Fear the Walking Dead season 3 puts its characters in a repetitive set of circumstances, proving the franchise is in desperate need of new ideas.
You might think that, prequel or not, Fear the Walking Dead would learn from the missteps its sister show The Walking Dead has taken as it forged a trail to cable television ratings dominance, one strewn mostly with (un)dead bodies and repetitive storytelling techniques. Instead, as the California-set upstart begins its third season, after a second go-round sailed past an opportunity to take the spinoff in an ambitious, episodic direction that would have made the most of the series' coastal setting, Fear now resembles its older sibling in almost every way. The glow of its prequel status quickly wore off last season when the newness of the apocalypse gave way to the same sweaty drudgery of moving from sanctuary to sanctuary, meeting soon-to-be-despotic leader-types, and then doing battle with them on ideological grounds that inevitably boil down to increasingly tired illustrations of "might makes right" and "only the strong survive".
To its credit, the spinoff did try to spice things up by breaking its core group apart – an approach that hasn't worked too well for the other show, but hey, you never know, right? – and again by culling some of its cast, appearing to kill off Rubén Blades Daniel Salazar (though his return has since been confirmed) and definitely killing off Lorenzo James Henrie's maligned Chris Manawa, after a nearly season-long walkabout in the Mexican desert to determine whether or not he was psychotic or just, you know, being a moody teen. While both departures helped the larger Walking Dead franchise maintain some of its "nobody's safe" cred, on which it has built an enormous fan base, neither did much to demonstrate the prequel's intentions to approach its narrative in a new or exciting way. And as season 3 gets underway with a two-hour premiere, the retreading of footsteps is so apparent, those watching will see the story beats coming long before they hit the screen.
Repetitiveness isn't the only adversary Fear the Walking Dead faces at the start of season 3. As much as it is following in its predecessor's footsteps, Fear is also paying for The Walking Dead's mishandling of – of all things – a character's non death, by struggling mightily to convince those watching that it's not toying with them, and that when it says a character's dead, he really is dead. Part of the problem is the Daniel Salazar situation; though, in fairness, Blades' early, temporary exit from the show falls under the protective umbrella of "if it didn't happen onscreen, then all bets are off." Instead, the big death that happens early in the second hour of the season 3 premiere – that of Cliff Curtis's Travis Manawa – sends the character out with not one but three "surely he can't survive that" injuries, and still the series has Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) ponder whether or not he could have survived.
It's a huge moment for the show, to be sure. Travis was in many ways Fear's version of Rick – or at least he seemed to be early on. Though looking at what has transpired on the series so far, and what happens during the last half of the second hour, especially in the wake of Alicia telling her mother Madison (Kim Dickens) and brother Nick (Frank Dillane) of Travis's fate, it would seem Madison is being groomed to become the show's Rick-like decision maker. Still, killing off a major character like Travis in the second half of a two-hour premiere won't just change the look of the series permanently, it may also serve to energize a particular segment of the show's fan base that's excited by such things. That's likely why the series went to such lengths to ensure Travis was a goner.
Both Walking Dead series are highly susceptible to the fatigue that comes from the circumstances of their one-track narratives and what they have to offer as a means of stimulating the audience. That sense of exhaustion is made worse when a series has to make up for blunders, like the Glenn dumpster death fake out or the Negan bat-swing cliffhanger. From now on, this will continue to be a problem for both of AMC's zombie apocalypse shows: when death is the only dramatic currency either have to trade with, messing around with counterfeit bills forever tarnishes whatever reputation either show may have, and it considerably reduces the value of a fatality, even one as substantial as Travis Manawa's.
Even more troubling for the future of the series is the path Fear the Walking Dead took to arrive a Travis's death and the direction it ventures in its aftermath. The first hour of season 3 is yet another example of the franchises' surface-level exploration of the ways people will exploit a modicum of power and become corrupted by it. This time, it's another vaguely militarized force led by Troy Otto (Daniel Sharman) who've taken the survivors prisoner. It's the same force that met Nick and Luciana at the end of season 2, and it turns out they're an unimaginative variation on any other adversary the franchise has rolled out across two shows over the years. This time, though, the show employs Shameless' Noel Fisher as a lieutenant in Troy's outfit and guy seemingly in charge of (or at least very interested in) murdering people to see how long it takes for their corpses to reanimate.
The circumstances allow Travis to find Nick as they both become test subjects, and for a few brief moments it looks as though Troy has plans for Madison and Alicia that will put them in a particularly unpleasant kind of danger. Both conflicts serve similar ends, and result in encounters that are awfully familiar (a spoon in Troy's eye notwithstanding), especially as Travis is thrown in a pit and made to duke it out with the undead in gladiator-style combat. Of course, it's all undone when Nick lets a group of zombies into the compound, forcing the living to align themselves with one another as Travis and Alicia hitch a ride in a helicopter while Madison and Nick travel to a new sanctuary with Troy and meet up with Sons of Anarchy actor Dayton Callie as Russell Otto, patriarch and seemingly level-headed leader of a particular patch of desert.
The thing is: viewers have been here before. The jump from sanctuary to sanctuary isn't made more interesting because it's between California and Mexico instead of Georgia and Virginia. And despite strong performances from Dickens, Dillane, and the criminally underused Colman Domingo, Fear the Walking Dead doesn't offer audiences anything other than the formulaic sameness that's seen its sister show's ratings drop steadily over the past few seasons. The novelty of the series' prequel status has long since worn off, and with Madison's declaration that she will take over the Otto ranch by force if necessary, it's clear that the show will once again find its characters in a repetitive set of circumstances that even an attempt to spice things up by killing off a major character struggles to make interesting.
Fear the Walking Dead continues next Sunday with 'TEOTWAWKI' @9pm on AMC.
Photos: Michael Desmond/AMC