Spoiler Warning for Season 3, Episode 5 of “Fear the Walking Dead,” as well as all previous episodes of the series.

Justin Deeley as Mike Trimbol, Daniel Sharman as Troy Otto, Kim Dickens as Madison Clark and Matt Lasky as Coop. (Photo credit: Richard Foreman Jr./AMC)

With perfect pacing and fantastic character development, the 3rd Season of “Fear the Walking Dead” is off to an incredible start, quickly becoming my favorite run of the series thus far. The first two seasons had a plethora of issues, but the show really seems to have found its feet and begun moving in the right direction. The latest episode balances the stories of all of the characters (sans Ofelia) while introducing a new threat and showcasing just how grim the world has become. As life at the Ranch becomes more complicated, the survivors must begin thinking about their future; is it better to hunker down in one place or keep moving?

Since its introduction in “The New Frontier,” the Broke Jaw Ranch has been a place where community is at the center. The beginning of this episode shows viewers just how important that sense of community is to the residents; the elderly couple, Russell (Worth Howe) and Martha (Heather Wynters), that Nick watched dance previously are shown in a heartbreaking, yet unintentionally hilarious way. Martha died a some point in the middle of the night, only to turn, prompting Russell to wake up and find her; Martha lunges for Russell, but is unable to bite him due to the fact that she removed her dentures before going to sleep. Russell decides that he would rather die than be without his wife and uses his gun to shoot both himself and Martha in the head; they collapse to the ground, knocking over a lamp in the process and sending the cabin into an inferno. This awakens the Ranch residents, including Madison, Nick and Luciana, who all rush to the scene to help put out the fire. Jeremiah also arrives and tells everyone to let the house burn in order to preserve water. The burning of the house and the deaths of the elderly couple play into Jeremiah and Nick’s development this episode. I just have to point out how creative this entire scenario is; we’ve never really seen an Infected/Walker like this in either series and its exciting to see the different ideas that the writers have.

Rubén Blades as Daniel Salazar and Colman Domingo as Victor Strand. (Photo credit: Richard Foreman Jr./AMC)

This episode doesn’t just focus on the Ranch, but also spends time with Daniel and Strand after the explosive events of the FANTASTIC episode last week (“100,” quite possible my favorite of the entire series). Daniel has never trusted Strand and their fractured relationship becomes even more damaged as they take a road trip back to the Rosarito Beach Hotel in search of Ofelia. Strand told Daniel that Ofelia is waiting for him back at the hotel, something that viewers know is not true; while Daniel knows this is probably a lie, it’s the only lead he has right now. They take the fancy car and Strand makes it clear that he doesn’t want it damaged as he tries to play things safe, while Daniel would rather drive straight through a small herd of Infected; it almost feels as though Strand is stalling and Daniel seems to notice this. They stop so that Daniel can “take a piss” and Strand tells more lies about why he left the hotel; he doesn’t mention that he was kicked out and decides to say that he left on his own accord to try and meet up with Dante. Strand tells Daniel that he needs to prepare himself for the possibility that Ofelia left the hotel or died, but Daniel states that he will ask Madison and Alicia for the truth if she isn’t there. The scenes on the road are very enjoyable to watch and help to further their difficult relationship; Rubén Blades and Colman Domingo have excellent on-screen chemistry and I am thrilled their characters have been paired together.

Night falls and they finally arrive at the hotel, but something is very wrong; the main gate is wide open and there are no guards, leaving Strand hesitant to enter, but Daniel is determined to find Ofelia. Upon walking in the lobby, they find the hotel to be devoid of life and Daniel rings the bell at the front desk while demanding the truth from Strand; this scene parallels the group’s initial arrival at the hotel in “Los Muertos,” when Strand used the same bell to draw out the Infected. In this situation, Strand finally tells Daniel that Ofelia fled the hotel on her own and that she hasn’t been seen since; Daniel is angry that he was lied to and decides to turn the tables on Strand by leaving him to defend himself against the Infected. Obviously, Strand has plot armor and is able to escape the lobby, only to spot Daniel driving away; he then kills an Infected and runs off into the darkness. This particular storyline is interesting to watch because of the complexity of Strand’s character; three seasons in and I still don’t trust him, something that makes his character truly fascinating to watch as it is never clear what he is going to do, but you can assure that it will be in his own interests. Where will he go next? What happened to the hotel? Did Elena and Hector survive and will Strand run into them? It would be a shame for those two characters to be written off without a proper conclusion, but something tells me we will see them again…just maybe not alive.

Sam Underwood as Jake Otto and Alycia Debnam-Carey as Alicia Clark. (Photo credit: Richard Foreman Jr./AMC)

This episode shows the Clark and Otto families becoming closer to each other with new relationships forming, each for different reasons. Madison prepares to head out on the trip to the outpost with Troy and some others, but Alicia and Nick are clearly worried for her and try to persuade her to stay. Madison has her plans and leaves with the team; while traveling down a highway, the group comes across an overturned prison transport bus at the bottom of a ravine (this may be a bit of a nod to the Prison era of the original series) and Troy states that they must clear the Infected before they find their way to the Ranch. The creepy band of Infected are slaughtered using an arsenal of weapons, including bow and arrow and Madison’s new weapon, a retractable baton. There is a bit of a scuffle and Madison is nearly bit, but the team handles themselves quite nicely with Troy standing out as quite the badass when it comes to killing Infected; he’s still creepy and almost seems to have fun killing, an immediate red flag. The group proceed and arrive at the location in the valley where the helicopter crashed, but in a shocking turn of events…the helicopter is missing. Machine gun shells are found on the ground, leading Troy and the others to deduce that a gunfight must have taken place, causing the helicopter to crash. Madison sternly mentions Travis’ name when Troy proclaims that they will find whoever is responsible. They continue with their mission and the story takes a dark and terrifying turn as the truth of what happened to the helicopter finally comes out.

Before we get to that, I have to talk about what Nick and Alicia are up to. Alicia has a lot weighing on her mind after the tumultuous few weeks that she has had; she has been a regular attendee at “Bible study” and now has a hangover. Gretchen and Jake offer their own remedies for this, including a delicious breakfast, but Alicia isn’t in a great place at the moment. Alicia pays a visit to the lookout house and apologizes to Jake for being standoffish before explaining to him that she had plans before the apocalypse went and ruined everything. Alicia takes a chance and kisses Jake, which leads to sex and later, a discussion about the role arts, culture and literature plays in the new world; Alicia believes that they are no longer important, but Jake disagrees and offers her a copy of “Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame,” a book of poems by Charles Bukowski. Later, Jake brings Alicia to a nearby lake where this discussion continues; both make strong points, but I have to agree with Jake as a surplus of guns may help you to survive, but when the time comes to rebuild society, arts and literature is most definitely needed. Jake also opens up about his disagreements with his father and brother; it’s implied that Jeremiah is rather racist when it comes to the local Mexican and Native American populations and that Jake has a completely different outlook on life. This discussion is really gripping as it plays into the question of why everyone continues to fight so hard to survive; what is the point of surviving if you aren’t going to rebuild and live for something greater? It remains to be seen if the relationship between Jake and Alicia goes anywhere, but at the moment, it seems as though Alicia just needs something to grasp on to.

Frank Dillane as Nick Clark and Dayton Callie as Jeremiah Otto. (Photo credit: Richard Foreman Jr./AMC)

This is a big episode in terms of Nick and Luciana’s relationship and the role that Jeremiah and the Ranch residents play in it. Nick and Luciana eat breakfast together and the prospect of leaving the Ranch is brought up once again; Luciana really wants to leave and head back to Mexico to reconnect with people she knows in Mexicali, but Nick wishes for them to stay so that she can fully recover. Nick decides to visit the burnt out house and attempts to restore it as much as he can; Jeremiah arrives and explains that he and his family originally lived in the house when it was the first building on the property. Jeremiah locates Russell’s gun in the wreckage and admires it, which causes some concern in Nick, who didn’t grow up around guns and doesn’t view them as “tools” like Jeremiah does. There is some great material between these two as they open up to each other about their history; Jeremiah tells Nick that when Troy was a child, he was accidentally locked in the basement by his mother when she was drunk; Troy’s relationship with his mother was poor and this definitely contributed to making him the person that he is now. They also discuss Luciana and her future at the Ranch, which Jeremiah explains that her role will likely be non-existent because people want to be with their own in times of crisis; Nick questions if this is Jeremiah being racist, but he defends himself and explains that Luciana will have to make the decision to stay or leave by herself. There is a great bit of development for Jeremiah as he tells Nick why he quit drinking; one night when he was drunk deer hunting, he states that he “damn near blew my dick off.” It remains to be seen if their relationship will be furthered as their problem with addiction gives them an understanding of each other.

Back with Madison and Troy, their group arrives at the Ranch’s outpost only to find a complete mess. The outpost is eerily empty, but there are splatters of blood everywhere, evoking a feeling of absolute fear and dread. The group discovers a mound of burned bodies, but also Phil McCarthy (Rocky McMurray), one of the Ranch’s “Founding Fathers” and the leader of the outpost. He is strapped to a chair at the edge of a ravine…with a crow pecking at the back of his head as he deliriously rambles. His brain is exposed and Troy’s team look on in complete horror and disgust, but Madison steps up to the plate and callously stabs McCarthy in the brain, furthering my belief that she killed people prior to the apocalypse. In a dramatic twist, a man named Qaletaqa Walker (Michael Greyeyes) appears and tells the group that they are surrounded by his people; he also demands that Troy’s group hand over their firearms and shoes (very Negan and the Saviors-esque) before telling them to leave the Ranch as it is property of his people. It is clear that Troy has come across Walker before and they definitely have rocky history and the murder of Phil doesn’t help their relationship. The introduction of Walker moves the story in an interesting direction; it’s obvious from the dialogue that Walker believes the Ranch’s land was stolen, but it isn’t clear if he means from his own group of survivors or from his Native American tribe as a whole. Regardless, I am overjoyed to see a prominent Native American character enter the series and I am already impressed at his antagonistic role; his tactics are frightening and the conflict with the Ranch residents will likely lead to more dark moments.

Rocky McMurray as Phil McCarthy with the crow. (Photo credit: Richard Foreman Jr./AMC)

Back at the Ranch, Nick brings Luciana to the burned home that he and Jeremiah refurbished for a date night under the stars. As if I couldn’t love Nick as a character more, he really tries to convince Luciana to build a life with him at the Ranch, citing the long-lasting relationship that Russell and Martha had as an example of true love. Nick is such a great person and he just wants his people to be safe, so it hurts to see him in this predicament. Meanwhile, Madison makes several plays to peel back Troy’s layers as they stop for the night while headed back to the Ranch. She pokes at his poor leadership skills and the fact that his mother likely never loved him…ouch, harsh! In a creepy move, Troy wakes Madison up by holding a knife against her throat; she talks him down, proving that she may be having an effect on him. The episode ends with a beautiful music montage to the tune of Tony Crown’s “Killing Machine,” a perfect song that fits the feel of the show and the current situation of the characters. In the montage, Madison, Troy and the rest of the group are shown walking back to the Ranch, all with bloodied feet. Nick awakens in the home, but Luciana is gone and a note has been left behind; she is shown to be at the US-Mexico border, presumably headed to Mexicali. Jeremiah visits Nick and hands him Russell’s gun, which he has repaired; I get the feeling that this will be Nick’s signature weapon in the series. Finally, Alicia is shown at the lake, taking a leap into the water and washing away the stress and worries she has felt lately; we’re about to see a new Alicia and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

“Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame” (great title, by the way) is filled to the brim with character development, story progression, perfect pacing and some awesome expansions of the world. Each character had their role and individual purpose this episode and the excellent balance of screentime allowed for everyone to be in the spotlight. The individual members of the Clark family are linking up with members of the Otto family for their own reasons and the relationships formed this episode are fascinating to watch. Jeremiah, Jake and Troy all impressed me and I’m finding myself engrossed with their stories. I’m most interested in seeing where the conflict with Walker’s group goes; will the Ranch be abandoned or are we about to see a war between the groups? Also, Luciana’s storyline took an unexpected turn and I’m beginning to wonder if she will eventually cross paths with Ofelia or if she will make it to Mexicali; she mentioned Prohibition tunnels, something that may hint to a crossover with the character of the “Fear the Walking Dead: Passage” miniseries that took place in tunnels under the border. Speaking of Ofelia, her disappearance is starting to get old and I really hope we see her next episode with an epic and well-explained return; this situation reminds me of Beth Greene, who disappeared at the end of Season 4 of “The Walking Dead,” only to return later in Season 5, with rampant speculation and theories during the time of her disappearance. The question remains #WhereIsOfelia?

Be sure to tune into “Fear the Walking Dead” next Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.

Jeffrey Kopp is the Community Editor of the Niner Times. He is a senior double majoring in Communication and Political Science. His interests include writing and keeping up with an excessive amount of television shows. He is also the go-to expert on all things “The Walking Dead."