As showrunner Dave Erickson leaves Fear the Walking Dead, the season 3 finale presents the series with a potential new beginning ahead of season 4.
Showrunner turnover is nothing new to the Walking Dead; the mother ship of AMC's zombie franchise is practically defined by the sudden departures of Frank Darabont and Glen Mazarra before current showrunner Scott M. Gimple stepped in. But Fear the Walking Dead's Dave Erickson has been with the series from the beginning, and although the spinoff never quite achieved the same level of success as its predecessor, its start was markedly less tumultuous. Now, following a turbulent season 3 finale, the series is set not only to welcome a new showrunner (or in this case two, as Once Upon a Time's Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg are set to take over) in season 4, but also to start fresh, as the open-ended conclusion to season 3 leaves the fates of everyone but Kim Dickens' Madison Clark undecided.
The two-part conclusion, 'Things Bad Begun/Sleigh Ride', may have been another example of the storytelling limits of the post-apocalyptic series, but it does at least capitalize on the "No one is safe" selling point in a way that The Walking Dead hasn't been able to for years. Part of that is because the series is still relatively new in comparison, and part of that is due a lack of pre-existing comic book material dictating the show's direction. At any rate, with season 4, Fear the Walking Dead has a real opportunity to transform the show by capitalizing on the degree to which season 3 pushed the reset button.
If you're being optimistic, you can look at 'Things Bad Begun/Sleigh Ride' as some necessary housecleaning. After an interesting start to the series that documented the beginnings of the zombie apocalypse, Fear the Walking Dead fell into the same cyclical storytelling trap that's turned The Walking Dead into a repetitive slog for so long: the relative calm of an established sanctuary is disrupted as the increasingly morally compromised survivors can't ever seem to see eye-to-eye, while the promise of bloody conflict with an outside threat is generally all that drives the plot at this point. That was certainly true of season 3, which saw Madison, Nick, and Alicia caught in a scuffle over land between the Otto's of Broke Jaw Ranch and the Native American group led by Qaletaqa Walker.
But there's always a bigger threat looming on the horizon. That came with the arrival of the motorcycle club lead by Ray McKinnon's Proctor John, who wanted control of the dam currently under Lola and Daniel's jurisdiction. The Proctors don't offer the series anything that hasn't been seen before – a mildly charismatic leader surrounded by loyal, violence-prone charges that are as forgettable and disposable as the show's titular undead – but their assault on the dam does allow Erickson the opportunity to go out with a bang and for the series to double down on the evolution (or devolution) of Madison moving forward.
Before the credits rolled on season 3, Madison found herself all alone as the fates of Nick, Alicia, Strand, and Daniel were left up to Chambliss and Goldberg to figure out. The finale also teased a new setting that may return the series to a more urban locale not unlike season 1. It's a potential change in direction the series needs, and one that hopefully will bring about a more interesting conflict than the search for a shelter and the arrival of a power-hungry madman with access to automatic weapons.
One of the ways the show can do that is to take advantage of the finale's uncertainty and present Madison with the opportunity to really deal with the ethics of her actions this past season. When and if she's ever reunited with her children, Strand, and/or Daniel (should any or all of them return in season 4), the series might do well to accelerate Erickson's original, seven-season plan, and see Dickens' character as a far more morally compromised version than we're used to watching.
That would be in keeping with her recent trajectory, as Madison's confession about killing her father and the ease with which she played both sides of Broke Jaw Ranch against one another suggested a troublingly dark potential for her moving forward, all of which culminated in her swift execution of Troy after deciding he'd become too much of a liability. Turning the conflict into a family affair would also help bring the series full circle, as the main selling point when the spinoff was first announced was the dynamic of an average, middle-class family facing an end-of-the-world scenario together. That plan was put on hold as the series squandered the potential of a bold sea-faring narrative, and again as the characters wandered the wildernesses of Mexico and southern Texas for the last season and a half.
In doing so the show strayed too far from what made it unique in the first place – the disorienting newness of the zombie outbreak, and dystopian appeal of a ruined metropolis serving as the backdrop for an exploration of the lengths to which humans will go to survive. Nick's destruction of the dam, at the risk of his and his family's lives, is a fitting way for Erickson to depart the show, but in addition to giving the incoming showrunners a nearly blank slate to start from, it brings a flood of potential for a series whose promise has mostly gone unrealized.
Fear the Walking Dead returns for season 4 in 2018 on AMC.