‘Fear the Walking Dead’: Garret Dillahunt Discusses John Dorie’s Slow Breakdown

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When you get into a John Dorie (Garret Dillahunt) focused episode of Fear the Walking Dead, you know what you’re going to get. With a voice like molasses and a generally positive outlook on the zombie apocalypse, episodes like “Humbug Gulch” have been a blast to watch.

That’s decidedly not what we got on this week’s episode, “The Key,” which found Dorie alone in the Pioneer town of Lawton, grappling with a murder mystery in the zombie apocalypse.

“It’s sort of this paced, character driven study almost of a man losing his mind a little bit,” Dillahunt told Decider. “I was so pleased that they took the time to do that.”

Spoilers for the episode past this point, but after a man is found dead, wrapped in the barbed wire behind his house, Dorie immediately slips into his pre-apocalypse detective mode, and aims to solve the mystery of the man’s potential murder. Working against him at almost every turn? Virginia (Colby Minifie), of course, as well as some surprisingly twisted help from Strand (Colman Domingo), who now seems to be Virginia’s man through and through.

Stuck in the middle is Janis (Holly Curran), John’s one connection to our main group of characters now that he’s been separated from June (Jenna Elfman) for over two thirds of a year. By episode’s end, John has not only not solved the mystery, Janis has been forced to confess the murder and sentenced to a horrible, agonizing death by zombie. And as a result, John is promoted, reunited with June — but haunted by what he’s been forced to do.

To find out more about the episode, from John’s impossible choice, to reuniting with June, to what it’s like to pull a rotten tooth on set, read on.

Decider: I really enjoyed the episode, but my only qualm is, I was expecting to chill out and watching another fun, funny John Dorie adventure. This was very much not that. What was your reaction when you got the script for this? Were you expecting the same sort of thing as usual.

Garret Dillahunt: No, I knew that we were going to explore some different things this year, which I thought was a good idea. I was pretty excited to have such an intricate, complex sort of ’70s film version of Fear of The Walking Dead episode.

It’s interesting that you called it a ’70s movie. It certainly seemed like a very typical Western structure to me, down to the sheriff investigating a mystery, the mayor telling him to stay away from it. That sort of thing. How, if anything, did approaching the episode this way change how you played John in this episode?

I don’t know if it changed the way I played him. It just, it’s him in a different situation. He’s on his own. He is comfortable. [Virginia] found just the way to keep him mollified, which was to let him sort of be a cop again. He didn’t realize how much he missed that. I think he alludes to something like, “There’s been no deaths on my watch, which I’m proud of. It’s been 200 and some days.” It’s been some time since [he and June] have been split up. 200 days and change. Cameron’s death is the first black mark on that record, and he doesn’t like it. And by ’70s film, I mean that could be a Western or whatever. I just meant that it’s sort of this paced, character driven study almost of a man losing his mind a little bit. I was so pleased that they took the time to do that.

Just to jump to the end there, obviously everybody’s going to be very excited about the John and June reunion. But given everything John has had to go through, and compromise, in order to get her back, is their relationship going to be the same going forward? Or is that specter of what he had to do always going to be hanging over them?

Well, I’m not sure. I mean, I think, you and I are both imaginative enough to realize that it’s certainly something they’re going to have to work through. It’s certainly going to be something that is– Relationships are always in a state of flux, aren’t they? It’s the sort of miraculous couples that can weather all those changes that each are going through individually, and still be compatible. That’s the miracle of these long relationships that work. I guess now we’ll see if John and June are two of those people. It’s not a typical world to begin with. There’s zombies. Now, we throw in this colossal failure on the part of John to protect someone. He’s scared. He’s scared he won’t be able to do that with June.

There’s that whole metaphor with the rotting tooth that plays throughout the episode. By the end, literally he’s removed the infection by taking out his tooth. But do you think it’s still there? Does that infection still exist mentally?

Well, I mean, I hope all these questions the audience won’t need me to answer. I think that’s one good thing about the episode is I feel like [they] did a great job of this, just sort of staying where the camera would tell the story. I think you can sort of tell by John’s face at the end that it’s more than enough… The tooth, for me, is a metaphor for everything that’s rotten. Maybe even what’s rotting inside John. I think it will remain to be seen if that’s the extent of the rot, or is it deeper? Is it [in] his soul at this point? Is there coming back from this? I guess we’ll have to see.

What about physically doing that scene? I mean, personally, I have a kind of a deep fear about pulling teeth, and teeth falling out and things like that, so I certainly recoiled… What was filming that scene like for you?

I’m glad it worked on a visceral level because obviously I’m not really pulling my tooth, so it wasn’t hard. It was only hard in terms of camera angles, and telling the story we wanted to tell. I had three different teeth. One sort of a rotting cap that went over my tooth, one whole tooth that we would use then for the actual extraction to show that. And just keeping blood in the mouth, and then how to fit the camera in this small space without seeing itself in the mirror… It’s mainly harder enough from a logistics standpoint than an acting standpoint, but I thought it was pretty effective. Pliers on a tooth, that does not sound fun.

It seemed like it was left relatively murky as to who exactly killed Cameron over the course of the episode. Do you feel like you have it figured out? Do you know who killed him, or is it literally what Janis confessed?

Well, I feel it’s clear that obviously Janis didn’t do that. She’s been set up, and she’s trying, she knows she’s going to die. With her last act she’s trying to do me a favor and save me, which speaks to, I think, the kind of person she is. I think Holly Curran did an amazing job, by the way, as Janis as well. She’s such a young, she’s almost a fresh out of school actor. I thought she did a lot of really intricate, detailed work in those scenes. It was really great to be opposite her, but I think it’s clear that Virginia had Cameron killed. I don’t know who exactly did it, but I think it’s clear by the end that [John] understands he’s been completely hoodwinked.

Certainly my suspicions goes towards Strand, since he shows up pretty conveniently at that point in the episode. And John, regardless of whether he did it or not, John and Strand are coming to blows. Is their relationship broken? Or is there anything fixable between the two characters?

If it’s fixable then it’s going to be a hard road. I mean, I don’t know what Victor did or didn’t do. We know he’s getting a little shady at this point what we saw last episode, or second episode, what he’s willing to do. He might just be the right tool for the job in terms of beating Virginia. Maybe John has to change his thinking. But, I mean, I hit him with the butt of my gun. I pistol-whipped my supposed friend. I think if anyone’s going to have a hard time getting over that, that’s going to be Strand.

Where does this all leave John, going forward into the rest of the season?

Well, I feel like this episode was a good tease. We know he’s got a long way to go. He’s clearly been damaged and manipulated by this sort of cult leader a little bit. He’s becoming wise to that fact. He’s going to have a lot of work to do on himself, and his relationship, and on how to save his friends.

Despite the pretty serious episode, I still kind of love the idea of John Dorie: Zombie Detective. Do we think we’ll see him solving any mysteries in the zombie apocalypse going forward?

[Laughs] I don’t know. That’s not a bad idea. Maybe that’s a spinoff.

You can be the Jessica Fletcher of the zombie apocalypse maybe. Just to wrap up here, I did actually talk to Michelle Hurd the other day about Picard, and asked her when we’re going to finally see a Fear of the Walking Dead/Star Trek crossover. I was curious to get your take on it.

I think that would be a hard crossover to do, but I would certainly love to have her on the show. I’ve always loved Star Trek. I think we’ll make some kind of crossover happen. It might not be a John Dorie/Raffi kind of crossover, but I think it might be a Michelle Hurd/Garret Dillahunt type thing.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

Fear the Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.

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