Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Any Walking Dead fans still seething about that season finale cliffhanger might want to think twice before diving into the somewhat anticipated return of Fear the Walking Dead. In its second season, the prequel/spinoff seems to have taken more cues from its sister show than it did throughout its tight, six-episode first season, meaning that what made Fear a sporadically thrilling but surprisingly thoughtful take on societal breakdown when it arrived last summer has largely been cast aside in favor of a plodding procedural structure that reimagines the cast of characters as a traveling band of misfits witnessing the end of the world one tragedy at a time.
Unlike last season, which was set in a rapidly crumbling Los Angeles, Fear‘s sophomore run strands its protagonists at sea, on an expensive-looking yacht either owned or stolen by the mysterious Victor Strand (Colman Domingo), whose motivations for taking on the rest of the survivors remain murky.
On paper, dropping these characters – a motley crew that contains a man who’s just lost his wife and a son who’s just watched his estranged father shoot his (infected) mother – in a claustrophobic, contained space sounds like a terrific way to ramp up the suspense. But in the three episodes sent out for review ahead of premiere, Fear somehow misses most of its opportunities to mine the dramatic gold peppered throughout its character’s tangled dynamics, instead favoring a revolving door of apocalyptic scenarios (including armed looters, floating zombies, and other disturbed survivors) over any real character development.
That’s a shame, especially given how some of the core players evolved over the course of the first season. Madison (Kim Dickens) came into her own as a mother wolf, fiercely protective of her family and understandably distrustful of authority figures who’d complicate her ability to keep them safe. The peaceful Travis (Cliff Curtis) was gradually hardened by the harrowing experience of watching the world fall around him, to the point where he became someone capable of violence. Nick (Frank Dillane), an addict and a junkie well on his way to being down and out, emerged as a tenacious survivor and unexpected leader. These players, and others, underwent fascinating shifts in their psyches that, even amid messy plotting, made the show worth watching.
And so it’s mightily frustrating that, as Fear returns, it seems to have simultaneously forgotten, emotionally speaking, what these characters have been through and stopped caring as much about where they’re going. Madison too easily bends to Strand’s will, Travis is unwilling to help others in need, and Nick – well, Nick is just acting flat-out weird, making the kinds of pea-brained decisions even season 1 Carl would have rolled his eyes at. In trying to pinpoint exactly why so many of the characters feel less engaging this time around, what eventually becomes apparent is that Fear has been refocused.
The slow-burning paranoia that distinguished the series in its freshman outing has been peeled away, to reveal a show more interested in simply laying out the assorted zombie-related horrors of its increasingly familiar world, not the resultant toll of living in such a fast-brewing hellscape.
In the season’s explosive opening, the gang escapes the coast by boat, laying waste to numerous walkers as they flee the army’s napalm bombing of L.A. and even sending one to a watery grave with a boat propeller to the face. It’s gory, violent, mildly entertaining, and largely at odds with the kind of show Fear claimed to be when it arrived, one more about the psychological impact of the apocalypse than its body count.
Throughout the three episodes provided for review, the walking dead are everywhere, bobbing along toward the yacht like predatory driftwood, or crawling ashore as dripping skeletons of sodden flesh and chomping teeth. They seem to have inherited the starring role in this spinoff, given how frequently their arrival is used to inject intrigue or danger into scenes that are largely lacking both otherwise. That’s a problem; Fear boasts a fine crop of actors, especially Domingo (who continues to make Strand the most entertaining and watchable character on the show) and Rubén Blades (whose Salvadorian refugee/torture expert Daniel Salazar was one of the series’ best midseason additions), but it’s giving them all short shrift, focusing on the visual horror of flesh-eating corpses without working to properly capture the subtler, more cerebral horrors of what their presence and increasing dominance signifies for the characters.
There’s time for Fear The Walking Dead to improve throughout this much expanded sophomore run – but its first installments are off to a shaky start, with too much emphasis on ultimately pointless diversions and not enough on the potentially rich blend of character dynamics the series seemed well on its way to exploring by the end of last season. As long as the show’s scares are derived from momentary obstacles, rather than the characters themselves, there won’t be much to fear – or even enjoy – about this spinoff at all.
Adrift in choppy dramatic waters, the series is focusing too much on external threats, rather than the psychological terrors that its great actors are so capable of depicting.