Fear the Walking Dead Season 2 returned to UK TV this week for Part 2, with Episode 8 broadcast exclusively on AMC for BT TV customers on Monday 22nd August – and subsequent episodes airing every Monday. With Episodes 1 to 7 now available to buy on Amazon Instant Video, we look back at the first half of the prequel’s season run.
Warning: This contains spoilers.
Fear the Walking Dead set itself an impossible task with Season 1, attempting to live up to the colossal success and reputation of AMC’s The Walking Dead. But Season 2 brings the scale of that challenge into sharp relief, as the programme finds itself having to confront not just the problem of comparison, but of character development.
The aim of the prequel is simple: chronicle the collapse of normal society, as the zombie apocalypse gradually takes hold. Rather than show us flashes of kindness under the surface of monstrous brutality, a la The Walking Dead, Fear shows us glimpses of monsters lurking beneath the surface of humanity. The resulting problem is just as elemental: in creating the most everyday, average characters possible, the series also lands itself with the blandest people imaginable, which means the onus is on Season 2 to flesh them out. Over its first half, it doesn’t always succeed.
Over the years, the zombie franchise has established a cycle for developing its ensemble: splitting them up halfway through the season, bringing them back together again come the finale, leaving them to survive on their own against harsh, unknown threats, or giving them sanctuary in some kind of closed community that turns out not to be safe after all. Fear the Walking Dead follows them to the letter, but with mixed results. Episode 2, for example, takes Travis and the others ashore for a brief spell, only to find themselves in a home with a suicidal father. A scene where a child turns and attacks its mother is genuinely horrifying, but with the whole group effectively writing themselves off, it’s hard for the hour to come across as anything else but filler.
The only thing we really get from the incident is a glimpse of Chris becoming gradually more violent. The shift from civilised to homicidal is another classic The Walking Dead trope, but the transformation of Travis’ son never quite rings true; within a matter of episodes, Chris has shot someone, who may or may not have been turning into a walker, and stood by watching calmly as Madison is attacked. By the time he’s found standing over Madison and Alicia at night with a knife, it’s just plain ridiculous.
It’s a shame, because Madison, who becomes increasingly wary of Chris, continues to impress, despite being lumbered with that subplot. Increasingly headstrong in the face of the suspicious Strand, on whose boat our gang have all taken up residence, she shows, time and time again, glimpses of real grit – the kind of grit that we know will help further down the line. She’s clearly not about to be killed off any time soon.
Strand, too, is a fascinating character, if not the best in the whole show. When the group find the survivors from the plane crash in the web series Flight 462, he doesn’t hesitate to cut the tow line for Alex’s life raft to keep the main boat safe. But we eventually discover what his motivation is for such decisive actions: he is racing to reunite in Mexico with his lover, Thomas Abigail (Dougray Scott). Their relationship plays out in cute flashbacks, with Scott smouldering and teasing and Colman Domingo remaining wonderfully aggressive and matter-of-fact about everything, including romance.
It’s a wonderfully unexpected treat, turning the controlling, macho man in someone tender and sweeter than one might expect – it’s no coincidence that it’s this departure from convention that really makes Season 2 worth watching, while a central set piece involving a hostage situation (turns out Jack and those other guys Alicia was hooking up with over the radio weren’t nice people at all, instead planning to take over Strand’s boat – quelle surprise) feels straight out of The Walking Dead playbook.
Speaking of which, how about that closed-off community, eh? That would be Celia’s compound, the location of our climax that recalls Hershel’s farm from Season 2 of The Walking Dead. Celia, it turns out, believes that the walkers are still a remnant of their former, human selves – something that is a guaranteed sign of doom. As she talks to Nick, telling him how special he is, Marlene Forté is impressively intriguing, but Nick’s susceptibility to her maternal mentoring is another misstep – not because it’s illogical (Nick has always been positioned as an unstable type, and Frank Dillane is very good at playing it), but because it happens too quickly.
Much of Fear the Walking Dead’s problems could, you suspect, be solved simply by slowing down. Nick’s journey from unbalanced to seemingly sane, the opposite of Salazar’s shift from composed to uncontrolled, as he’s haunted by the ghost of his ex-wife and his time as a soldier, makes for a neat juxtaposition, but both transformations feel rushed; when Salazar burns down the compound to kill Celia and her basement full of secretly locked-up zombies (hello, again to Hershel’s farm), it’s less a mad act of guilt and more a rapid waste of one of the show’s most interesting characters, before the series has even really started. (With no sign of his body, here’s hoping he’s actually survived.)
And so we’re left with Strand as the show’s MVP, going from a selfish man, cutting that life boat raft, to a hero who comes back to the compound (after being exiled by Celia) to save Madison, Alicia and Salazar’s daughter, Ofelia, from the fire. Is it the fact that he had to kill Thomas that helped instil a conscience in him? Or just exposure to the nice folk around him for these past 13 episodes?
And what about Travis? Travis, bless his beige cotton socks, is the show’s major weakness. Fear the Walking Dead has improved some things in its second season, fleshing out some characters, such as Salazar, Nick, Madison and Strand, as well as stepping up its gory game – the zombie encounters are grisly and growing in number – but Travis remains the same old guy. Is he a noble father figure fighting to save his family, or a damp cloth out of his depth? Neither answer is particularly compelling, and as the ensemble’s de facto leader, his decisions never seem to pay off well for anyone. While Strand has nicely evolved, Travis’ presumably intended journey from weak everyman to resilient survivor real hasn’t taken hold. In the climactic mid-season finale, for example, Chris flees and Travis goes after him to help him – leaving Madison alone with Alicia, Ofelia and Strand. He’s abandoning his family to do his supposed duty, a move that annoys rather than inspires or engages. Nick, on the other hand, at least as clearer motivations for also heading off into the wilderness by himself. Plus his new hobby of covering himself in walkers’ blood to avoid being attacked makes him inherently more bad-ass and much cooler than Travis ever will be.
The result is a cliffhanger that leaves us frustrated as much as excited. There are signs here that Fear the Walking Dead has the potential to deliver strong guts, while the dividing up of the cast suggests that there’s an overall plan in place to reunite them gradually once more – hopefully, it’ll find the time to make them more interesting before that happens.
Fear the Walking Dead Season 1 and 2 are available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. For more information, see Where can I watch Fear The Walking Dead?.
Photo: Justin Lubin/AMC