There’s something almost reassuring about seeing a large group of the undead slowly advancing on our protagonists. It’s confirmation that we’re in a dangerous land—that our assumptions are correct, and violence is a perpetual concern that could erupt at any second. Instead of waiting for the other shoe to drop, once the empties appear, the characters can go, “Right, there’s the potential horrifying death I’ve been expecting,” and get to work scrambling to survive. From the moment the billboards for “Daquiritown” start appearing in this episode, two things are apparent: We’re going to see a very crappy tourist trap, and there will be zombies there. Let’s do this.
A lot of World Beyond’s early stumbles are starting to smooth out. The series is beginning to find a groove for its storytelling format, balancing a “side mission of the week” plot device (in this case, building a boat to cross the Mississippi river) with flashbacks for a particular character, sort of a combination of Lost and Z Nation without the absurdism. The wafer-thin characterizations are slowly being filled in, if not fully then at least to the point where they seem believably human. And the performances are starting to lock into place as well, as the actors find the souls of these restless people trying to do right by each other. Unfortunately, that leaves the real problem with the series highlighted in Technicolor visibility, a glaring issue that needs addressing: the writing.
“Madman Across The Water” is nothing if not a testament to how clunky writing can sink a promising setup. Right from the start, the dialogue not only struggles to sound natural, but is downright harmful to the concepts that are supposed to be conveyed by it. (The script is credited to Rohit Kumar, but this has been a problem for World Beyond from the start.) Exhibit A is the opening voiceover, meant to be the book that Elton’s mom was writing when she died. Oof. Elton’s mom is a bad writer! It’s not a good look when a 14-year-old kid’s contribution to a book sounds as reasonable—if not more so—than everything his parent had written before him. It’s the equivalent of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip showing the painfully unfunny sketches that were supposed to be brilliant, incisive comedy: It throws a wrench in our suspension of disbelief, calling attention to the jerry-rigged nature of this reality instead of seamlessly embodying it.
Similarly, the character exchanges in this installment too often resembled trite after-school specials instead of relatable conversations between human beings. Just when Annet Mahendru is starting to get a handle on Huck’s mix of casual bravado and laid-back cool, she gets saddled with eye-rolling writerly nonsense, such as assessing Felix’s potential for growth with a, “Maybe it’s not my place to tell him. Maybe he’s gotta figure it out for himself.” That’s not an insightful line, it’s a note on a whiteboard about how a character’s arc might look. Or Iris breaking up the argument between Hope and Felix with a loud, “We don’t have time for this!” Why not? At this point, there’s no sign of a storm approaching, no empties anywhere—they’re just building a boat, a fairly time-intensive process. She doesn’t say it because it makes sense; she says it because that’s what characters on TV shows say when they’re breaking up a fight. At one point, Iris literally says to Felix (after he monologues about the past), “I knew all that, I just didn’t know how you felt about it,” despite Felix more or less repeating points he articulated in the very first episode. These aren’t exchanges, they’re rehashes—characters just saying what they already think and feel instead of demonstrating it. It’s the opposite of “show, don’t tell.”
Which is a shame, because there’s otherwise a good amount to like in “Madman Across The Water.” Elton’s backstory turns out to be even more tragic than we already thought it was. The emotional button-pushing of watching a sad, frightened kid get sealed up inside a box may be a little cheap, but it’s undeniably effective. And the conclusion, in which he gets out the next day and leaves the room, only to find his zombified father dead and bloodied against the wall—inches from the place where he’d assured his son he would find a safe way home—was one hell of a kicker, handled with proper nuance and silent intensity by episode director Dan Liu. Elton is still a bit one-dimensional in his “it’s the science kid who likes science!” presentation, but between the filling-in of his past and Nicolas Cantu’s sensitive handling of the character, he’s becoming one of the best parts of the series. When Elton grows visibly uncomfortable at Felix’s pressure to go against the others, or feels the need to immediately assure Silas, “I swear, I didn’t do that on purpose” when he spills the nail polish, the character’s increasingly three-dimensional inner life comes across.
And that third-act transition into the action sequence really helped to elevate things above the dire scenes of characters just monologuing at each other repeatedly. (My kingdom for an episode where we can get through more than two or three conversations in a row without someone making a portentous speech revealing their innermost feelings.) The race to get the makeshift boat’s steam engine restarted and hot enough to propel was crisply and smartly staged, cross-cutting between Felix setting up the wire blockade and Elton’s claustrophobic journey to reattach the cable underneath. And then we got that potent conclusion to Elton’s backstory, a nice denouement following everyone making peace and agreeing to forge ahead collectively. In a lot of ways, it feels like maybe now the show can really begin—but not if the writing continues to be this graceless and reductive.
Hope finally gets clued in to the big ironic twist; learning she killed Elton’s mom is going to be a secret she keeps for way too long, isn’t it?
Felix’s flat assessment of Daquiritown: “That doesn’t quite live up to its hype, now, does it.”
According to Iris, everybody has to give 100% or they won’t make it across the river. Not necessarily, Iris! For example, you yourself did very little this episode, aside from that brief team-up with Hope to go lend Felix some symbolic aid.
Though, I did like the ending move of having her march off to kill an empty by herself in the dark.
That was a gorgeous CGI shot of the massive demolished bridge over the river.
Silas returned to mostly-silent-and-sturdy form tonight.
If you’re curious, that banjo song playing while we were treated to the montage of everyone building the boat is Doc Robinson’s “Meaning Of A Songbird Calling.”
Esmerelda totally sounds a name a five-year-old would pick for a baby sister.