Last year when I reviewed the first two episodes of AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead, I enjoyed what I saw but noticed an inherent tension between the (great) premise, and its long-term ambitions as a series. If the knowledge that the world would soon end up in a bucket of zombie hurt lent the proceedings an unshakable tension, how would the show be able to drag things out to capitalize on that dynamic — and when the apocalyptic shoe finally did drop, what could it do that we hadn’t already seen on The Walking Dead?
As it turned out, that bite-sized first season addressed the issue by headfaking an on-the-run storyline, and then opted instead for a relatively locked-down story of paranoia as the characters found themselves trapped in an infection-free zone ruled by an increasingly untrustworthy military. The new season, debuting this Sunday on AMC, tries to pull off a similar trick — only this time, Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) and her family are stuck at sea. It has the makings of an intriguing, Dead Calm-style thriller, but judging from the first three episodes Fear the Walking Dead’s new season seems to be taking too many lessons from its big brother, piling up violence and tragedy and bizarre character turns that had me wondering why I’d stepped on board in the first place.
The problems are evident right from the start: rather than picking up from the painful, poignant death that capped last season, the show suddenly jumps right into the middle of a new conflict. The Malibu coast is literally burning around Madison, her boyfriend Travis (Cliff Curtis), and kids Alicia and Nick (Alycia Debnam-Carey and Frank Dillane, more subdued than he was last season). Everyone’s in a rush to get to the yacht of the mysterious Victor Strand (Colman Domingo), and to make matters worse, zombies are suddenly nipping at their heels. It’s bloody and grotesque — before the escape, a zombie takes a boat propellor to the face — and basically just feels like any other season intro to The Walking Dead itself.
All of which would be fine, except that Fear the Walking Dead uses that opening as a way to set the tone for nearly everything that follows. There are probably more zombies in these first three new episodes of Fear than there were in the entire last season, and it’s jarring and at odds with the slow-burn moodiness that allowed the show to distinguish itself from its predecessor last year. After the entire gang gets on Strand’s boat, they run into water zombies, island zombies, little kid zombies; it’s honestly a bit overwhelming, as if the network decided audiences just wanted more bloody action, and Fear lathered that on without stopping to balance it with anything else.
As a result, the show feels meandering and pointless, the self-contained bottle episodes of maritime zombie action seemingly serving no purpose other than to shove the characters into the next arbitrary plot development. If last season was a look at the struggles of integrating families in a post-divorce world, then this year seems to be more about boat maintenance. Anything even approaching emotional resonance feels dull and flat. One particular beat in the second episode — which, judging from the way it’s cut and acted, was clearly intended to be a dramatic gut punch — is just straight-up confusing, and it’s hard to know if the issue is in the writing, editing, directing, or all three.
If last season was about family dynamics, this season is about boat maintenance
The core of the problem comes down to the characters themselves, who have either radically changed in temperament from the last time we saw them or are doomed to act endlessly stupid in the name of raising stakes from a plot perspective. Dickens’ Madison, once driven and fiercely protective of her family, is content watching Strand boss everyone around without pushing back in any kind of meaningful way, while Rubén Blades — whose patriarch with a violent past was one of the show’s most intriguing characters — spends his time fishing and acting like everybody’s nicest grandpa, even though he's just lost his wife. Madison’s two children fare no better, and when Alicia’s not mooning over a mysterious voice on the radio and Nick’s not going on foolhardy swimming missions (spoiler: he runs into zombies at one point), they’re simply shuttled from event to event like the rest of the cast. It’s the kind of radical shift that makes you feel foolish for daring to invest in the characters in the first place, and not exactly encouraging at the outset of a full 15-episode season.
It's frustrating, especially when the pieces were set up so well at the end of last season for some truly interesting dynamics. A makeshift family unit, including a son that’s just lost his mother, all trapped in a confined space while the world falls apart around them should be a roiling pot of tension and pathos. But at a time when the flagship Walking Dead series seems to have fallen into a lockstep rhythm of tease, stall, gore, and repeat, Fear the Walking Dead is inexplicably passing on the opportunity to tell a more grounded, interesting story.
Instead, it now appears to be suffering from the same malady that’s infected the original series. There are plenty of episodes left for Fear the Walking Dead to turn things around, and I’ll be rooting for it to do just that in the coming weeks. If not, however, it’s destined to be the lesser-than copy everyone originally thought it was going to be.