Warning: SPOILERS for Fear the Walking Dead
One thing that both Fear The Walking Dead and its more popular cousin, The Walking Dead, have in common is their penchant for killing off characters at shocking junctures in order to create an atmosphere that no character in the series is ever safe. The Walking Dead has done this on many an occasion and Fear The Walking Dead most recently pulled the same trick with poor Travis, who was shot by an unknown assailant while riding in a helicopter.
Last season, one of the biggest casualties (seemingly) was Daniel Salazar, played by Ruben Blades. For much of his tenure on the show, Daniel was a quiet yet fierce man who maintained a logical and tactical will to survive and protect his family. Sadly, after the death of his wife Griselda, Daniel succumbs to the mental strain of the apocalypse and quickly unravels into a full-scale mental breakdown which eventually leads to him apparently committing suicide by setting a wine cellar on fire with gasoline, himself still inside. In last night’s episode “TEOTWAWKI” however, Daniel returned as part of Dante’s group keeping Strand captive at the Dam. This revelation had been previously confirmed by show-runner Dave Erickson.
Of course, this biggest question this raises is “How dead is ‘dead’ in Fear The Walking Dead“.
It’s not uncommon for a show to try and make it look like a character has bitten the dust, only for them to re-appear further down the line. Glenn did the same in The Walking Dead, after all. But it’s important to execute these reveals in a proper way and there’s a strong argument to be made that Daniel’s return in Fear the Walking Dead is a narrative misstep that not only undermines the character’s previous “death” scene, but also turns the audience’s belief that no one is safe into a sense of mistrust and a feeling that unless a character’s brains are literally spread across the floor in graphic detail on screen, they might still be alive.
Daniel Salazar’s character development over the course of the show’s first two seasons was certainly patchy and his descent into madness was perhaps a little abrupt, but nevertheless the character’s false death scene at the climax of season two seemed like a fitting exit for the man. Plagued by his past, Daniel began to see the ghosts of the people he had killed, ultimately leading to his grand act of arson. In a strange way, the scene also had an aura of atonement, as the fire Daniel caused helped Madison and her family escape from the dangerous compound they were currently residing in. To all intents and purposes, the scene was as close to a perfect send-off as Daniel Salazar could’ve hoped for.
Despite viewers not actually seeing him burn, the scene also appeared rather definitive and although his daughter Ofelia never found a corpse, the feeling was very much that Daniel had perished in the flames.
Because of this, bringing the character back in season three hurts the show both in terms of the audience trusting the series to tell a compelling, responsible narrative and by damaging Fear The Walking Dead’s ability to be believable (as far believable goes in a zombie story, anyway). Any television series, movie or book wants the audience to connect with its characters and there is an unwritten contract that if the audience will invest in the characters, the story will handle them properly. Some would perhaps argue that Fear The Walking Dead‘s ensemble hasn’t exactly been easy for fans to care about but nevertheless, by having Daniel survive what appeared to be a very fitting and final death scene, all the emotions viewers felt during that moment are rendered void and therefore the audience will be hesitant to invest emotionally in a character again, for fear of another rug-pull.
Keeping things realistic is also an issue. Whilst it wouldn’t have been impossible for Daniel to physically escape the flames – and the show may still provide a flashback to explain exactly how he survived – the character’s apparent restoration to relative sanity is something of a concern.
At the time of the fire, Daniel was hallucinating, suicidal and seemingly out of touch with reality. Assuming that highly-skilled therapists aren’t easy to find in the zombie apocalypse, how on Earth did Daniel come back from such a dark place in time to escape the fire he had seemed so intent on lighting only moments earlier? Sure, Fear The Walking Dead wouldn’t be the first show to play fast and loose with mental health – Rick’s phantom phone in The Walking Dead springs to mind – but it does, once again, undermine previous story lines.
Alas, regardless of whether or not if was the right thing to do, Daniel Salazar is back and it’ll be interesting to see where he fits into the current Fear The Walking Dead landscape. With Travis now out of the picture (or is he…?) there’s an adult male vacancy in the show’s protagonist group and it’ll also be intriguing to witness the tense relationship between Strand and Salazar in the coming episodes. Daniel also seemed to be on a similar page to group leader Madison and will perhaps be a better companion for her than her own husband, who was maybe unsuited to the new world.
Eventually, of course, the entire group is likely to end up at the Otto ranch and once again, Daniel’s reaction to the compound could make for great material. Whilst he may find himself attracted to the Ottos’ religious foundations, his more skeptical nature will surely set alarm bells ringing, even if he, like Madison, recognizes the survival value in the ranch.
It’s also perhaps fair to say that Daniel Salazar is perhaps one of the better characters in a show that has struggled to create likeable protagonists and his return – and perhaps Travis’ exit – may indeed be an attempt to bring together the strongest, most compelling figures in the show as it heads toward a fourth season.
At least then, there are interesting routes for Daniel’s character to head down in this season of Fear The Walking Dead, even if the show’s approach to his false demise has been somewhat mishandled. Hopefully flashbacks will fill in some of these gaps, however, and turn what appears to be a poor decision into a somewhat justifiable one.
Fear The Walking Dead continues with ‘100’ June 18th on AMC.