About three-quarters of the way through the fourth season premiere of Fear the Walking Dead, Morgan Jones (Lennie James) — who crosses over from The Walking Dead — meets Althea, played by Maggie Grace (Lost). Playing a character who feels like a nod to World War Z, Althea drives around in a suped-up military vehicle loaded with machine guns. In one of her first exchanges with Morgan, she asks him about his past. Morgan, still traumatized over the events of the All-Out War, reluctantly shares a little about where he’s from.
“There was a place called ‘The Kingdom,” Morgan says, smiling at this absurdity. “It actually had a king. He even had a pet tiger,” he grins, eliciting a laugh out of Althea and their other travel companion, John (Garrett Dillahunt).
It’s a telling moment in the episode, which acts as a bridge between The Walking Dead and the new Fear the Walking Dead. In laughing off the King and his pet tiger, Morgan — in a way — is distancing himself from his own past. He’s not just putting the events of The Walking Dead behind him, the show itself seems to be putting that entire world behind it. Fear is not the show with the cartoon villain, the king with the tiger, or the bullet maker with a mullet and a strange way of speaking.
This is a new world, one that exists in the same universe, but one populated with more grounded characters. They still confront the day-to-day concerns of survival, but their more pressing concern is battling loneliness out in the Texas wasteland where nearly the entire population has been wiped out and returned as the living dead.
That loneliness is highlighted in the episode’s opening scene, which sees Dillahunt’s John carrying on a conversation with himself. It’s not just the first words he’s heard from someone else in a year, it’s the first words he’s heard himself speak, and he finds the sound of his own voice strangely intoxicating. Dillahunt plays a gunslinger in this new Fear, and he is the perfect cross between the kind of old-school cowboy that would fit right in on Deadwood and his more fun-loving but gentle Burt Chance character from Raising Hope. In fact, Dillahunt’s John is the guy who can do what no one else on The Walking Dead could do: bring Morgan out of his shell. The Morgan we meet at the beginning of the episode — the quiet, reserved guy we know from The Walking Dead — evolves. He’s still reticent and scarred, but his warmth is surfacing, and so is his sense of humor.
That is exactly what sets this new iteration of Fear the Walking Dead apart from both its parent series and the old Fear under showrunner Dave Erickson: It’s warmer and funnier, and the two new characters who we meet in this first episode are more human and relatable than the characters we’ve gotten to know over the last three years. There’s no Rick or The Governor or Carol counterparts. Paradoxically, by embracing The Walking Dead, Fear is better able to separate itself from it.
This new Fear, from showrunners Ian Goldberg and Andrew Chambliss (who also write the premiere with Scott Gimple), has its own beat, a new tone, and a lighter feel. Even the characters we know from the old Fear — who show up in the final seconds of the premiere — are different, with two or three more years of experience and 2,000 miles of travel behind them. Moreover, the challenges the characters face are unique to Fear. It’s not about winning a battle or claiming a stake in a new territory. This new Fear is about the search for human connection in a world where there are very few humans left, and that is a far more interesting journey than one about mere survival or neutralizing a villain.
It’s early yet, obviously, but there is immense potential to transform Fear into something more than just another zombie show set in a different part of the world. This does not appear to be a show about who dies next or what threat lurks behind the next corner. This is a show about characters adapting to this new world and learning how to create new families from the broken pieces of a shattered planet. It may never get the ratings of The Walking Dead, but it may win back the critical respect the parent series has lost over the last three seasons.