Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 3 and 4 of Fear the Walking Dead. Not seen Season 4? Catch up with our spoiler-free review of the opening episodes here.
“You think you know what happened. You don’t,” said Victor (Colman Domingo) halfway through the first part of Fear the Walking Dead’s Season 4, and it’s a feeling that anyone watching the show’s timey-wimey opening half no doubt sympathised with. AMC’s spin-off series, which excelled in its third season to become something distinct and promising, has since gone on to become a little too ambitious in its storytelling – and a little too careless with its existing characters.
That was all perhaps evident in the way the season began: by introducing Morgan (Lennie James) from The Walking Dead as a new member of the ensemble. That move, which gives the always-excellent James a welcome showcase, required a time-jump from Fear the Walking Dead to bring it in line with its undead cousin, and that willingness to chop and change an original series just to fit with a wider franchise at best opened up intriguing opportunities and, at worst, threatened to derail the entire programme.
After its uneven but hopeful opening episodes, Part 1 of Season 4 had some sublime moments that ranked alongside the best of The Walking Dead. That mostly came courtesy of John Dorie and Laura’s near-standalone chapter, which saw the kind-hearted gunslinger welcome the stranger into his home, only for the two to bond over games of Scrabble. Garret Dillahunt was wonderful as John, softly spoken but strongly-intentioned, while Jenna Elfman’s nurse gradually opening up to him was hugely moving to see as she thawed.
What worked very well was the way that the show then pitted these newfound friends, who had won our hears, against the very characters that we’ve grown to like over the three previous seasons: Alicia, Nick, Victor and Luciana became the bad guys up against John and Laura – and, after their paths crossed, Morgan too.
Why? Part 1 worked it way slowly towards answering that mystery, and it was a bold move, one with a strong concept of hinging it all upon one emotional climax.
On paper, the midseason finale is therefore a smart way to draw a line in the sand between this spin-off’s past and future. In practice, it’s a lot messier than that, as we jump back and forth in time to depict the chaotic war zone of the present and the storylines of each group beforehand. The problem inherent in going back and forth is evident in the way that Nick unexpectedly died three episodes in – a loss of one of the show’s most unpredictable characters, and one that wasn’t seen coming at all, leaving us feeling robbed. When John Dorie was shot by Alicia a couple of episodes later, we genuinely thought he was about to be written out as well – such is our distrust of the writing team, and their scant regard for characters with depth.
Compare them both to The Vultures and you sense how less compelling the Big Bads of this season are – but, in a neat mid-finale twist, that’s because they don’t turn out to be the Big Bads at all. Mel (Kevin Zegers), their leader, emerges as a scavenger, not a hunter – he only threatened the baseball community Madison founded because he genuinely thought they’d implode, opening up the way for him to pounce on their leftovers. His brother, Ennis, though, has less rational ideas, and decides to push the community into decline himself, by rounding up trucks of walkers and letting them loose on the stadium.
It’s this attack that forms the basis of Episode 8, and we soon discover that the cost of their invasion is one that’s even worse than Nick dying: Madison (Kim Dickens) dies too, sacrificing herself to save her kids.
It’s a noble decision, one that sums up precisely the kind of steely determination that made Madison such an effective, engaging protagonist. “Someone helped me when she didn’t have to. I think it’s time for us to do the same,” she says, wistfully, in a flashback that reveals she crossed paths with Althea – Maggie Grace’s hardened journo reporter – and recorded her own story on video camera. And so, inspired by Althea, Madison started building up the baseball stadium as a sanctuary. But when everyone flees in the face of Ennis’ zombies, she uses the fortified walls to try and keep all the walkers in – and by letting off a flare to draw them inside (thus allowing Nick and Alicia to escape), she traps herself inside with them.
It’s a loss that we begin to see coming after several episodes of chrono-hopping, but Episode 8’s reveal is no less annoying, as the actual set piece is riddled with illogical character choices. On top of that is the fact that, along with Victor and Nick, Madison was one of Fear’s best characters. Season 3 worked so well not because Travis’ departure was a shock, but because it was needed to give more space over to its strongest core players.
The aftermath of the stadium incident is admittedly an impressive one, as it opens up the chance to see Alicia, Luciana and Victor in a new light – the gunfight that consumes Episode 7 and 8 is a gripping piece of action, and Alycia Debnam-Carey executes her vengeance-fuelled sister and daughter (bereaved twice over) with a fiery conviction that bodes well for her future role in the series. At one point, she’s so angry that she lets loose a bazooka at Mel, as he tries to drive off with Charlie.
There are similarly strong moments for Morgan, as he talks Alicia down from a killing spree, for Althea, as she interacts with Madison (and we get a better sense of no-nonsense, no-lies, no-attachment journalistic ethics), and for John, as he bleeds out slowly in a truck, watched over by Althea and Charlie – but, fortunately, doesn’t die.
While the pay-off works in some regards, though, it’s a frustrating slog to get there, thanks to the series’ not-always agile balancing of timelines – the cinematography, which gave us a colourful, cheerful past contrasted with the grey, bleak present, was a nice touch, but the pacing was frequently off. The script also fumbles Laura’s character a bit, changing her name from Naomi and then to June for no real reason, which makes you wonder whether this show is heading in the right direction; after smartly axing an unnecessary character in Season 3, Season 4’s double serving of pointless deaths makes this spin-off feels closer to The Walking Dead in more ways than one.
However, Fear the Walking Dead’s drive to become more than just the same thing over and over is a reassuring indication of a future vision, as it tries to shake up both its setting, characters and tone – the Western-tinged opening titles are a treat every time. If the writers can recapture the tender drama of John and Laura’s first episode, and use Morgan without descending into repetition, there’s room for Fear the Walking Dead to continue exploring fresh territory and grow further still. But as Part 1 goes to show, ambition is one thing and execution is another entirely. Even once we know what happened, we end up wishing we didn’t.
Fear the Walking Dead Season 4 Part 1 and 2 are available on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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