WARNING: Spoilers ahead for Fear The Walking Dead season 3
AMC likely never expected Fear the Walking Dead to become as mammoth a hit as its parent series, The Walking Dead, but nevertheless, Fear the Walking Dead's declining viewership figures do present cause for concern. The issue isn't so much the numbers themselves - the show is still one of the most-watched properties on the network, regularly beating the likes of Better Call Saul and Preacher - it's the velocity of the decline that will have network executives losing sleep.
The recently announced crossover between Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead could perhaps be seen as a cynical attempt to reverse this decline - however, there's little point in attracting new viewers for a special episode if the spinoff doesn't have the quality to keep them watching in the long run. Worryingly, the first half of Fear the Walking Dead season 3 received a decidedly mixed critical reception, with most commentators singling out uninspired characters and story lines as the key problem in urgent need of attention.
Although a fourth season had already been green-lit, it was clear that improvements needed to be made in order to ensure Fear the Walking Dead's long-term future and season 3B has delivered exactly that. Viewing figures may be yet to pick up but critical opinion has certainly seen an upturn and nowhere was this more obvious than in the recently-aired, double-bill season finale "Things Bad Begun" and "Sleigh Ride."
First and foremost is the audience's connection to the main cast. Undoubtedly the most frequent and overriding complaint leveled at Fear the Walking Dead since its very first episode is that, unlike its parent series, the show features very few figures that viewers genuinely care about and want to emotionally invest in. That issue has been wholeheartedly addressed, with the second half of season three working hard to develop several key players and ruthlessly killing off everyone else.
As the most interesting entities since day one, Madison Clark and her son Nick were already well fleshed out characters, carrying the show by themselves on more than a few occasions but recent episodes have helped elevate others to that same level. In particular, Nick's sister Alicia has seen huge development. In season 3B, viewers saw Alicia take control of an entire community when no one else would rise to the challenge. She was forced to enact desperate and deadly measures in order to keep herself and others alive and then finally struck out into the wilderness on her own. These experiences helped demonstrate exactly what Alicia is made of and her character grew into a much more interesting figure as a result.
Alicia isn't the only character to show improvement, however. Victor Strand is a fascinating and charismatic creation but has, at times, been treading water, and this year's mid-season finale saw him conversing with an astronaut in a scene that felt wildly out of place. Happily, season 3B saw Strand returning to his conman roots, with actor Colman Domingo imploring audiences to trust his character, while also providing a nagging sense that all was not as it seemed. Strand's relationship with Madison also worked brilliantly for highlighting the man's emotional development, even if he was ultimately unable to shake his old, self-centered habits. Certainly a far more interesting watch than his largely directionless road trip with Daniel earlier in the season.
With a solid core group of characters in place, Fear the Walking Dead has corrected its primarily failing, but the renovations don't end there.
The spinoff's original remit was to depict the early days of The Walking Dead's zombie apocalypse, but by season 3 the two shows had begun to overlap and many fans felt that the similarities had become too obvious. For example, the first half of Fear the Walking Dead's third season saw the lead protagonist group taken into an established community where they eventually seize control but are confronted by a hostile force from outside. That description can be applied as readily to Madison, Otto Ranch and Walker as it can Rick, Alexandria and The Saviors, and with those two plots running simultaneously, the problem is clear.
Wisely, Fear the Walking Dead ventured into more unique territory upon its return, most notably with the addition of a bustling trading outpost. This new setting allowed for the exploration of narratives not yet covered in the franchise, such as the final, dying throes of a capitalist-style commerce system and the freedom to indulge in drugs, alcohol and prostitution without fear of being rumbled by the cops. It could be argued that this is the type of material Fear the Walking Dead should've be covering all along, focusing on the closing stages of modern civilization instead of rushing into the fully-fledged post-apocalyptic hell currently inhabited by Rick Grimes and co.
The decision to grant Fear The Walking Dead a fourth season before the third had even aired may have seemed somewhat optimistic at the time. However, since its mid-season break, the show has proven itself more than capable of bringing fresh elements to the franchise and arguably can even compete with The Walking Dead, if only for critical acclaim rather than ratings.
The forthcoming crossover will surely bring more viewers into the Fear the Walking Dead fold but that would have all been for nought if the series itself wasn't up to scratch. Thankfully, Fear The Walking Dead season 3 bows out on what is arguably the richest vein of form in the show's history and any fans tuning in just for the crossover will have something juicy to sink their rotting teeth into, should they stick around.