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"The Key" is the fourth episode of the sixth season of AMC's Fear The Walking Dead. It is the seventy-third episode of the series overall. It premiered on November 1, 2020, the same night as "Madman Across the Water", the fifth episode of the first season of The Walking Dead: World Beyond. It was written by David Leslie Johnson and directed by Ron Underwood.
John Dorie wakes up and writes a letter to June, in which he talks about his father and his experiences in Lawton, particularly his role as a law enforcer. He admits that he was hesitant to take up the mantle again at first, but has settled into his profession. He adds that he is starting to come around to the Pioneer's way of life. He then brushes his teeth and makes himself a cup of coffee. However, it is evident that he is suffering from tooth cavities. He then puts the letter in his laundry bag and heads out, swapping his usual black hat for a ranger one. He picks up his guns at the gunsmith's shop, and then relieves Cameron from his guard duties. At the end of his shift, he drops his laundry off with Janis, turns in his guns, and heads home. He repeats the routine the next day, this time picking his laundry up on his way from work. Once home, he opens the bag to find a letter from June, and immediately reads it. The next day, John finds Cameron missing from his post. He and a couple of rangers go to his house, but receive no reply upon knocking. While the rangers keep trying the door, John searches the back yard and quickly spots Cameron's corpse being devoured by a couple of walkers. He kills them, as well as the newly reanimated Cameron.
Morgan inspects an abandoned trailer and searches a box, in which he finds Grace's jumper along with a letter from Daniel, explaining that he found it in one of the Pioneers' vehicles. Getting back in his truck, Morgan lets Rufus sniff the jumper, wondering about the mechanics of it all. He decides he needs to go back to the Gulch, this being the last place he saw Grace. Morgan wonders out loud if Grace is even going to recognize him, before driving off.
Come nighttime, John has secured the scene of Cameron's death, and stops a couple of rangers from removing his corpse. Virginia, however, overrules him, not wanting to rile people up. She also believes it to have been an accident, since she is familiar with Cameron's drinking habits. John thinks the death warrants investigation, but Virginia brushes it off, although she comments John for his diligence. Not satisfied, John inspects the scene after everyone leaves, and finds and earring glistening in the dirt. Back on the street, Strand drives up and greets John with a hug. Happy to see his friend, John notices Victor's golden key. He then asks the reason for Victor's visit, to which Victor replies that he is going to an inter-settlement council meeting. John informs him of Cameron's death, and also that he doubts that it was an accident. Victor asks if there is anything he can do, but John says that he doesn't need his help for now, but will notify him if that changes.
In the morning, John goes to visit Janis, who seems to be rather nervous. John wishes to talk about Cameron, since he supposed the two were close, although Janis claims she just washed his clothes. John then asks about the earring, which Janis immediately denies is hers. John, however, assures her that he is only asking because he thought she might know, due to the fact that she washes everybody's clothes. Janis apologizes, but still doesn't recognize the earring. She then asks what's going on, to which John says he doesn't know yet, but cautions her to be careful, as she is the closest thing to family he has in Lawton. John then goes to visit Virginia and tells her that he doesn't believe the death was an accident, as the fence is too far from the house and it didn't seem like Cameron was drinking, since the bottle of moonshine he had in his house was full. When Virginia asks who could have pushed Cameron into the fence, John presents the earring he found, deducing that it belongs to the killer. Virginia recounts how, in the first settlement she lived in, a man murdered his friend over a can of tuna. To make an example, the town elders tied the murderer to a stake outside the walls and left him over night with loud music blasting from speakers next to him. Predictably, by morning he was completely devoured by the dead. Virginia asserts that she doesn't want this for Lawton, which John agrees with, but still wants to investigate the death. Virginia allows this, but asks John to keep it quiet, as the people are only as safe as they believe to be. John agrees that making people feel like they're safe is good, but thinks actually keeping them safe is better. Virginia concedes to this, and promises to double the patrols until they can figure it out.
Jacob holds a funeral for Cameron. After the ceremony, John gives Dakota a coffee sweetener, which he can't consume until he gets his cavities treated. He asks her if she knew Cameron, and she confirms, saying that Cameron was always on the ranger detail when they'd travel outside the walls. Before she can answer and further questions, she is cut off by Virginia, who asks her sister to go home. The conversation is interrupted by the shouts of a ranger. When John and the others arrive to the scene, they find Janis being detained and held at gunpoint by Marcus and some other rangers. Marcus explains that they caught Janis trying to sneak out of the settlement. Virginia orders Hill to check Janis' bag. When he empties it, Virginia rummages through the contents and discovers a matching earring to the one John found earlier.
As he slams her cell shut, John is upset that Janis lied to him. He then shows her Cameron's sketchbook, which has a drawing of her lying in bed. When Janis doesn't respond, John tells her that he can't help her if she won't talk to him. Janis doesn't believe he can help her either way, as Virginia has it out for her. She denies killing Cameron, but knows she will be blamed for it anyway. John claims that he can save Janis if he can prove otherwise, as Virginia won't want to make herself a liar in front of the people. He then asks about the earrings, but Janis once again denies that they're hears, and thinks Virginia planted them. John accepts this answer, but asks her to be honest about her relationship with Cameron. She admits that the two were romantically involved, albeit secretly out of fear of Ginny splitting them up. She also reveals the two were stockpiling supplies in preparation of running away together, and that she tried to escape earlier because she didn't want to live in Lawton without him. She further elaborates on the relationship, but before the conversation can continue, Marcus informs John that Ginny wants to see him.
Ginny offers John a strawberry jam sandwich, but he is unable to eat in due to his cavities. She congratulates John on a job well done, as they might have never caught Janis if she didn't take his advice and doubled the patrols. John, however, says that Janis denies the earrings are hers. Ginny is unconvinced, reminding John that Janis tried to run during Cameron's funeral. Ha acknowledges how it looks, but wishes to investigate further, as he didn't even get to inspect the body. Virginia is unmoved, and hypothesizes that John has a personal interest in seeing Janis go free. She reveals that, thanks to Cameron, she knows about the letters John smuggled to June via Janis, and has read every single one of them. Ginny tells him not to worry, however, as the letters prove he is devoted to the Pioneer way of life. Switching topics, John asks what will happen to Janis, but Ginny simply replies that an example will need to be made. She urges John to go home and get some rest, and thinks his father would be proud of the work John has done. Outside, John is greeted by Dakota, who asks if John was a police officer and if he ever killed anyone. John confirms both facts, although he adds the latter was by accident. Dakota tells him not to listen to her sister, as she believes Ginny is protecting someone. Their conversation is interrupted by Virginia, who orders Dakota to get back into the house.
Tossing and turning in his bed, John finds himself unable to sleep. After a while, he gets up and goes to the graveyard, where he digs up Cameron's body in order to inspect it. Whilst doing so, he notices a slash across Cameron's throat. Just then, he is attacked by two walkers, who fall into the grave on top of him. Fortunately, manages to kill both with a shovel. Looking over the bodies, he also finds a shard stuck in Cameron's hand. In the morning, John takes Victor to Cameron's grave to show him his findings. Regrettably, Cameron's throat was chewed up by the walkers while they were attacking John, destroying the evidence. John, however, also shows the shard he found in Cameron's hand, which he believes is a broken off piece from a knife handle. John asserts that Janis couldn't have gotten a knife from the armory without them knowing about it. He then asks Victor if he has access to the armory.
In the aforementioned armory, John searches the drawers, and finds a knife missing. He lists through the weapons catalogue and discovers the missing knife that matches his description of the murder weapon, but when he checks the log for the person that took the knife, he finds the page torn out. Victor doesn't find any of this surprising, and cautions John that someone doesn't want him to find anything, but the latter remains undeterred. John wishes to search for the knife, believing that if he finds it, Virginia will have no choice but to commute Janis' sentence. Victor advises John to take some time off to think about his course of action, warning him that he won't be able to go back if he persists in his investigation.
John goes to visit Janis and updates her on the investigation, but the latter wishes him to stop. Just then, Ginny, Victor, and Hill walk in. Ginny is surprised to see John, but Victor pretends he asked him to be there, as a witness to Janis' confession. Much to John's dismay, Janis confesses to murdering Cameron. John tries to plead for a lighter sentence, but in vain. Once the others leave, John asks Janis why she would confess, since she knows Virginia isn't going to be merciful either way. Janis is at peace with this, since she lost everyone she cared about. She says that there is nothing more for her left, but there is for John. Janis tells him about the hidden cans of gas in Cameron's place, as well as a concealed dirt bike on a nearby road. She urges John to take it, find June, and escape. Janis exclaims that Lawton is rotten and spoils everything it touches. John tries to get her not to give up, but she claims that she isn't, but is setting them free instead.
Back in his home, John is looking over a map while drinking moonshine. Jacob comes to visit him, believing John to be in need of company. He informs John that Janis is set to be executed at dawn. John laments how he has always followed the rules, since they made sense to him. Jacob notices the gas cans and asks if John is planning to run away. John confirms Janis wants him to do this, but he has instead decided to help her escape. He recounts how, when he was younger, his dad had a case involving a serial killer that targeted women around the Houston area. While the police successfully tracked the killer down, they didn't have enough evidence to arrest him. To put the man behind bars, John's father planted a purse belonging to one of the victims on the killer. While this resulted in a conviction, John's father's collogues never looked at him the same way again. Eventually, John's father divorced his wife, moved away, and started drinking heavily. John laments how his father did the right thing, but it cost him heavily. Likening this to his situation, John says he isn't scared for himself, and knows Ginny won't hurt June, but is also aware of the fact that if he goes through with his plan, he will never see her again. He believes how his father had to do the right thing, because that's who he was. Jacob summarizes this as John's father choosing life, even if it cost him his own. John agrees, and says that this is the choice he is making now. Jacob thinks they can find another way, but John doesn't think so. He hands Jacob a letter meant for June, before hugging him goodbye. To console him, Jacob says that he might yet see June again.
Later in the night, John packs Janis' bag and heads for the jailhouse. When he gets there, however, he finds Janis missing from her cell. Horrified, he rushes to the gate, where he hears faint music. He tracks the source down to radio on top of a tree just outside the gates, where walkers are feasting on a corpse. He shoots the walkers down, but finds only Janis' lower half. The rest of Janis he finds reanimated underneath a tree, still tied up. John mournfully puts Janis down, before angrily shooting the radio as well. John stays up until morning to bury Janis next to Cameron. Seething with rage, he marches down the street with a pistol in his hand, but is intercepted by Jacob and Strand. When he realizes Victor was the one who pushed the execution ahead of schedule, John pistol whips him. A fight ensues between the two men. When John gets the upper hand, he accuses Victor of killing Janis. Victor defends his actions by pointing out Janis was dead anyway, but John didn't have to die with her. John asserts that he could have gotten Janis out, but Victor is certain Ginny would have hunted them both down. John backs off, but furiously proclaims how Janis was right about Lawton, as it does destroy everything.
Later that day, Virginia holds a town meeting, commending John for his actions. As a reward, she bestows upon him a golden key. As the crowd claps and disperses, Dakota glares at John, seemingly disappointed. Ginny congratulates John, and tells him the key will afford him many privileges. John tries to get some sleep, but is unable to. He then hears a knock on the door. When he answers, he is greeted by June, overjoyed to see him. She explains that Ginny transferred her to Lawton. She notices something is wrong, but John denies this. Later, John observes his cavities in the mirror, and then proceeds to rip out two of his rotten teeth with a pair of pliers.
Driving down the road, Morgan converses with Rufus. Suddenly, he is rammed and put into a tailspin by another vehicle. Luckily, both he and Rufus are unharmed. Morgan gets out and approaches the other vehicle. When the driver stumbles out, Morgan holds him and axepoint, and asks if the collision was an accident. The driver asks where Emile is, to which Morgan replies that Virginia knows exactly where he is. To his surprise, the driver doesn't know who Virginia is, and tells Morgan that they just want the key Emile was retrieving for them, as his friend gets out of the car as well and approaches Morgan from behind, armed with a knife. Morgan says that he doesn't want to hurt them, but warns them to stay back. The pair attack him anyway, resulting in Morgan disemboweling the knife-wielding man with his axe. The driver jumps on his back and begins to strangle him, but Morgan is able to throw him off. The man spots the key dangling from Morgan's neck, and charges him with a knife in an attempt to retrieve it, forcing Morgan to stab the man in the chest. With his assailants dead, he wonders aloud what the key opens.
- Carl Thomas as James
- Unknown as Rufus
- Ron LeBlanc as Lawton Ranger
- Jenny Biggs as Lawton Ranger
- Michael D. Yuhl as Lawton Ranger
- Dawn Dillard as Lawton Ranger
- Eric Smith as Lawton Ranger
- Don Daro as Lawton Ranger
- Gary Jones as Lawton Ranger
- Keeli Koonse as Lawton Ranger
- Amanda Julian Johnson as Lawton Resident
- Stephane Lens as Lawton Resident
- Jacob Martinez as Lawton Resident
- Rachel Brown as Lawton Resident
- Roderick Loving as Lawton Resident
- Jamal Anthony Shepard as Lawton Resident
- Cameron (Alive and Zombified)
- Juliet (Confirmed Fate)
- Mr. Dorie (Confirmed Fate)
- Janis (Alive and Zombified)
- Young Man
- Cigarette Man
- Last appearance of Cameron.
- Last appearance of Janis.
- The title of the episode, "The Key", refers to the golden key that Virginia gives John Dorie to symbolize his promotion, as well as the key that Morgan took off of Emile's body that the two men attack him over in this episode.
- The fifth episode of Season 1 of The Walking Dead: World Beyond is played directly after this episode.
- Joseph Castillo-Midyett (Cigarette Man) is upgraded from "Co-Star" to "Also Starring" in this episode.
- Despite having lines in the episode, Carl Thomas' character, James, remains uncredited.
- While Janis is executed for Cameron's murder, his real killer remains unknown.
- The Pioneer's command structure is further elaborated on. Specifically, it is revealed that the highest-ranked Pioneers have a golden key on their chest, like the one Virginia gave to Strand.
- Towards the end of the episode, John Dorie is awarded with one as well.
- It is confirmed that the two men that were after Walter's key are unfamiliar with Virginia and the Pioneers.
- The song playing on the radio used to attract walkers to Janis is "As Long As I Have You" by Myrna Rowland.
- This episode marks the first time in Fear continuity that Morgan uses his staff to directly kill a living person. Previously, he'd only used it to put down the undead and to mortally wound Emile LaRoux before killing him.
- When Cameron reanimates, the walkers are still devouring him. This marks the only time in The Walking Dead franchise that walkers are seen eating another walker, albeit briefly. Because John kills the walkers moments after Cameron reanimates, it is unknown for how long they would continue to devour the newly reanimated corpse.
- The scene where John finds Janis' reanimated corpse with most of its bottom half missing may be a reference to "Days Gone Bye", where Rick Grimes comes across the zombified upper half of Hannah's body. Moreover, both scenes involve the respective main characters putting down the undead with a revolver.
- Coincidentally, both of the characters were police officers before the apocalypse.
- Morgan's fight with the two men is similar to his fight with Owen and his companion in "Conquer".
- The way in which John kills one of the zombies at Cameron's grave with a shovel is very similar to how a zombie was killed towards the end of the George Romero's 1985 movie Day of the Dead.