“USS Pennsylvania” has a small focus but big stakes, though some contrived character moments let down an intriguing setup.
This recap of Fear the Walking Dead season 6, episode 15, “USS Pennsylvania”, contains spoilers.
“USS Pennsylvania”, the penultimate episode of Fear the Walking Dead‘s sixth season, is a thoroughly bizarre hour of television. It manages to take a setup with built-in drama and stakes — radioactivity! Nuclear missiles! A race against the clock! — and somehow suck it dry of any tension. It crams several of the show’s major characters in a tiny space and can’t think of anything for them to do beyond moralizing and making doomed attempts at heroic self-sacrifice. What should be a pretty worrying ending becomes one of the least-frantic missile launches I’ve ever seen in any piece of popular media. The potential eradication of everyone is played with a shrugging “oh well, at least we tried” attitude as though everyone has already had a look at their seventh season scripts. I know even a semi-popular show probably wouldn’t kill off its entire cast in a missile strike, but couldn’t they at least pretend?
And, as I say, the setup is good! It finds Morgan, Strand, Grace, Dwight, Sherry, and JD Senior descending into the bowels of the beached submarine from which Teddy, as we learned in the previous episode, intends to bring about a second apocalypse by launching its stockpile of nuclear missiles. Alicia, safely housed in a bunker, will start humanity again from scratch… somehow, which is where the plan falls apart somewhat given that she isn’t pregnant, at least to my knowledge, and Teddy’s plan kind of rests on everyone who might get her pregnant being willingly killed in the blast. Not that we actually see any of Teddy’s followers in this episode besides Riley — whom we learn early on was the submarine’s weapons officer, a revelation that would have been better served if it came when Morgan later finds a picture of him and his family in the crew quarters — and one very radioactive dead lady who does a bit of contortionist horror for your viewing pleasure.
The cramped, underlit compartments of the “USS Pennsylvania” make for a good setting, though. Director Heather Cappiello feels like she’s making the best of it, with the camera careful to take in the long, narrow passages, the sealed hatches leading to God-knows-what, and the knocking of undead hands against the metal. Even the way the characters navigate the space is novel, being fed instructions from a manual read aloud over the radio, but Fear the Walking Dead season 6, episode 15 makes very little of this and eventually seems to forget about it entirely.
Part of the reason why is that focus once again settles on Morgan, whom Strand is convinced is trying to kill himself on the back of the note Dakota gave him. It’s hard to argue he’s not. At first, he tries to venture into the sub alone; later, he tries to dive into a highly radioactive compartment. Strand suggests an alternate, albeit longer route, but when he tries to sacrifice Morgan in order to buy himself some time to save the day, Morgan has the nerve to be offended by the betrayal. By all accounts, he wanted to die in the line of duty anyway. Why not let it happen?
The reason, of course, is that the show doesn’t want Morgan to die, therefore he can’t, no matter how many times he might recklessly try to bring about his own demise. It gives “USS Pennsylvania” a slapstick quality and makes a mockery of Morgan, who at this point is an idea more than a character, and not a particularly good one. Speaking of bad ideas, Dakota is another. The episode actually opens with her and Teddy in a dark room, discussing how she never fit in with either Virginia or Morgan’s communities, and how the opportunity to willingly die for his cause will allow her to finally be herself (the lights on the various monitors in the submarine’s control room flicker to life at this point, symbolically). Dakota is perplexingly all-in on this idea, and later gets the drop on Strand and starts ranting to him about being “an ending” and Alicia being “the beginning”. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that a very deeply damaged and troubled young woman would buy into the confident charlatanism of an obvious cult leader like Teddy — virtually every cult there has ever been has developed along those lines, after all — but is it just me who doesn’t find Teddy particularly charismatic or convincing? All his talk of convincing people to die by being ready to die with them is all well and good, but for what purpose are these people dying? Does he even know?
I suppose we’ll find out. Despite Morgan using Strand’s betrayal as an excuse to gather up a bunch of keycards from the zombie officers that Strand sics on him — a ridiculous development — they’re not able to get into the control room in time to prevent the launch of one missile, which apparently has ten warheads all aimed at random locations that’ll presumably do a great deal of damage. The mission is, in essence, a failure. Realizing that, Morgan inexplicably decides to just let Teddy and Riley go. There’s a major conflict teased between John Dorie and Teddy that never amounts to anything. We have no idea whether the group outside the submarine is safe. In the aftermath of all this, Morgan just tells Strand to leave, and Fear the Walking Dead season 6, episode 15 ends with the camera retreating through a hatch as he sulks. My expression was probably pretty similar.