Photo: Richard Foreman Jr./AMC

Fear The Walking Dead sacrificed a lot to get the Clarks to the Otto compound. The first two episodes were very clumsy, as the writers knew where the Clarks needed to go but seemed to have little interest in making their journey there meaningful or interesting. Now that the Clarks are at the ranch, they should stay put: The third episode of the series, which took place entirely in the Clarks’ new home, has been the highlight of the season so far, because it focused firmly on the by turns complementary and incompatible ways of these two families. So when last week’s episode lost steam by switching gears to Victor and Daniel, I went into this week hopeful for another “Teotwawki.”

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“Burning In Water, Drowning In Flame,” though, promptly took Madison and Troy off the ranch to find the downed helicopter, and for the first time blended the Clarks’ stories with Victor and Daniel’s. The blaze that opens the episode raises more questions than it answers: Why and how did Martha become a zombie? Aren’t there fences to keep zombies from wandering in? She could have died of natural causes and turned after, and the fact that the house and their bodies burned means the rest of the ranch won’t know she was a zombie. But instead of teasing what a zombie in the compound could mean, this episode seems only interested in the fire as a vehicle to set up Nick and Jeremiah Otto’s relationship.

I’d watch Madison and Troy’s verbal sparring for the entire hour, but the dynamics between Nick and Big Otto aren’t compelling enough for the amount of time this episode spends on it. It’s still not clear what Nick’s motivations are—he now wants to stay at the ranch, with no reason given for the dramatic change of heart—and his under-baked character sinks the scenes he spends with Otto. This could be the beginning of an interesting dynamic, an opening for a shift in alliances: Is Otto trying to get Nick on his side, recognizing the threat of the Clark family? Does Otto see Nick as a possible protege? The take-away from “Burning In Water, Drowning In Flame” is: Who knows?

Meanwhile, Victor leads Daniel back to the hotel even though he knows Ofelia isn’t there. Seems like a dumb move on Victor’s part, who so far has shown himself to be a pretty cunning guy. There’s a lot of “why’s?!” in Victor and Daniel’s journey from water dam to hotel, but the biggest one is why Victor didn’t own up to Daniel after he was no longer in danger at the dam. The second biggest one is why, once starting down the road of making Daniel believe his daughter was still at the hotel, he didn’t let Daniel figure out for himself that Ofelia had left. The writing is weak in general, but doubly so because we know Victor is smarter than this.

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But what fun it is to see Madison and Troy team up, then battle for power when Madison sees Troy’s leadership lacking. There’s potential for odd-couple favorite à la Arya and The Hound here. I only hope we get more of it. Their trek gives what could potentially be a great new wrinkle to the season, though it seems like a lost opportunity to ignore the Native Americans’ perspective—they look like a way more interesting group than the ranchers. Maybe we’ll get to know them better in future episodes. (For the love of god, Fear The Walking Dead writers, please make the Native American characters actual characters, and not turn their involvement into a cowboys vs. Indians stereotype.) For now, it’s nice to know that the compound will have external foes in addition to the internal conflicts brewing between the Clark and Otto families.

Speaking of Clark and Otto families, Alicia and Jake have a potential Romeo and Juliet situation going. After hitting it off with the creepy party basement kids and their friend Jeff, Alicia is back to brooding about her stolen youth. She is absolutely right to refuse Charles Bukowski from Jake—there’s got to be better reading around, even after the apocalypse. A moping teenager isn’t that interesting even in a show that’s not set in a zombie world, and Alicia’s too isolated right now for her story to matter much. Like much of this episode, it all feels like set up for something more interesting down the road.

Stray observations:

  • I like how matter-of-factly the scene deals with Alicia having sex. She’s a teenager, having sex like most teenagers do, and the show treats it pretty normally.
  • Did Nick wash his hair this week? No.
  • This week’s great gore scene: A crow picking the fresh meat of a man’s brain while he’s still alive, sitting up in a chair spouting nonsense words.

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