Through the first two seasons, AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead seemed determined to separate itself from its parent series, The Walking Dead. It maintained a slower pace. The tone was completely different. It had a distinct look and feel. It took to the ocean. It crossed the American border. It tried a few stand-alone episodes. It began with a small cast, and insisted on mostly building all of its stories around the same eight characters. The show would introduce new characters, but then quickly abandon them. Fear didn’t quite understand what it wanted to be, except that it really didn’t want to be The Walking Dead.
That approach didn’t work for the series, which has seen its ratings shrink from 10 million to 3 million overnight viewers. With the season three premiere, however, showrunner Dave Erickson finally tried something different: It tried to be more like early season The Walking Dead, and the gambit paid off creatively in a big way, delivering two of the best episodes of the series run.
It succeeded largely by keeping the viewer off balance. Picking up in the aftermath of the shootout on the border last season, the episode threw us into a new environment. A wounded Luci and Nick are tossed into an underground bunker along with Travis, but it’s not the tearful reunion we might have expected. For reasons that do not become clear until much later in the episode, Troy Otto (Daniel Sharman, The Originals, Teen Wolf) and a group of men wearing military outfits are conducting science experiments on real people for what appears to be racist and sociopathic reasons. Troy and his men, including Willy (Noel Fisher, Shameless) weigh and measure each person, march them into a public restroom, and shoot them in the head in an attempt to determine how long it takes for a person to zombify based on age, weight, height and ethnicity. The science, however, is secondary. Mostly, Troy and his men get a kick out of killing innocent people of color.
Meanwhile, in a separate room, Troy is also making rape-y overtures toward Alicia and Madison, offering them safe haven in return for what appears to be a very steep price. It’s a chaotic, often intense episode that goes to hell about three-quarters of the way through when Travis, Nick, Madison and Alicia escape separately. Travis is captured and thrown into a pit of zombies and is forced to kill off two dozen walkers to save his life. Meanwhile, Madison sticks a spoon in Troy’s eye socket and holds him hostage until she is surrounded by another group of men led by Troy’s brother, Jake (Sam Underwood).
As it turns out, Troy is a sociopathic outlier conducting these experiments without Jake’s knowledge. Jake peacefully settles the situation and briefly reunites Madison, Travis, Nick and Alicia for one last time before a horde of zombies breaks loose (thanks to rats in the walls) and surrounds everyone. Alicia and Travis (along with an unconscious Luci) hitch a ride on a helicopter to the Otto Ranch, while Madison and Nick make their way to the Ranch with Trevor in a pick-up truck.
Just as it appears that things have calmed down and the audience can take a breather, however, the second episode — “The New Frontier” — begins, and within the first few minutes of the episode, Travis — ostensibly the lead of the show — is dead. The helicopter takes fire from an unexpected source, Travis gets shot in the neck, he opens the door to the helicopter, and he falls to his death, saving Alicia from having to deal with a zombified Travis.
It’s a shocking, heartbreaking and completely unexpected moment, maybe the most never-saw-it coming death in The Walking Dead universe, so far. It also ends the line of the Manawa family, who are apparently the Greenes of Fear the Walking Dead. Fans have reacted to the death of Travis with mixed emotions. Some have been critical of the show for killing of its strongest character, but many of those same fans have also been frustrated with the inconsistent development the character over the last two seasons. In any respect, Fear the Walking Dead is in desperate need of a shake-up, and whether fans agree with the way Travis went out, it should make it easier to move the show forward without the baggage of Travis’ grief and his aggressive and erratic behavior since the death of his son.
It’s easily the biggest death of the first two episodes, but hardly the only one. Noel Fisher’s Willy is devoured by a zombie who lives in a wall; a close friend of Jake’s is killed off in the woods after the chopper goes down; and in Strand’s subplot, we see Ilene Stowe (Brenda Strong) take her own life, but not before she and Hector banish Strand from the hotel for pretending to be a doctor. Strand is seen at the end of the second episode getting into a sports car and presumably leaving the hotel subplot behind. It won’t be missed.
Meanwhile, Madison et al. reunite again at the Otto Ranch, but this time without Travis. There’s a standoff between Nick and Troy over Luci after she nearly dies; Madison vomits her guts up after she realizes that Travis is dead; and the Clarks eventually agree to settle at the Otto Ranch after some reassuring words from the family patriarch, Jeremiah (Sons of Anarchy’s Dayton Callie, as always, playing peacekeeper, and potentially Fears‘ Hershel Greene).
We don’t know much about this new settlement yet, except that it is heavily armed and that Madison — who, after the death of Travis, is officially the de facto Rick of Fear the Walking Dead — plans to scheme and manipulate until she’s taken over the compound. It’s essentially the Alexandria storyline all over again, except that Madison’s allies are significantly fewer: Nick, Alicia, and a near-dead Luci. Alicia, however, appears to have some chemistry with good son, Jake, but everyone is skeptical of each others’ motivations.
However, given the outside threat — someone shot down Jake’s helicopter, and showrunner Dave Erikson has promised a Negan-like female villain this season — I am guessing that Madison Clark and the rest of her family will eventually assimilate with this group and go to battle with this new outside threat, just as Rick and Co., assimilated with the Greenes at the farm on The Walking Dead.
In other words, to its credit, Fear is beginning to mirror The Walking Dead with a quick succession of major and minor character deaths, a community like Alexandria to defend, a Rick-like leader in Madison, and an outside force like Negan on the horizon. Moreover, compared to earlier episodes of the series, “Eye of the Beholder” and “New Frontier” move at breakneck speed, similar to the way The Walking Dead picked up the pace when Glen Mazzara took over from the original showrunner Frank Darabont and gave the series the shot in the arm it so desperately needed.
Fear, too, feels like a rejuvenated series, a show that’s prepared to introduce new long-term characters, establish a home base, and fight to maintain a community instead of wandering aimlessly to find one. But then again, Fear the Walking Dead has displayed glimmers of promise before, only to fall back into its old ways. We’ll need a few more episodes before we can determine whether Fear has finally found its footing and can continue its momentum not by distinguishing itself from The Walking Dead, but rather by learning from the mistakes of the parent series and growing into a hopefully more creatively successful West coast facsimile.
— Where is Ofelia? We know that Jeremiah captured her last season, so presumably she’s on the new compound somewhere. It’s odd that she is not reintroduced in the first two episodes.
— We know that Daniel Salazar is returning to the series this season, but we have yet to see any sign of him.
— Not only does it appear that we’re going to have a Negan-like character later in the season, but with Troy, it appears that Fear has introduced its Governor, eyepatch and all.