Garret Dillahunt capably shoulders “The Key”, another fine, Western-inspired episode that plays like a small-town murder-mystery with much broader implications.
This recap of Fear the Walking Dead season 6, episode 4, “The Key”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
Fear the Walking Dead is on something of a hot streak lately, and since “The Key” focuses on John Dorie, one of the few characters from prior seasons who remained likable all the way through, it stands itself in good stead to continue that run of form. The opening plays out confidently enough, with John, a little hairier now, going about his daily business while reading aloud a letter he has written for June, in which he recalls his father. Time passes. The routine continues. The beard grows. Eventually, his colleague, Cameron (Noah Khyle), misses his shift in the little lookout post they alternate occupying, and John finds him zombified in the barbed wire behind his home. There are certain freedoms to be sacrificed in living here, in this way, John writes, but perhaps the upside is worth it. When the downside is having your face eaten off, perhaps that’s true.
John is taking his duties as one of Virginia’s rangers seriously enough for her to have taken notice but perhaps more seriously than she’d like. He wants to look into Cameron’s death; she wants to write it off as an accident. John finds an earring in the dirt near the fence and begins poking around, telling a newly-promoted Strand of his suspicions, and voicing concerns to Janis (Holly Curran) and Virginia too. After some persuasion, the latter agrees to let him look into it, as long as he keeps it subtle.
Rabbi Jacob Kessner presides over Cameron’s funeral. Janis is caught trying to sneak off during the service, and when Virginia turns out her bag, she’s in possession of the other, matching earring. She’s immediately locked up, and while she’s behind bars John shows her a sketch he found under Cameron’s mattress, of a long-haired woman lying in his bed, assuming it’s her. He’s right. She and Cameron were together, but they kept it quiet, believing Ginny would use it against them. They were both planning to run away; after he died, Janis decided she couldn’t remain in Lawton without him. John vows to get to the bottom of the matter.
Janis obviously suspects Ginny, who isn’t shy about revealing to John that she read the letters to and from June that Janis had been ferrying for him. There’s always a layer of threat behind everything she says. It’s a stark difference in personality between her and Dakota, who tells John outside that her sister is protecting someone, though she doesn’t know who. Dakota is very much being presented as the errant card that might well bring the whole house toppling down before long, and she’s one of the more interesting new additions to this sixth season.
His suspicions piqued, John exhumes Cameron’s grave and, after a tussle with some walkers, discovers he had his throat cut. He also finds a fragment of the bone-handled knife presumably used to do the deed, and since Strand’s councilman status gives him access to the armory, he’s able to find out who checked the still-missing weapon out — Ginny. Strand cautions him about pursuing this path, but John’s got his principles, many of which are challenged when Janis spontaneously confesses to the crime with Strand and Ginny both as her witnesses. Was she coerced? Isn’t it all too convenient that Strand was around at the time?
Either way, John’s not buying it, even when Janis insists he leaves and gives him a roadmap of stashed gas and vehicles she and Cameron had squirreled away for their own escape. She seems content to take the fall, now she has nothing else to live for. And fittingly enough, the price for her confession will be death.
That night, Kessner visits John, who admits he’s planning on breaking Janis out before her execution in the morning. As justification, he recounts an old case his father worked on, a serial killer cult leader who was guilty, beyond a shadow of a doubt, even if the evidence didn’t exist to prove it. John’s father made sure the evidence was there, and nobody ever looked at him the same way again. He did the right thing and it cost him everything; John knows this is going to cost him too. He gives Kessner a letter for June, to ensure she knows why he had to do what he’s about to do.
But he doesn’t have the chance to do anything. When he goes to make his move, he discovers that Ginny has replicated a particularly sadistic form of capital punishment she told him about earlier, tying Janis to a tree and using a boombox to lure walkers to her position. He finds her outside, messily bisected. After putting her out of her misery and burying her, he returns to town and finds Kessner with Strand, who confesses to having engineered the scenario to save John from going down with her. The two men fight, with John getting the upper hand, shouting into the sky that Janis was right when she said Lawton poisons everything.
Still, John keeps his mouth shut. For his efforts in the investigation, he’s given a key to the city. Later, June arrives, having been reassigned to Lawton by Virginia, obviously to keep John distracted and quiet. In the mirror, he pulls out the tooth that has been bothering him all episode with a pair of pliers — a little rotten part of himself, like an offering, or perhaps a sacrifice.
“The Key” ends with Morgan, who’s still functioning as a sort of framing device for this season, getting T-boned on the road while driving back to Humbug’s Gulch with Emile’s dog, Rufus. The two men inside the offending vehicle want the key he’s carrying, the one that Emile was supposed to get for them. When they attack, Morgan is forced to kill them both, wondering aloud what I think all the audience is at this point: What exactly does this thing unlock?
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