Fear the Walking Dead and its older sibling The Walking Dead are for the most part about one thing and one thing only: survival. It's rare that characters talk about anything besides what they have to do to survive, either in that moment or in the long run. It's such a pressing issue that it takes up all of their energy. The people on these shows are animalistic in their primal urges to stay alive. It's understandable, but it's tiring.
Which is why it was such a refreshing surprise to hear characters talk about art in "Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame." It served as a reminder that at least some of these people are human after all.
In a post-coital moment with Jake Otto (Sam Underwood), Alicia Clark (Alycia Debnam-Carey) spotted some books of poetry by Charles Bukowski in Sam's room. She was unimpressed (loving Bukowski is often a red flag for issues with women), and Sam defended himself, saying "every young artist goes through their Bukowski phase."
"You're an artist?" she said, and he explained that he used to write before his survivalist father steered him toward law since it would serve the most benefit to the compound. He tried to give her the Bukowski book that lends its title to the episode, and she said, "No, thank you."
"I know Bukowski after sex isn't that classy," Sam said, and she explained that it's not that, it's that she used to love poetry and art, but after the apocalypse, "What's the point?"
Later in the episode, Sam tried to explain the point. He took Alicia out to a tranquil reservoir and told her that even though things are bad, they're not hopeless.
"There are shards of light, you just have to look for them," he said. "That's why we need poetry, art, all of it."
"Not as much as we need food, water, guns to guard it," Alicia answered. He said she sounded like his dad, Jeremiah (Dayton Callie), who's prepared to do anything to protect what's his, and views everyone with suspicion in a way that passes into racism. Maybe he's right, she says, and Sam answers that something has to matter more than guns.
"We need something greater to live for," he said. "What we used to live for, right? That's the point."
In this scene, Sam articulated a fact of life the Walking Dead franchise often takes for granted: that art and creativity are part of the same human experience as the more practical, bodily matters as eating and fighting. It's rare to see anyone reading or playing music or painting or anything like that. Part of why it's not shown is that it's not important to plot, but it also doesn't fit in the grim, survival-only mode of the show where there's no room for frivolous things.
But art's not frivolous. It's what separates humans from animals. It's a tool for survival — think of slaves singing about freedom to keep from giving in to despair. It's also not like art and the urge to create it would stop existing just because moment-to-moment survival became more pressing. Prehistoric people needed food and water and shelter and protection, but they still found time to paint on the walls of caves. It's an integral part of processing life.
The franchise is so focused on surviving that it often forgets what's worth surviving for. There's family, and usually nothing else. But eventually, there will be more. There has to be. Maybe Sam is idealistic, but his ideas aren't wrong. Without art, they would truly be no different than the walkers.
Fear the Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.