Although creators Dave Erickson and Robert Kirkman advertised Fear The Walking Dead (2015) as a family drama with the occasional zombie, the biggest complaint against the show's slow-burning starter season has been its overwhelming focus on family drama. It’s a halfway invalid argument -- the reason folks love The Walking Dead (2010) isn’t just because of the zombies; it’s because of the people. The parent series is a family drama in its own right with a cobbled family of misfits that survive and die as a unit. There’s genuine investment in the characters, each bringing their own personality and skills that make us sad to see them go. Fear The Walking Dead is merely an elaboration on that premise.
Its fault, however, lies in the fact many viewers didn't find its characters very interesting. Six episodes deep, Fear’s family unit is nowhere near as cohesive and intriguing as The Walking Dead’s was at the closure of its tiny (yet equally awkward) opening season, and that trouble has colored Fear’s entire concept.
People wanted to see a different take on The Walking Dead, one set in a different space, in a different timeline, with a new perspective. That’s exactly what Fear is, but the execution is what counts. Doing a show with less of the zombie violence people love is fine. Focusing more on the family drama is not a problem, but you’d better make sure that family is interesting. And for the most part, Fear didn’t do that. It hasn’t been a bad program; it just hasn’t been able to attract devotion and passion the way its parent series has.
Fear also promised we'd see the breakdown of civilization but then time-jumped past a lot of it. The world went from riots to an ad-hoc martial law without showing us how, which irked many viewers.
Brian Lowry of Variety called the first season of Fear “an operation that failed, but the patient still lived.”
Perhaps all that is partly the result of AMC ordering a second season before this series even began. The showrunners already knew they had a lot more time to build things up, so they intentionally took it slow. That remains to be seen, but it’s distinctly possible that season two will manage to encourage the same devoted fandom as The Walking Dead, despite the different context. Either way, Fear spent the bulk of its first season focusing on thin characters whom audiences had trouble caring about. Characters seemed disconnected and oddly motivated. Travis (Cliff Curtis) is an overwhelming pacifist whose obsession with reassuring everyone gets old quick. Madison (Kim Dickens) is a school guidance counselor who is terrible at talking to her own family. David (Ruben Blades) is a barber who just happens to be a former Salvadoran torture expert. Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) doesn’t really have any purpose other than to look cute. And the rest, like Nick (Frank Dillane) and Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie), have felt expendable from day one.
But the finale, titled "The Good Man," made a number of moves to push Fear into the territory of its bigger, badder predecessor. It kept the personal interpretation of the zombie apocalypse that has defined the series, with its limited worldview and perspective, but added some fuel to its dramatic fire. Instead of drama based on whether or not Chris saw a flashlight in a distant building, there was drama about whether or not Nick and Strand (Colman Domingo) were going to get torn to shreds in a zombie-filled hallway. Instead of Chris and Alicia smashing a rich family’s house, we saw Ofelia (Mercedes Mason) and Daniel (Ruben Blades) standing over a heap of charred humans, knowing their dead mother/wife was somewhere in the pile. And instead of domestic quibbles over ex-wife/girlfriend issues we struggle to appreciate given little background context, we saw Travis transform from an opaque pacifist to a man capable of beating a traitorous soldier to death with his fists and mercy-killing his recently infected ex-wife Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez) with a bullet to the forehead.
The world of The Walking Dead, whether in comic or television form, is based on extremes. That's a very important truth to remember. The ordinary, everyday drama the characters experienced in the first five episodes simply don't have enough weight to make them engaging in The Walking Dead's environment. In a world filled with zombies and inescapable virus, nobody cares about a detoxing heroin addict in a Walter White outfit. “The Good Man” takes the dramatic leap to new places, transforms characters, and introduces a more legitimate context for its troubles.
Travis has been called one of the weaker characters of the series. His transformation in the finale likely changed some minds, as the writers finally flipped his apocalypse switch and powered up someone who might actually be capable of surviving in this world. While his family-protecting attitude is still a foil to the mysterious Strand, an odd character who seems dedicated to self-interest, Travis has grown some confidence. And in doing so, he eliminated Liza, one of the group’s few characters with useful skills that would have helped them moving forward. That’s the type of complications the show needed. Each character is starting to slip away from who they were and transition into someone built for the apocalypse.
While the episode’s motions were still confined to the small geography of its main characters, the episode finally featured some shots of greater Los Angeles. They were nice to see and a refreshing foreshadowing of what’s to come. There’s clearly nowhere safe in a powerless, burning city.
Plus, “The Good Man” finally gave zombie-hungry viewers what they’d been waiting for. Alhough it was humorously silly when Daniel somehow corralled 2,000 zombies into the military district like the world’s most incredible zombie sheepdog, it felt good to see them. The way the military helicopters pulled out from the area is important, establishing the “you’re on your own” theme that should define future episodes. That action also caused secondary character Dr. Exner (Sandrine Holt) to metaphorically go down with her ship, reaching for the cattle gun to off herself instead of attempting to fight through the terror. The apocalypse isn't for everyone.
Fear the Walking Dead likely still has its work cut out for it next season, but it’s likely that legions of Walking Dead fans will tune in to see how it plays out. The finale showed some signs of encouragement that may give the naysayers reason to revisit the series when it returns, while those who were fans all along should not have been disappointed. The series creators may have known exactly what they were doing by giving us a six-episode setup period. Either way, it seems Fear is keeping its identity while treading closer towards The Walking Dead territory.