By Rich Cross
After a shaky start for the show’s final season, a much-needed hike in quality arrives in the shape of fourth episode King County, as Morgan returns home in search of a personal epiphany and an overdue sense of closure. The story is once again afflicted by the same shortcomings which recur in so many of the show’s scripts. But this latest instalment exhibits the kind of heart, focus and clarity of intent that has been notably absent in the recent output of the writers’ room.
In a fragile state of mind, Morgan has made his way back to his old family abode to complete a distressing personal mission that he has been avoiding for years. He wants to put an end to his dead son Duane’s existence as a shambling cadaver and give him a proper burial. But he finds it too emotionally harrowing even to enter the house. Morgan had always intended this to be a solo pilgrimage, but his surrogate daughter Mo and his partner Grace have tracked him to this location. The two of them agree to help Morgan finish his agonising but necessary task, before the trio are surprised by the arrival of Dwight and Sherry who are soon backed by PADRE enforcers. Ordered by Shrike to capture and return Morgan to PADRE, the pair know that failure will mean that they will never see their recuperating son Finch again.
Earlier episodes in this season have tried to elicit an emotional response from viewers about the abrupt fate of characters who have only just been introduced. King County takes a different and far better approach, exploring the angst and turmoil of one of the show’s longest established characters confronted by an existential dilemma that has been foreshadowed since the very first episode of the Walking Dead.
This allows writers Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg to have Morgan reminisce about his first encounter with Rick Grimes, and the grief which prevented him from putting a bullet in the head of his now-walker wife Jenny. These continuity references, together with Morgan’s retrieval of the (needs-no-maintenance) rifle that Rick left for him more than a decade earlier, avoid feeling forced or artificial, largely thanks to Lennie James’ astute performance.
What James has always captured so well is the conflict between resilience and fragility that defines Morgan. He’s tightly wound, intense and utterly focused on whatever he’s working on. The ambiguity about Duane’s true fate is something that had been threaded into the fabric of Morgan’s life-story in Fear, and became a recurring obsession. This is very much James’ episode, as Morgan is afforded some payoff for those years of emotional paralysis.
Morgan is also someone who’s more grounded when he’s connected to people willing to show that they care about him. It is in fact the binds of family, and particularly those of parenthood, that become the episode’s central theme. Morgan is still haunted by hallucinations of wife Jenny, and is obsessed by the need to find and release his son. Mo and Grace want to convince Morgan that he has a living family that cares for and needs him. And Dwight and Sherry are hunting Morgan in the hope that they will be rewarded by being reunited with their own son.
The action sequences that punctuate Morgan’s quest are reasonably well staged by director Kenneth Requa, especially those in the claustrophobic and melancholy house as the flames and the walkers close in. There are ultimatums aplenty and, while there are still completely arbitrary switches in allegiance that are the staple of many a Fear script, these are not quite so glaring here. It’s still irksome how often characters’ unconscionable behaviour towards others is immediately dismissed at the next flip of their loyalties. The writers on Fear rarely opt for subtlety, and it’s hard to ignore that many of the episode’s emotional beats veer towards the melodramatic.
One of the more enticing aspects of the show’s evolving mythology is the effectiveness or otherwise of radiation therapy as a treatment for walker infection. Is it a form of extended palliative care, a temporary respite that puts the sufferer into remission, or is it something approaching a cure? A shocking event at the close of the episode puts that question into sharp relief once again. That final twist is a sucker-punch for Morgan, tearing apart his momentary feelings of absolution and cruelly exposing his inability to guarantee the safety of those closest to him.
King County does little to advance the central conceit of the conflict with PADRE, but its focus on the disabling mental agonies suffered by Morgan merits the attention and feels like character development that matters.
New episodes of FEAR THE WALKING DEAD – SEASON 8 premiere on Mondays on AMC in the UK
Read our previous reviews of FEAR THE WALKING DEAD below: