Why are Walking Dead-related projects so good at starting stories and so bad at ending them?
I can hardly count the number of times I’ve written a review of the early going of a season of The Walking Dead by declaring that the show seems to have finally found its course, only to watch the season slowly unravel because the characters can never stay in one place too long, lest the show lose its sweet zombie core.
And now the same is true of Fear the Walking Dead. The spinoff series has now aired three sets of episodes within its two seasons, and all three of them started out promisingly, only to fall apart in the end.
The show’s trouble with endings has perhaps never been more pronounced than in the second half of season two, which concluded with the two-hour season finale "Wrath"/"North" on Sunday night. The half-season started strong, with several episodes that functioned as a pseudo-travelogue about the series’ new setting in Mexico.
But by the last few episodes, it was obvious that Fear the Walking Dead would fall back into the same old patterns the larger franchise keeps returning to: A seemingly viable fortress would be found, and then the characters would do something stupid to screw it all up. Rinse and repeat.
Without stronger characters, Fear the Walking Dead is doomed
What makes this story rut so frustrating is that Fear the Walking Dead has always had a slightly mushy core. The show desperately wants to be a family drama with zombies, but the family at its center has rarely been worthy of the attention bestowed upon it.
There are exceptions. If season two has made one thing clear, it’s that Fear the Walking Dead is about Madison, the family matriarch played by Kim Dickens, and the more the show progresses, the more it seems like she might evolve into a riff on Apocalypse Now’s megalomaniacal Colonel Kurtz.
Over the course of the half-season, as she set up a safe haven at a hotel and then had to make tough decisions about whom to admit and whom to turn out into the dark, zombie-filled wasteland, it was easy to see how someone might go from having the best of intentions to doing truly horrible things in the name of their family and tribe’s safety.
Dickens has always been a better actor than the material Fear the Walking Dead has given her, and to say I was intrigued by the notion of her slowly becoming a loathsome leader would be an understatement.
But, nah. The season finale first shows her longtime boyfriend, Travis (Cliff Curtis), beating two tourists to death (more on that in a bit), and then Madison deciding to accompany him and her daughter, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), back out into zombie land. Rather than fight to hold on to what she’d built, Madison fights to hold onto her family.
On the one hand, I get it. Family is important. On the other hand, do these people know a zombie apocalypse has happened?
It’s been weeks and weeks since civilization fell, and the characters on Fear the Walking Dead continue to behave as if they expect the cavalry to be around every corner. They continue to blunder into obvious traps, make stupid decisions that lure ever more dangerous bands of vigilantes toward them, and repeatedly get in the way of their own survival, all in the name of family.
Madison, at least, is making bad choices in the name of finding her son, Nick (Frank Dillane), but he long ago made it clear that he doesn’t really want anything to do with her.
Yes, personal problems might override questions of immediate survival at some point, but it really feels like the post-zombie world is neither the time nor the place.
Fear the Walking Dead took pointless stabs at social commentary
Even harder to take in season two were Fear the Walking Dead’s occasional stabs at social commentary. Travis’s son, Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie), revealed a darker side in the wake of society’s fall and his mother’s death (the latter occurred in the season one finale), when he shot an innocent farmer early in the season’s second half, mostly in cold blood. (There was about 15 percent self-defense in there.)
Travis took this hard — as you might expect — but Chris decided to leave his dad behind and head out into the wilds in a pickup truck with two American tourists the pair had befriended before Travis realized the tourists were essentially running roughshod over the rural Mexican landscape.
Fear the Walking Dead attempted to add social relevance to the mix, namely with a story about ugly Americans taking other countries for granted, but the relationship between Chris and Travis, always the show’s weakest one, wasn’t really the best way to bring this idea to the foreground.
Now, I have to admit that when Travis found out from the tourists that Chris had died in a car accident — the audience got to see it in flashback, so we’d know their story was true — I was impressed by the ruthlessness of this story turn.
Travis worried when Chris left him that he’d never see his son again, and he didn’t. It felt, for once, suitably post-apocalyptic.
Yet at the same time, the show had never done enough with Chris to make the character worth mourning. In season one, he was a blank to be filled in later, and in season two, he sort of randomly became a homicidal maniac.
The in-between of that story never made sense, so when Travis snapped and beat the two tourists to death upon learning of his son’s demise (which necessitated his exit from the hotel and ultimately drew Madison away from the hotel to accompany him), it felt less like a valid character choice and more like the show needing to put the family on the road again.
Nick’s storyline might have been the worst of them all
The reason they need to be on the road again is that Nick, simultaneously the series’ best and worst character, wandered in the desert for a while, fell into a small Mexican colonia run by a pharmacist/drug-runner, then somehow became the head of the colonia because he was one of Fear the Walking Dead’s series regulars. (And this is me being charitable. There were times in season two when the series unintentionally portrayed Nick, a white guy in the midst of an otherwise Mexican community, as the only character who knew how things should be done.)
Nick is a good character, because unlike his family members, he understands and accepts that society is over and is fascinated by the scrap heap left behind.
But he’s a terrible character because Fear the Walking Dead strains so hard to tie his personal apocalypses — a drug addiction and his father’s death — to the actual apocalypse, and it never really works. The colonia was supposed to give him something to care about. Instead, it made him seem ever more callous, as he kept almost ruining it for few good reasons.
Anyway, by the end of the season, the colonia had fallen to the drug lords who’d been threatening it, in increasingly turgid fashion, over several episodes — but it didn’t matter, because Nick and his new girlfriend Luciana (Danay García) had led "their people" to safety just over the US border. And then they were attacked by men with guns and seemingly dragged to their doom.
Safety as a mirage is a longtime Walking Dead ideal, but the franchise has been spinning stories like this for so long that we already know how this one will go: Nick and Luciana will be taken captive. She might die. He won’t. Either just Nick or both of them will be rescued by Madison, Travis, and Alicia (who are just a couple of steps behind), and former compatriot of the group Ofelia (who was taken captive by Deadwood and Sons of Anarchy vet Dayton Callie in the first hour of the finale, then never appeared again) will factor in somehow.
Obviously, The Walking Dead and its spinoff have grown hugely successful thanks to this formula, but it’s tiresome to see Fear the Walking Dead abandon interesting ideas and potentially cool story arcs in favor of the same pointless wandering that doomed its parent series.
The Walking Dead was never better than in its fourth and fifth seasons, when it was telling character-based short stories set amid the zombie apocalypse. That its spinoff already feels too predictable after two seasons should be a big warning sign.