Fear the Walking Dead had to throw out everything to become better than ever

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Apr 22, 2018, 10:03 PM EDT

It’s taken a while, but Fear the Walking Dead has quietly become a pretty great TV show. It just had to chuck pretty much everything, and start over, to get there.

Two episodes into Season 4, and the long-suffering Walking Dead spinoff series has found its legs and then some. The series has been playing against a stacked deck since its debut, spinning off from an insanely successful series while trying to tell its own story set years before the apocalypse fans already knew and loved. Not surprisingly, the first two seasons were uneven and stifled under the weight of those expectations and limitations. Season 3 improved as it started to carve its own path about water wars and tenuous alliances, but still drowned in politics and factions that simply weren’t all that interesting in the first place.

That was then, and this is now. The version of Fear the Walking Dead airing on AMC this month bears little resemblance to the uneasy prequel that attracted — then squandered — a massive audience of more than 10 million viewers for its pilot in 2015. This is starting to feel like The Walking Dead at its best, and yeah, sometimes better than that. The network made no secret of the fact that Lennie James’ Morgan would be moving from The Walking Dead to Fear the Walking Dead this season, but the way that happened made it abundantly clear this is a very different show in Year 4.

The season premiere, which saw a bump in ratings, was basically a repiloting to tie Fear directly into the DNA of the flagship series. The episode picked up immediately after the Walking Dead season finale, literally and figuratively, continuing Morgan’s story after “All Out War” with the Saviors. We get some A-list cameos from the core cast, then Morgan sets off on his own to run, walk, drive and walk some more until he reaches the mythical West where Fear has largely been set.

This is Morgan’s story, and we meet a fascinating handful of new survivors along the way, led by Garret Dillahunt’s gunslinger John Dorie and Maggie Grace’s journalist Althea. It’s not until the final seconds of the premiere that we check in with the surviving cast from the first three seasons — introduced here as strangers from the perspective of Morgan and his new allies.

The second episode plays more like a two-parter (it a shame AMC didn’t choose to just air these back-to-back) and fills in just enough of the gaps from the time jump to lay the groundwork for where Madison, Alicia, Nick and Strand have been during the lengthy time jump to bring Fear into the same era as The Walking Dead. It doesn’t dwell on the fallout of the dam-breaking Season 3 finale (we see a few shaky, fleeting flashbacks and veiled references, but that’s it), and instead keeps the momentum pointed forward. We end with both groups brought together, each having gotten a full episode of groundwork. Sure, there might be some returning characters, but this feels far more like a fresh ensemble incorporating a bit of the old and a bit of the new.

So what exactly makes Fear the Walking Dead 2.0 so darn good? After three seasons, they’re finally leaning into the freedom and weirdness that a setting and franchise like this permits. The people who live this long in an apocalypse are bound to be quirky, off, determined — and yeah — obviously a little damaged. Introducing characters like a lonely cowboy, or a journalist still trying to tell a story in the midst of so much loss, is compelling territory. Having Madison set up her own community in the diamond of a baseball stadium was another clever move, offering up a fresh visual palate that still makes sense within this world (a stadium already has a whole lot of gates and security built-in, much like The Walking Dead’s prison of yesteryear). 

But heroes are only as good as their villains, and Season 4 also wasted no time in setting the stakes and putting this newly assembled crew of survivors on a fascinating case. In flashback, we learn Madison’s community comes under siege by what can best be described as a menacingly quirky RV gang, one part Mad Max and two parts extra creepy. We don’t know much about this group, but they seem to have a system for wiping out small communities that has worked pretty well for them up until this point.

After internal squabbles over the past few seasons of Fear, and paint-by-numbers clashes with legacy characters such as Negan on the flagship series, it’s refreshing as hell to have some good-looking mystery man roll in with a boatload of charm, confidence and menace. Oh, and a cooler of beers and a pop-up chair. It’s the first time this franchise has really begun to embrace the freedom that comes from telling a story where there is no playbook to crib from, or comic to follow.

Fear the Walking Dead has finally become more than the sum of its parts, paying off on the potential of what a rollicking adventure through the apocalypse can be. In all of its eight seasons The Walking Dead has only tapped one tiny sliver of this universe, telling a story that any comic reader can typically predict the major beats of years in advance. With Fear 2.0, we have a fresh story that can start to scratch the surface of how the juggernaut franchise can survive without patron saint Rick Grimes anywhere in the mix.

As the studio looks to leverage this franchise in more ways than ever, that strategy finally makes a bit of sense. For three years, the spinoff has struggled to answer the question of why it should exist — but if what we’re seeing now is what the future of The Walking Dead could look like — this is feeling more and more like a franchise that really could persist for years to come. 

Maybe Althea put it best: “What the hell is your story?” It might’ve started off as a prequel, but Fear is looking more and more and like the future of The Walking Dead.


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