Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 3 of Fear the Walking Dead and minor spoilers for Season 4. Not seen Season 3? Catch up with our review here.
“What’s your story?” asks Althea (Maggie Grace), one of the new characters in Fear the Walking Dead Season 4 – and that’s the question all fans will have on their minds, as the series’ return jumps forward in time to sync up with The Walking Dead and allow Morgan (Lennie James) to hop over to the spin-off.
“Why did you leave Virginia?” she asks him in the first episode. “I lost people, then I lost myself,” he replies. Different show, same old Morgan. That’s both the best and worst thing about his migration – Lennie James has always been one of the most compelling reasons to watch The Walking Dead, and it’s a pleasure just to see him get more space to do his thing, a thing that, in a nod to Season 8’s conclusion, also comes with a side portion of Rick Grimes et al., as they try to persuade the lone wolf with a stick not to leave them behind.
What happens between that departure and his path crossing with the Fear crew? Not really that much, judging by what we see, although it does introduce us to another new face: John Dorie (Garret Dillahunt), a cowboy type who also prefers to spend his time on his own. The gradual trust that builds between them is engagingly sincere, a mutual respect built on clean socks and baked beans – plus the ability to hold one’s own in a stand-off. That’s how they both come across Althea, a journalist determined to capture everyone’s life story on camera – at once an interesting way to ground the horror in human drama and a clever device to allow for exposition for both us and the other characters.
That’s all well and good, but the problem is that we’re not tuning into Fear the Walking Dead’s fourth season to meet new characters: we’ve spent three seasons getting to know an existing ensemble. That’s the cruel realisation that comes with Fear the Walking Dead’s time-jump – a bold step for the spin-off, but one that only remind us just how much it had improved and evolved in its first three runs, growing into a distinct, gripping companion piece to The Walking Dead proper. After dropping Travis midway through Season 3, the show tightened all its rough edges to deliver a riveting piece of character-driven drama, as we saw Madison (the ever-excellent Kim Dickens) and her family (both real and makeshift) pushed and pulled apart. The climax on the bridge as Nick (Frank Dillane) detonated the dam was a cliffhanger that demanded answers, and yet Season 4’s opening four episodes refuse to give us them; we don’t know how they all escaped from that scenario or where exactly they went. We don’t even know what’s helped to keep Victor Strand (MVP Colman Domingo) and Madison trusting each other, although their chemistry is as convincing and likeable as ever. And what of Season 3’s Big Bad, Proctor John?
Season 4’s leap into the future finds them holed up in a new sanctuary: a baseball field that has long since been abandoned. We know they’ve been there for a year, and by that time, each person has apparently settled into a routine of responsibilities and chores – Madison on lookout, Nick on gardening (he now refuses to go into the outside world), and both of them attempting to tease out the story of what happened to young ward Charlie, who has lost her parents.
But there’s trouble in paradise, of course, and the seeds of peril are sown right in their vegetable patch, as the food starts to go bad and Nick can’t figure out why. The moment he promises Charlie they’ll be fine and won’t have to go outside to find food is the moment you know things will go bad very soon.
And so it is that The Vultures descend, a cruel gang with a particularly nasty plan: not to storm the baseball field or wipe out any of the survivors, but to plonk themselves down outside and wait for them to implode. Then, once their community collapses, that’s when they’ll swoop in and waltz away with all the resources. It’s a ploy related with enjoyable foul gusto by Kevin Zegers’ Mel, who leads the crew with just enough of a different philosophy to distinguish himself from the other villains in The Walking Dead’s past.
But the more new faces Fear welcomes to the fold, the less time we have for the old favourites. Nick has a hard-hitting run-in with Ennis, the brother of Mel, which seems to tie him into the future plot, while Madison’s position as negotiator with Mel appears to put her in the forefront of the story. And yet neither feel like they’re the focus anymore, as Morgan, John and Althea first cross paths with our group in the middle of the road, with Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) crawling in the dirt, soon joined by Victor Strand and Luciana. There’s compelling drama to be found in the ambiguous bonds formed by the quiet Charlie, and a conversation between Nick and Morgan becomes a chat The Walking Dead has almost been building towards, as talk of vengeance and finding inner peace brings out new sides to both.
But Season 4 makes it clear that it’s more interested in spending time with Morgan and John, which is fine to a degree, but when Morgan’s role is largely the same as it was over several seasons of The Walking Dead, there are worrying signs that AMC’s spin-off might be paving the way to become closer to the original series in more ways than one. Fear The Walking Dead has previously learned lessons from The Walking Dead’s successes and mistakes, demonstrating a knack for killing off the right characters at the right time, and an ability to be patient and slow-paced where necessary. Here’s hoping, then, that Season 4’s story doesn’t lose sight of what’s come before. Lennie James’ joining of the show is hugely promising, but only if he hasn’t jumped ship to a identical vessel.
Fear the Walking Dead Season 4 Part 2 premieres at 9pm on Monday 13th August on AMC on BT TV. Part 1 is available to buy and download on Amazon Instant Video.