karen david's grace laying in the leaves on fear the walking dead

Major spoilers below for the latest episode of Fear the Walking Dead, so be warned!

Okay, so I went into the Fear the Walking Dead episode "In Dreams" with two preconceived notions unabashedly at the forefront of my mind: dream-based TV episodes usually feel like filler, and this series will never possibly wreck my emotional guts more than Jenna Elfman's June discovering Garret Dillahunt's John after he'd already gone into full walker mode. And yet somehow, even with the arguably unnecessary amnesia element thrown in there, Karen David's Grace made the dreams meaningful, and in the most gingerly brutal way that possibly crushed me even more than John's death. I'd slow-clap if it all wasn't so damned sad. (Well, except for seeing Salazar and Strand being all buddy-buddy.)

On the outset, so much credit goes to those who penned the episode, which is credited to co-showrunners Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg, as well as writer Nazrin Choudhury. Because it continuously upended some expectations while justifiably matching up with others. For instance, it was almost immediately clear that Sahana Sprinivasan's Athena would be revealed as Grace's future-daughter. But instead of stretching that "mystery" out, the episode quickly addressed that after bringing in Lennie James' greyed-out Morgan, and focused more on Grace forming emotional connections with Athena, largely through Roy Orbison and cassettes.

Second, by rather blatantly setting up the idea so early on that Grace wouldn't survive Athena's birth, Fear the Walking Dead nearly shot itself in the foot there, since it made me jump to the conclusion that a twist was coming. I figured Grace would indeed live through the doctor-less delivery, and did not have much optimism for Athena's chances. But if I thought going into the episode's final act mentally prepared would do my emotional state any good, I was so very wrong.

Sahana Sprinivasan's athena in Grace's dream on fear the walking dead

Now is where I must heap some praise onto Fear the Walking Dead's cast, particularly Karen David and the devastatingly one-and-done performance from Sahana Sprinivasan. The actresses pulled off the nearly absurd trick of creating an authentic relationship between a stressed-out mother's consciousness and the unborn-teenaged version of said mother's offspring, while also adding more depth by bringing in the biological father's tragic end. And in a way that made it all the more heartbreaking once Athena's behavior started to loop and shattered the dreamy illusion.

I guess I can stop tiptoeing around that pummeling final sequence, which was shot just splendidly by director Michael E. Satrazemis. Following the altercation with Nick Stahl's Riley - more on that below - Grace popped on her headphones and experienced one of TV's quickest deliveries, but before that jokey thought could be fully processed, it was clear from Morgan's actions that Athena did not make it. And then my heart shattered as Grace kept asking Morgan what was wrong. And then all the oxygen in the room left once Morgan turned around, unable to hide the severity of the situation from his face. And then everything else in the room shattered when Grace embraced li'l Athena and laid out the most upsetting exposition possible:

What I saw, they weren't my last moments. They were hers. I thought it was gonna be different, but it was just a dream. It was just a dream.

As a father who wallows in pessimistic thoughts on a regular basis, I was perhaps an easier target than others for this conclusion to Grace's pregnancy arc. And I can see how some might think Fear the Walking Dead went a little overboard with this kind of a death story. By all means, if the episode had fallen into the painfully tropey waters that I was expecting from the start, I would be there for the cringing. But it was a well-designed journey through Grace's mind that gave Karen David the fully rounded episode that she deserved, and also introduced one of the most unexpectedly heart-wrenching deaths of the franchise.

But what happens now? In Morgan and Grace's mind, is Riley responsible for Athena's death by her having to dive out of the way to avoid his truck? (I want to take a second to appreciate that after Riley got stabbed in the chest, with Morgan presumably thinking in error that the dude was leaving forever, he immediately returned to get revenge, which is a villainous instinct I can get behind.) What could that key possibly open that it's worth all the death surrounding it? I'm hoping like hell it isn't just a meaningless MacGuffin, and that Riley takes it back to John Glover's Teddy and it leads to something awesome. Like Kim Dickens' Madison. Is that too much?

Fear the Walking Dead airs Sunday nights on AMC at 9:00 p.m. ET, and when Season 6 is done, there will still be lots to look forward to in the 2021 Summer TV schedule.

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