Warning: contains spoilers for The Walking Dead and Fear The Walking Dead season 3.
My partner and I had just finished watching the first part of Fear The Walking Dead‘s third season premiere. Despite new characters, a new setting, new peril, and wall-to-wall (not to mention zombie-through-wall) action, by the time the credits rolled she’d made up her mind that this was as far as she’d be following the Clark family and co on their cross-border, walker-stalker, Ex-Mex shenanigans.
“I’m done,” she said. “You’re on your own with this one.”
I didn’t know what to say. We’d been through TV Hell together: the lumberjacked jackknife that was Dexter‘s final season, the painful closing episodes of American Horror Story: Freak Show (Or AHS: Karaoke as we like to think of it), and two agonising seasons a-piece of The Following and Under The Dome, a duo of shows so bad they’re almost war crimes. How could this be the final straw?
The crazy thing was, I agreed with my partner. Fear The Walking Dead wasn’t a good show; it was both dull and infuriating. I guess it’s okay to be dull and infuriating if you’re a cryptic crossword in a magazine about antique tea cosies: not so much if you’re a show about people constantly running away from hungry monsters. I felt like quitting, too. But I couldn’t quit. Not this show… not any show. I’m a completist. Hell, I’m a full-blown TV-show masochist. I already knew, in my heart of hearts, that I’d be with Fear The Walking Dead to the bitter, rotten end, even if season four was inexplicably set in space, or Piers Morgan joined the main cast as an unkillable hologram of himself.
Still, we’d been lied to. The trailers for the first season had promised us something radically different in tone, scope, location and execution to The Walking Dead: a new kind of show built around the bits usually skipped or skimmed over in most live-action zombie stories. Its characters wouldn’t have the luxury of sleeping through the maiden months of the apocalypse like Rick Grimes in the parent show, or Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later, nor would they be able to jump straight into the fight-for-your-life action, in medias Res-ident Evil. While we hadn’t exactly welcomed news of a Walking Dead spin-off with molten torrents of enthusiasm, we were intrigued by this concept. How could we not be? The world was going to rot and fall around the heads of this new cast of characters, and they’d be trapped – helpless and suffocating – in its slowly dying carcass.
Not quite, as it turns out. The slow destruction of humanity lasted four episodes. By the end of FTWD’s truncated first season we were pretty much at the same level of societal collapse we’d started with on The Walking Dead. Still, despite our dashed expectations, and the show’s otherwise largely underwhelming first season, there were enough interesting elements in the mix to allow for some cautious optimism. We resolved to reframe our thinking, and look upon the short-order season as a six-episode-long pilot, an experiment, a mere teaser.
The trailers for season two looked great. A boat, you say? A season of adventures on the high sea, you say? Pirates, you say??? Good Lord, I was a-quiver. Could there be a better demarcation point between the two arms of the TV franchise than a vast body of water? This was a novel and interesting development for the genre, and the possibilities for peril, tension and mayhem were endless. Except… the boat-trip lasted approximately 0.006 seconds. We’d fell for the lies being peddled in the trailers again, the daft clods that we were.
The show’s eagerness to dynamite ideas before they could be fully developed or realised was quickly becoming its trademark. Even worse, when the characters actually did put down roots for more than a couple of episodes – the hotel, the Colonia – the result was usually boredom, stagnation, or staggering levels of preposterousness – often all three at once.
Nothing seemed to be working. While the characters of Victor Strand, the enigmatic con-man, Daniel Salazar the CIA-backed ex-torturer, and Nick Clark, the raffish, drug-kicking Johnny Depp-alike were obvious stand-outs, even they became steadily more diminished and diluted as the first two seasons progressed: the mysterious Strand became snoozingly bland, Daniel’s depths were despoiled by death and madness, and Nick turned out to be… well, a bit of a dick. None of the other characters on the show were particularly consistent, memorable, or likeable. Daniel aside, it was hard to care whether they lived or died – a bad state of affairs for any drama series, but an unforgiveable sin for a show that places the threat of death around every corner.
Elsewhere in the ensemble there was Travis Manawa, a drippy anti-Rick with the charisma of Telly from Sesame Street, and the strength and bravery also of Telly from Sesame Street; Chris Manawa – his son – the most boring serial-killer-in-training the world has ever seen; Alicia – Travis’ step-daughter – who went from being an archetypal all-American teen-on-screen to a remorseless, half-Lara-Croft half-Terminator master tactician pretty much overnight, with zero plausible character development in between; and Madison – Travis’s wife – one of the most irritating and exasperating characters ever created, despite the best efforts of fine actress Kim Dickens.
While I’d never argue the case for The Walking Dead to be considered prestige television – or bring myself to utter its name in the same contextual breath as shows like Mad Men, The Wire and The Sopranos – it’s undeniable that when the show is firing on all cylinders it exerts a tremendous amount of power over our amygdalas and adrenal glands. Certainly, its first five seasons are a testament to this power. When Dale died, and Shane, and Hershel, I cared. Hell, I cried when Hershel died. My partner and I sat on the sofa, mouths agape, unable for a few moments even to make a sound as we struggled to process our grief. We even cared – just a little – when T-Dog died.
Perhaps I’m not a TV-show masochist, then; perhaps I’m just a relentless optimist (and perhaps those two states aren’t mutually exclusive). I have to believe that all TV, no matter how nightmarish its genesis or ungainly its first steps, has the potential to improve – given enough time and half a chance. I had to believe that Fear The Walking Dead could make me care. My partner may have lost her faith, but I had to keep mine alive.
I pressed play on the third season’s second episode.
“They killed Travis!” I shouted excitedly from the armchair. There was no response from my partner, who was enjoying the first day of the rest of her Fear-The-Walking-Dead-free life upstairs. ‘They killed Travis,’ I muttered to myself softly, somewhat self-consciously. I didn’t really care, but I appreciated the surprise.
A response came a few seconds later. “Is Madison still alive?”
“Yes!” I shouted.
“Goodnight!” she shouted back.
As I kept watching, week to week, it became clear that something incredible was happening. Fear The Walking Dead was getting… I mean it was truly becoming… I didn’t want to say it. I didn’t want to jinx it. I was so confused. Part of what spurs me on to keep watching bad shows is that delicious slanket of schadenfreude that wraps itself around me as I sit alone in the darkness sniping out wisecracks like some nascent serial killer. But that was gone. I couldn’t do that anymore. The show was becoming…
How could this be happening? Fear The Walking Dead was a punchline to me, a show I enjoyed tearing to pieces like a zombie Christmas turkey. A show I warned people away from. No longer.
“Daniel Salazar’s not dead!” I shouted out one night, to deafening silence from above.
“Honey, it’s Daniel!” I implored once more. “Remember we liked him?”
“He’s alive!” I yelled.
The week after that, I felt sorry for my partner. She was missing out on a mini-renaissance. She’d missed 100, the fourth episode of the new season : a powerful Daniel-centric episode that was almost entirely in Spanish with English subtitles. Ruben Blades carried it like a boss. 100 made me forget that I was watching a US-produced fantasy-horror show. With its subtitles, stripped-down narrative and visceral social commentary, it was more like a slice of well-crafted South American cinema.
Daniel’s journey through the parched urban hellscape, dealing with meekness, weakness, meagre resources, death, danger, divided loyalties, fairness, justice, convalescence and conscience, isn’t just one of the best episodes of FTWD’s third season: it’s the best episode the show’s ever done, and quite possibly one of the best of the whole Walking Dead franchise. This is what Fear The Walking Dead should’ve been from the start: bold, relevant, risky, truly different. Untethered to any pre-existing template or canon the show could’ve gone anywhere. I wish it had gone somewhere like here sooner. In fact, screw the illiterate, fickle masses of the developed West: let’s have the whole thing in subtitles; chronicle the apocalypse in the non-English-speaking world for a change. Come on, Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg, the incoming showrunners for season four: show us the size of your cajones!
As soon as the episode had finished I rushed up the stairs, eyes wide-open and wild like the mad and eager prophet of a new religion.
“That was brilliant!” I hollered, “Don’t you understand, honey? I just watched a brilliant episode of Fear The Walking Dead! It’s good, the show is actually good! Not only that, but it’s starting to get better than The Walking…”
Could I? Was I about to say it?
I kept watching.
It wasn’t all good news. It’s a source of constant bewilderment to me that Madison is perpetually placed at the top of the pecking order of whatever group she encounters, even though her only qualifications for leadership appear to be an aversion to smiling, and a keen sense of impropriety. Also, Nick’s bond with the ill-fated Troy was somewhat thinly-sketched and perplexing. And of course the show will never shy away from stretching the bounds of credibility when it needs to.
But who cares about that? The season was a startling success: human beings – including the main cast – were made a plausible and palpable threat, which turned up tension and excitement galore; the stand-off between the ranch and the vengeful Walker (no relation to the zombies) was generally well-handled, as was the fight for power-through-water over which Daniel eventually presided. It’s obvious that ever-more money is being invested in the show, because the set-piece during which the herd swarmed the ranch was brutal, beautiful and breath-taking. The world-building, too, has been exceptional, from the bat-shit crazy bazaars in the mould of the Mos Eisley cantina (complete with illegal drugs made from hunks of adrenalin-laced zombie brains) to the micro-economies shooting out from them like poisoned tentacles. And Daniel. God bless you, Daniel.
OK, I think I’m ready to say it now: Fear The Walking Dead is now a better show than The Walking Dead. I never thought I’d ever say that, not even in jest.
It’s pretty apparent that the Walking Dead juggernaut has been visibly spluttering and clunking for a few years now. Its scuffs, dust, dents and rust – always there, but easier to ignore or discount in the beginning – have spread and multiplied.
Despite bright highlights like JSS and Here’s Not Here, season six was the point at which the rough really started to outshine the diamonds. By season seven, there were no diamonds. Not even coal. Just dust. The first licks of the Negan storyline were unforgivably bungled. The trash people were rubbish. The tiger was ridiculous, especially her ability to differentiate between multiple groups of humans, and only eat the baddies. Negan himself was a bandy-hipped tap-dancer who failed to convince as a villain.
Season eight, so far, is more of the same, with the exception of Some Guy and The Big Scary U, two perfectly fine episodes which are definitely steps back in the right direction. All told, though, The Walking Dead is basically just a cavalcade of trees, speeches and gun-fights– like a gorier, hammier, less interesting version of The A-team. I used to fear for Daryl and Carol’s safety on a weekly basis, but if anything happened to either of them now, I don’t think I’d have it in me to gasp, much less riot. That’s a bad, sad sign.
While The Walking Dead has spent the last few years rotting like a walker, Fear The Walking Dead has achieved the impossible and un-rotted: slowly coming to life, and gaining flesh, shape and substance with each passing season. I felt more in Fear’s season three finale than I did in the entirety of the last five episodes of its parent show.
I care about you, Fear The Walking Dead. I really do. Don’t bother with trailers this time. I’m with you for season four, all the way.
But please don’t do that Piers Morgan thing.