license with a name he can finally engrave on Mr. Suarez’s tombstone: Elias. Travis asks Chris for the day’s date so he can mark it. He doesn’t know, and when he tries to hurry things along, Travis snaps back.
Back at the truck, the group reforms to move James. They each take a corner of his mattress and slide him into the trunk, where Travis and Chris sit to monitor him. As soon as the car starts moving, James groans from pain, though he pleads with Travis to not tell the guys to pull over. They get halfway down the dirt driveway before he passes out. They make it back to the farm, but Travis overhears Chris, Brandon, and Derek whispering by the campfire. He comes out of the barn to confront them and realizes they want to put James down.
Travis tries to convince them James just needs time for the blood to clot and then they can go, but they’re not buying it. So he snatches Brandon’s gun, promising to not let them kill James. Brandon isn’t impressed, teasing he doesn’t have the guts to kill them, but Travis spooks them by firing a warning shot at their feet. Before going inside to protect James, he tells Chris, “I’m doing this for you.”
Later, James wakes up to see Travis considering the gun, and he learns what his friends intend to do. He then explains to Travis the situation that happened with their friend Troy, someone the boys briefly mentioned in their first meeting. Troy was bitten and made the group promise to kill him before he turned into a walker. Brandon was supposed to do it, but he couldn’t, so James stepped in. Travis tries to explain that this is different — James wasn’t bitten — but James says it doesn’t matter, because they think he’s dying.
NEXT: Last words
This proves to be the most consistently frustrating aspect of these boys and of Chris. Yes, they’re young, possibly even insane, and are rebelling against Travis because he’s an authority figure come to lay down rules on their carefree lifestyle. But there’s no logic to their actions. They don’t think. There’s no reason for them to rush to San Diego if they can keep their friend alive for at least a little while longer — it’d maybe even save his life. They could’ve set up camp at the farm, a place that has no signs of walkers and had plenty of food before they dimwittedly decided to eat all the chicken. Chris claims their way is what they need to survive in the zombie apocalypse, but you need to be both fierce and smart — and Chris acts more on instincts than anything else.
In the morning, Chris knocks on the barn door, promising he just wants to talk and give his dad some food. Travis frisks him before letting him inside, and the two sit down for a chat. He says the other guys are off taking care of a walker they saw, which is already suspicious to Travis, but he lets it go when Chris appears to have realized the error of his ways. Chris says he knows what his dad was trying to teach him about how Mr. Suarez’s life still mattered, and how scared he is of Brandon wanting to kill James.
This all turns out to be a trick, of course. When Travis goes in for a hug, Chris calls for the other guys and wrestles his dad to the ground. Derek rushes in and sticks a gun to Travis’ head, while Brandon comes in to shoot James. Despite the boy’s shouts for mercy, despite Travis’ pleads, Brandon puts a bullet through his head. However, he is visibly horrified to do so, unlike Chris.
Later, as the three boys prepare to leave in the truck without him, Travis tries one more time to get through to his son. He tells him Mr. Suarez’s name was Elias and he was born on Feb. 12, the same day as Chris. Travis then impresses upon him the weight of his decision to leave, but Chris is unconvinced: “Your way, it doesn’t work — it can’t. You won’t do what needs to be done.”
He then tells his dad that what he saw as Chris’ horrific mistakes were just signs of him adapting to this world, a scarier notion when you look at how he’s become someone who preyed upon his father’s compassion to get what he wants. Chris continues by saying Travis was once able to make the necessary choices — when he had to shoot his ex-wife — but then he lost it. Travis is still begging his son to stay as they start to drive off. As he’s about to lose sight of him, he shouts the last words he’ll say to his son (for the time being, at least): “God damn you, Chris!”
The camera pans to show that Travis added another grave for James McCalister, and he’s seen walking mindlessly away from the farm. In the present at the hotel, Travis tells Madison he was walking for 10 days trying to find the ocean before he saw the hotel’s glowing sign. He says if he hadn’t seen that light, he would never have to tell a soul what he did. It seems a bit dramatic, given his son’s inclinations, but he explains he was supposed to be there for Chris and he left him. He argues he could’ve played along with all their horrific choices, concluding that he failed both his son and ex-wife.
NEXT: Madison and Alicia have a heart-to-heart
Travis apologizes to Madison for what he said at the vineyard, adding his biggest mistake was forgetting to tell Chris he loved him, lingering over those last words to him. He remembers what a huge heart his son had when he was little and blames himself for taking it away by breaking up his family. “All he saw was my disgust at what he became, what I let him become,” he says. “It’s all he’ll ever know.” It’s this speech that prompts Madison to go see Alicia, whom we find helping Andres tending to sick and injured patients in some parking garage.
We hear Andres noting how he’s only seen about a third of the patients and recommending letting the people into the hotel, but we’ll presumably get to that next week. Madison takes Alicia to the boardwalk, and as they gaze at the walkers stuck in the sand at low tide, she tells her the truth about her father, about how his fatal crash wasn’t an accident. She says she thought she was doing the right thing by keeping it from her, and while Alicia fights through tears, Madison reveals he left behind a suicide note. She wasn’t going to reveal what it said, but Alicia demands it. “He can be quite precise if he wanted to,” she disclaims. The note said simply: “I love you all, but enough’s enough.”
Madison then says Nick is the reason she kept it a secret — he’s so much like his dad, in the way he can light up a room with his smile and just as easily silence it with his mood. She apologizes again to Alicia, saying she deserves more, but promises she never loved her any less. “I just thought you were all right,” she says.
The two embrace, and though Madison never says those three words, Alicia replies, “I love you, too.”
When night falls, Travis is in the shower in that cliché, dramatic pose of resting his head against the wall as water pours down on his head. The camera then cuts to outside the hotel, where we see the backs of people walking towards the gate. Most of them are unfamiliar, but two faces are clearly identified as Brandon and Derek. But where’s Chris?
That’s the question we’re left with, and I have three possible answers: (1) He’s dead, which doesn’t really make sense for where this story seems to be going; (2) He proved too crazy for Brandon and Derek to handle, so they abandoned him; or (3) They’re about to pull off what they did with Travis: pretend to be nice to gain entry and then take what they want. The latter seems like a solid possibility, and segues back into my initial quandary: Was this catch-up flashback necessary?
Depending on where the story goes, it could be. Chris’ betrayal with James could foreshadow something bigger in scale to come — perhaps it even leads to a showdown with Travis, who has to make one of those tough decisions Chris criticized him for. Perhaps the flashback was merely to allow us to connect with Travis’ emotional revelation at the end, but if that’s the case, it could’ve been done with shorter, more concise scenes. We already know how awful Chris is becoming — the same goes for the guys he’s with — so if anything, those flashbacks were to show something about Travis, and they didn’t reveal anything more nuanced than what we already know.