Warning: This contains mild spoilers for Fear the Walking Dead Season 3.
“What a perverse family you have, Alicia,” smirks John Proctor (Ray McKinon) at the end of Fear the Walking Dead Season 3. He might be the villain, but we’ve all been thinking it for two seasons: The Clarks may be our heroes, but they’re not exactly a model group of relatives. The mum’s morally dubious, the son’s a recovering addict, the daughter’s not got much of a character, and the dad struggles to stay memorable. Season 3, though, takes some welcome steps to solve those problems, delivering the series’ best and most gripping run to date.
The show’s always faced the challenge of justifying its existence – after all, seen one show about people surviving a zombie apocalypse and you’ve seen them all. Central to that challenge has, all too aptly, been pacing: move too quickly and a zombie drama fails to give you anyone to care about; move too slowly and it loses any excitement or horror.
The formula follows the same basic premise: pull the survivors apart, assemble them in various combinations, then reunite them in a safe place, before that proves dangerous. But Season 3 manages to reuse that familiar cycle in a way that works, primarily by tying everything to one major location: the desert.
There’s a wonderful Western tinge to this season of survival, one that feels fitting, as we watch society teeter on the frontier of destruction. We move from an army base to a secluded ranch, before politics tear the place apart, taking us to our third location: a dam. That dam, though, underpins much of the action and tension throughout the season, as our fledgling/crumbling civilisation realises that one thing is more valuable than even an individual’s life: water. Without that, everyone will just die of thirst anyway, undead or no undead. It’s a nice shot of peril that can often be missing in Fear’s parent show – a bit like if a James Bond film acknowledged that 007 never goes to the bathroom. And it’s those kind of touches that help to distinguish Fear the Walking Dead, even as it repeatedly wanders back into generic territory.
The other strength lies in cast – and, specifically, the writers’ understanding of which members of the cast are worth keeping. A number of characters die in this season, or are simply tossed aside, to focus on others in the group. Travis (Cliff Curtis), for example, doesn’t figure very much for once, after an introduction that highlights his growing dark side, as he stands up to the American soldiers who are “processing” them at the US/Mexico border. Instead, Madison (Kim Dickens) hogs the screen-time, as her matriarch becomes increasingly intimidating and authoritative.
She’s easily the best thing in the show, given real weight and complexity by Dickens. Where Rick in The Walking Dead has worn viewers down over the years with his slide into immorality, Madison was introduced to us with a checkered past and a steely edge already in place. Season 3, rather than show us more of her strength, keeps us guessing by allowing her to show her kinder side – a number of times she lets key villains go, or shows mercy when you wouldn’t expect it. It might sound frustrating or inconsistent, but it gives Madison more nuance that other shows might, and Dickens sinks her teeth into it – her number one goal remains protecting her kids at any cost, a balancing act between endearingly maternal and dangerously blinkered. Half of the problems in the show aren’t caused by the zombie virus outbreak, but by her decisions. Best of all, if some haunting dreams are anything o go by, she’s starting to realise that.
The other of the problems stem from Troy (Daniel Sharman), the soldier who first interrogates the family in Episode 1. Emerging as the psycho son on Broke Jaw Ranch, where they become holed up, he’s the key antagonist – a self-centred, self-pitying man-child with a strong line in unhinged stares and even more unhinged attempts at revenge.
Of course, we already know that the real threat to humankind is other humans – listen up at the back of the lecture hall – but Broke Jaw Ranch allows Fear to address that theme in a more direct way, as a feud between the racist ranch owner, Otto (a wonderfully loathsome Dayton Callie), and the Hopi tribe (led by Qaletaqa Walker), whom he stole the land from, introduces a message of hope and cooperation in the face of collapsing democracy. It’s a pertinent nod to the current state of America, but one that’s given weight by Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), who comes into her own in the season’s mid-section, taking the lead among the survivors and, after being duped into acting as someone else’s pawn, showing everyone how to overcome prejudice.
Otto’s family drama, between good son Jake (Sam Underwood) and bad son Troy, makes for a compelling addition to the ensemble, and an effective contrast to the other family unit in need of reunion: Daniel (Ruben Blades) and Ofelia (Mercedes Mason). Blades is the MVP whenever he’s on-screen, even deservedly getting his own solo episode halfway through, as we see how he continues to survive not only the current hell he’s in, but also the past hell he was in as a bloodthirsty soldier. His backstory never feels forced or contrived, and always informs his actions in a disturbing, grisly or moving way. Can he be trusted? No. Is he intriguing? Absolutely.
He’s matched only by Victor (Colman Domingo) for value, and Domingo steals every scene he’s in, as his scheming lone wolf continuously finds ways to stay one step ahead of death. Fear the Walking Dead may have rushed its game a little in the opening seasons, so that we’re already in post-apocalyptic territory, but there’s much meat to be found in the gradually forming dystopia, from gangs ruling neighbourhoods to a trading bazaar where it’s a free-for-all for power and control. Victor is the epitome of that shyster society, capable of back-stabbing at any moment. It’s only suitable, then, that he should be the one to share a brief phone call with a Russian scientist orbiting the Earth, who confirms that the lights have been going off around the world: the epidemic isn’t just confined to America.
And what of Nick (Frank Dillane)? The series’ other perpetual outsider, Madison’s son feels more irrelevant than ever, thanks to a friendship with Troy that doesn’t quite ring true – particularly when it puts him in conflict with his mum. The occasional misstep aside, though, Fear the Walking Dead consistently finds ways to take its ensemble to interesting new places – the climax hinges upon Nick taking responsibility for events in a way that rings true, even if he did stumble in the episodes running up to it.
The result is a perverse family, but one that never fails to be entertaining. Indeed, Season 3 serves up a number of fresh and novel zombie scares (itself an achievemen), from the claustrophobic childlike terror of a walker creeping up on you in a plastic ball pit to the chilling spectacle of a horde of undead sweeping the desert plain. Crucially, the action is spaced out efficiently, never wearing out the impact of an undead attack, and giving the Clark family’s efforts to stay together enough time to resonate.
Proctor John, with his sneering remarks, is symptomatic of the season as a whole, turning up near the end like a rushed afterthought (a number of reunions feel far too contrived to fully work). But he holds potential to become someone more interesting, as he’s concerned not with wiping out everyone else, but in setting up a trade route between Houston and San Diego. Explosive twists and turns may leave you wondering whether that will happen, but more importantly, they leave you looking forward to the next season of Fear the Walking Dead for the first time. AMC’s unlikely prequel still stumbles in a lot of ways, but Season’s 3 pacing is sure-footed and confident and, when the other elements click into place, really quite riveting.
Fear the Walking Dead Season 4 starts on Monday 23rd April at 9pm on AMC on BT TV. Season 1 to 3 are available on Amazon Prime Video. For more information, see Where can I watch Fear The Walking Dead?.