I write extensively about Fear the Walking Dead over on Uproxx, and after watching each episode two-to-three times and writing a few lengthy pieces about it, I usually don’t have any bandwidth left to devote more words to it over here. However, I think it’s important in this case to let this readership — many of whom probably have three or four or more episodes of Fear the Walking Dead backlogged on their DVRs — know that the series is an absolute shit-show, and really only worth watching out of morbid curiosity, as one might a train careening off the rails and crashing into an oil tanker full of mannequin parts.
There are a lot of ways Fear the Walking Dead could have gone wrong and — while I do legitimately respect showrunner Dave Erickson’s decision not to simply replicate The Walking Dead in a different location — the path that the series has taken is baffling.
For those who checked out early, let me catch you up to speed: An outbreak of the zombie virus swept rapidly through Los Angeles. Within a few episodes, the entire western United States had been infected. The military — under orders from no one in particular — briefly quarantined a few of the Los Angelenos who had managed to avoid infection, before dropping a bomb on the entire city, killing anyone who had not escaped (this, in fact, was the strategic plan in most parts of the country, as we later learned). It was called Operation Cobalt. The original working title for the series was Cobalt. I have a feeling this particular plotline was originally intended to be more than the afterthought it became.
In the first season, all eight regular cast members survived, while two recurring cast members were infected (one of them had to be shot and put down by her ex-husband).
The second season was something of a reset: They abandoned Los Angeles and took to the sea on a yacht, headed toward Baja California, in Mexico, where the boyfriend of a character named Strand lived. Strand was made out to be a mysterious character with insidious motives, but in the end, he just wanted to get back to his lover. No real explanation was ever offered as to why he chose this particular group to tag along with him. He was not a villain, as the series often framed him. He was just a lovesick man.
Along the journey to Baja, the cast stopped at the home of some survivalists, half of whom died. They had a run-in with some pirates, some of whom died, and some of whom were left behind in case the series needed to pull them back in down the line. The leader was bitten in the arm. His fate was either left as a question mark, or the series simply forgot about him (and a character named Alex, a character from the Fear web series who apparently survived a plane crash, swam a hundred miles and changed her name only to be introduced and then abandoned). The pirate storyline, by the way, was lifted almost directly from the Michonne video game, which might explain why it had so very little attachment to the rest of the series.
Finally, the survivors made it to Baja California, only to discover Strand’s boyfriend had already been infected. They also discovered that the family matriarch — a woman by the name of Celia — believed that zombies were part of the “next stage” of life. She refused to put them down, and instead housed them in a cell in her basement. It had echoes of the Hershel storyline in The Walking Dead, only Celia didn’t believe there was a cure. She believed that becoming a zombie was the next stage of life and a new beginning, a bright new beginning in a world populated with mindless, decaying cadavers.
There have been two characters of interest in the series, so far. Strand and Nick. Strand, as it turns out, was really not that complicated after all. He was just a lovesick man, who ultimately was booted by Celia from the Baja estate for putting a bullet in his infected boyfriend’s brain instead of letting him turn into a zombie, like God had intended.
Nick, the other interesting character, seemed to be the Daryl of the group: A fuck-up drug addict who adapted well to the apocalypse. However, in the last two episodes, they completely assassinated his character. After covering himself in blood, Nick realized — as Michonne had in The Walking Dead — that he could walk among the walkers undetected. However, Nick didn’t think, “Oh, neat party trick!” He thought, “I can walk among the zombies as one of them. I am invisible. I am immortal. I will go live with the zombies now.”
No, I am not kidding. Nick abandoned his family to walk among the zombies, who he referred to as “the changed ones,” as though this were a positive change.
Elsewhere, a character named Chris — who was little more than a sullen, obnoxious teenager in the first season — evolved into a psychopath. After killing a few zombies, he got a taste for it, and he wanted to kill real people, too. He killed one of the pirates — who the group desperately needed as leverage — because he fucking felt like it. He watched passively as a zombie tried to kill his step-mother and offered no assistance. He then walked into the bedroom of his step-sister — who he clearly has a Flowers in the Attic-like crush on — and pulled a knife, seemingly with the intention of killing her. In the end, he ran away, took a small boy hostage, and had to be talked out of killing the boy by his father, Travis, who decided to leave the group and live with his son in the woods of Mexico, where the average lifespan post-apocalypse is probably 10 days.
Meanwhile, a character named Daniel — the most rational and strong-willed person in the group — went crazy. He started hearing voices and seeing visions of his dead wife, who told him to burn down the Baja estate and join her in the afterlife.
He did just that, and it appeared as though he were engulfed in the flames, along with Celia. This being The Walking Dead universe, however, the fates of both Daniel and Celia were left up in the air in the midseason finale’s cliffhanger.
Is Daniel dead? Is Celia dead? Does anyone give a damn? Viewers were so disinterested that we couldn’t even work up any kind of rage over the cheap cliffhanger. Fake deaths are just part of television life now.
Meanwhile, poor Alicia — played by Alycia Dabney Coleman [sic] — spent most of the season staring sadly out at the ocean, wondering why she chose to leave The 100 to be in this disaster of a series.
Despite having nine months to ramp up for a second season, Fear the Walking Dead still feels like a series in search of a story. Does it want to be an origins tale? A road trip movie on a yacht? Or even a mystical story about ghost zombies? It’s as though showrunner Dave Erickson has no delete key on his laptop. Instead of tossing out bad ideas, he goes through with them, tries to write himself out of it, and ends up writing himself into another bad idea. Rinse, lose one million more viewers, repeat.
Honestly, I’m not even that sure that Robert Kirkman is interested in a successful The Walking Dead spin-off. Last year, he was flip about the spin-off on the Nerdist podcast (jokingly suggesting that it could be the first in a series of NCIS-like spin-offs); he’s said that he’s not that involved in the series anymore besides approving storylines; and choosing Dave Erickson — one of the guys behind Low Winter Sun — as showrunner was either intentionally designed to sabotage Fear or it’s a clue as to the scarcity of good available showrunners during the PeakTV era. Either way, the result is an inconsistent, poorly written, badly executed shitshow whose only resemblance to The Walking Dead is that it also contains zombies, though far, far fewer of them.