The apocalypse is a nasty place where it’s kill or be killed. That’s basically been the ethos of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead franchise, and it’s certainly been a big part of how its television spinoff, Fear the Walking Dead, has conducted itself over the past four seasons. That idea began to shift a bit, though, in the latter part of season 4, with the series now under the guidance of new co-showrunners Ian Goldberg and Andrew Chambliss. With Lennie James’s Morgan ostensibly leading the charge, the series has begun to look at the end of the world as an opportunity for its characters to try and make a difference, rather than just eke out a meager existence and tussle with the occasional despot drunk on his or her own brand of power.
It took the better part of season 4 for the series to plant those seeds, but in that season’s finale, Morgan, Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), John (Garret Dillahunt), June (Jenna Elfman), Althea (Maggie Grace), Luciana (Danay Garcia), Wendell (Daryl Mitchell), Charlie (Alexa Niesenson), Sarah (Mo Collins). and, surprisingly, Victor (Colman Domingo), decided they would spend whatever time they had left helping people. It’s an optimistic turn of events that feels counter to the franchise’s inherent nihilism, and also works to correct the one thing both shows in the franchise have struggled with in the past: pacing.
The season 5 premiere, ‘Here to Help,’ picks up a few months after the season 4 finale, with Morgan and co. knee-deep in doing what they now do best: help people. As it turns out, though, the survivors find even the best of intentions can have unforeseen consequences, as when a plane the core group are traveling in, in an effort to help a guy named Logan (Matt Frewer, Orphan Black), crashes in the middle of nowhere.
Written by Chambliss and Goldberg, the premiere does away with the usual Walking Dead-style setup — typically a languorous bout of characters bickering whether or not they should risk their necks for someone else, while also wracking their brains on how, exactly, they’ll do the impossible. Instead, the episode opens up in medias res, with two young Dickensian-looking urchins hunting deer near where the plane eventually crashes. It’s a bigger set piece for a show that typically turns to hordes of the shambling undead to wow its audience. There’s plenty of that here, too, as the walkers quickly converge on the wreckage, forcing the survivors to improvise a few quick ways to dispatch the dead. The MVP award goes to Alicia, who cuts a swath through the undead using an unusual weapon.
By skipping the unnecessary setup and getting right to the task at hand ‘Here to Help’ is able to have its zombie cake and eat it too. That is, there’s plenty of undead carnage for those who tune in for that sort of thing, but the premiere also manages to raise some questions about the group’s new motto (hint: it’s in the episode’s title) and to illustrate that one of the biggest obstacles standing in their way isn’t the prevalence of the undead or the lack of resources (they’re as plentiful as ever here), but rather an unwillingness from those they’re trying to help to be helped.
This obstinance is seen twice, first by the kids out hunting deer, as they openly refuse the help the group wants to give them, and again by Logan, who turns out not to be who he says he is. It’s a return to form for the franchise, which has long since prided itself on its ability to illustrate and underline the ways in which humanity is the worst thing in the apocalypse, and the undead are a distant second. But where Fear changes up the usual Walking Dead script is in the way Morgan and his fellow survivors choose to react. That they choose at all is a significant sign of how the show is approaching its scenario at the beginning of its fifth season. The live-and-let-die ethos is clearly no longer an option, as the group decides they have to help those in need, whether they want it or not.
While that could certainly lead to all sorts of authoritarian issues down the line, there’s no reason to think Fear the Walking Dead is about to head down that road. The show has undergone such a significant transformation in the handoff from Dave Erickson to Goldberg and Chambliss that blowing it up with a heel turn like that would betray the work that’s been done to refashion the spinoff from a nihilistic little sibling of The Walking Dead to something more hopeful, promising, and purposeful. And with the premiere introducing a mysterious new group of people clad in strange body armor, and more than hinting at another character’s long-awaited return, Fear is at an interesting stage in its lifespan. Hopefully the series will continue on this course for the foreseeable future.
Fear the Walking Dead season 5 premieres Sunday @9pm on AMC.