AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead struggled to make much of an impact during its six-episode first season and, though it gave us a strong finale, there were a few plodding narrative choices that felt like a waste of what was already a very limited stretch. One such misstep was the army quarantine and a sizable time leap, introducing us to the writers’ strange habit of popping in threats and squashing them out just as fast; as opposed to The Walking Dead‘s strong point of sticking with a conflict and milking all the nuance and tension out of it before giving us an action-packed explosion.
This approach meant the second season that followed was a bit all over the place, taking the exciting premise of trying to survive on a luxury cruise during an apocalypse and then all of the sudden zipping us to a hacienda; or bringing us to a hotel and then finally ending with a military detainment. This is where the third season starts, and based on the two episodes which have been released to media ahead of the double-premiere tonight, it seems the writers have refined their formula and are beginning to take necessary risks.
One benefit of resolving conflicts faster means that we no longer have to watch Madison screaming for Nick every episode. Even the weaker moments of The Walking Dead have come when one character is separated and the rest desperately tries to find them (see: Sophia in season two); there’s no exception here. Working with a smaller group than its sister series does necessitate splitting these characters and having them find each other every now and then, but so far that apocalyptic cliche hasn’t led to the most exciting of material.
Having Nick (and Luciana) detained by the same military encampment as Madison-Travis-Alicia takes care of that distance problem, and rather than have them reunite immediately the (first) episode has them split into separate groups where Nick and Travis are “processed” separately to Madison and Alicia. The former pair are flung into what is perhaps the shows darkest material yet, witnessing first-hand a small section of military riff-raff who are blatantly murdering people just so they can act like behavioural scientists and measure things like how long it takes for someone to turn (although having just one method of death – shooting them in the head – isn’t very scientific). The strength of this is to highlight the protective instincts of both Travis and Madison, two characters who have slowly moved from hopeful and impractical to cynical and pragmatic over the previous two seasons, an evolution which has been particularly strong in Travis’ case, leading to the standout events of “Wrath”.
Travis is the best example of this, seeing how a series of losses has shaped him into a survivor, and Cliff Curtis does an excellent job selling this during the premiere, even taking out – albeit off-screen – an unbelievable amount of the infected in a pit. However, and I don’t want to be spoiling anything here, a certain subsequent narrative choice threatens to undo the show’s high points, bringing us back to the problem of Fear the Walking Dead attempting to evolve so drastically so often that all sorts of balance is thrown off and what we end up with is an uneven mess.
One thing that could balance all that unevenness is the interesting new “safe-haven” that will hopefully define and anchor this season. It’s the ranch of a genuine doomsday-prepper, headed by Jeremiah Otto (the great Dayton Callie of Deadwood and Sons of Anarchy fame). Introducing team Madison to this seemingly secure location does bring in some strong possibilities, kind of like Hershel’s farm (from TWD Season 2) but better equipped to deal with the apocalypse. Now that the show is obviously trying to highlight how far Madison has come as a survivor, watching her and her family – even Alicia seems to be getting a more mature character arc, which means no more face-palming stupidity – try and fit in (or take charge) should give the actors considerable space to flex.
Meanwhile we’ve got Strand back at the hotel and while our brief time spent with him isn’t the strongest material, it’s clear the writers are smartly getting him out of that setting and hopefully pushing him towards the ranch. The other wild card here is Ofelia, whom was last seen getting shot at in the dessert; there’s no forward movement with here during the first two episodes but there’s enough here to give me faith that she’s not going to be falling into some empty plot hole this season.
How it ends up from here is anyone’s guess, but at least this season has started off with strength and genuine grit, both giving viewers the gutsy violence of a proper horror series and an atmosphere of real tension.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
This review is based on the first two episodes of Fear the Walking Dead Season 3, which both premiere in Australia on FX, Foxtel express from the U.S at 7:30pm AEST, Monday 5th June.
Feature image: Michael Desmond/AMC