Photo: Michael Desmond/AMC

Is this the same show as last week’s two-parter? “Teotwawki” is everything Fear The Walking Dead should be. There’s tension. There’s stakes. There’s a zombie head in a cage. It’s the strongest outing this lackluster spin-off has aired since its early first-season episodes, and it achieves this relative high by returning Fear The Walking Dead to The Walking Dead basics. The Otto family’s ranch/preppers’ paradise hews closely to the Greene’s farm, but instead of homespun folksiness there’s a dysfunctional menace. The Otto family is the perfect foil for the Clark family: Beyond the surface parallels of the Otto patriarch with two children and the Clark matriarch with two children, there’s the sense that these are two families with natural leaders at their helms who have very different ideas of how to survive. Each can be ruthless.

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It’s an ideal set-up that almost forgives the extremely clumsy path that took the Clarks to the ranch. With Madison becoming more Rick-like every day, and Alicia leaning into her newfound hardness, the Clarks are on track to be the same sort of hard-but-fair protagonist we love to root for in Rick. The last clumsy note is still Nick, who the writers seem to want to act as a wild-card well of possibilities but who more often than not ends up pulling the show down with his inanities and under-baked motivations.

Speaking of motivations, we learn more about Troy’s psychology in “Teotwawki,” and while the whole “he’s a psychopath because his mom was an alcoholic” reeks of the “tough childhood = bad adult” trope, the verbal sparring between Madison and Troy went a long way toward bringing him to life. It’s also nice to see Madison’s high school guidance counselor roots coming through.

But the real highlight this episode was meeting Alicia’s new friends. These teenagers’ version of Bible study is smoking weed in the post-apocalyptic version of your parents’ basement, only this group brings out a zombie head named Jeff instead of playing video games. It’s twisted, it’s memorable, and it’s one of the funnest ideas the zombie writers have had in a long time. The teens have never been “out there,” fighting the zombies, so they still have plenty of youthful angst to air. I hope we spend more time with them in future episodes. I hope Jeff gets a backstory.

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If Alicia and Jeff are the high point of “Teotwawki,” the low point goes, again, to Victor. His story is so detached from the Clarks’ that it’s reasonable to wonder why he’s still in the show at all. He’s far away from the ranch and looks to be stuck with his old friend and new adversary. And the man who gives him water isn’t enough to compensate for the amount of time his storyline takes away from the show’s real focus.

Stray observations:

  • I love it when a show cold opens with something that makes you go “wait, am I on the right channel?”
  • I shudder to think what the Otto storyline will do to bolster preppers’ sense of smugness, but the Clinton-era video is such fun.
  • Did Nick wash his hair this week? No.

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