Say what you will about the many shortcomings of The Walking Dead franchise, but across all their combined seasons, both the original series and Fear the Walking Dead have typically demonstrated a knack for making season premieres interesting. Before inevitably falling into the dour narrative sameness as before, they often appear to be bursting with new storytelling possibilities. That last part seems especially true of Fear the Walking Dead’s season 4 premiere ‘What’s Your Story?’, which indicates the series has indeed been revamped under the guidance of new co-showrunners, Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg. As the season gets underway, the two have aligned the series’ timeline with that of its older sibling, and, of course, brought Lennie James’ Morgan Jones into the mix.
Bringing Morgan over to Fear the Walking Dead isn’t really a crossover so much as one of the more unexpected inter-franchise trades in television history. Fear’s prequel status has made it difficult to bring the two series into contact with one another, but given the gaps in the character’s past, from the moment he appeared in the series premiere to when he unexpectedly showed up again in ‘Clear,’ it seemed Morgan could be slotted into the spinoff’s story in some way or another. But as the opening moments of the new season make clear, it won’t take narrative gymnastics to fit the character into the story. Instead, the story has been modified to fit Morgan’s path moving forward from The Walking Dead season 8 finale.
At first, the series of goodbyes from Walking Dead’s Jesus, Carol, and Rick is somewhat disorienting. But a little disorientation is to be expected, considering how much the incoming showrunners have to change in order to bring Fear in line with the Mother Ship. Everyone asks Morgan to stay, conveying his importance in what lies ahead in the wake of all-out war with Negan and his Saviors. This is Morgan, however, and now that the two shows’ timelines match up — for the time being, anyway — it makes sense that he would be the character to make the journey east in search of… inner peace or solitude or whatever it is Morgan is constantly questing after.
Instead of privacy, what Morgan finds are two new characters who, in the premiere at least, bring a renewed sense of energy to the revamped series, one that is due to the curiosity surrounding Garret Dillahunt’s John and his antique six-shooter, as well as Maggie Grace’s Althea, who somehow has a working video camera she’s using to document the stories of survivors she runs into, when she’s not too busy trading kimchi-flavored Cup O’ Noodles from the comfort of her S.W.A.T. van.
An infusion of new blood is an important part of this franchise’s survival — after all, what better to feed the zombies and the viewers’ bloodlust than a constant influx of expendable cast members? But this new blood feels different. Althea and John aren’t a pair of weary survivors worn down by their experiences in the apocalypse. They feel more like actual characters than soon-to-be zombie chow. Unlike just about everyone else, John and Althea are hopeful. They each have a purpose and a goal that goes beyond merely surviving, and, refreshingly, they’re capable of talking about something other than their immediate circumstances.
Like the candy in shiny gold foil he keeps handing out, Dillahunt’s John is an unexpected treat. He’s the antithesis of Morgan’s dour standoffishness, and a welcome change of pace for a series seemingly tasked with delivering hours of the same. John, and to a lesser degree, Althea, seem written in part as evidence of the series’ changes. In some ways they are Fear the Walking Dead’s revamp made manifest, which explains why the entire hour is focused on their initial encounter with Morgan, while what’s left of the original cast (minus Kim Dickens) are waiting to spring a roadside trap that, for the time being, positions Alicia, Nick, Strand, and Luciana as the “bad people.”
That probably going to be amended, but it also represents a compelling swing for the series to come so close to making. After spending the entire hour with two new characters and a familiar one from a different show, Fear the Walking Dead re-introduces what has up until this point been the primary cast under a cloud of dread. Read into that anyway you like, but when your show’s original cast shows up as a portent of doom, it’s difficult not to see it as potentially meta-commentary.
But, as is usually the case with The Walking Dead franchise, whenever it feels as though someone it taking a broom to it and clearing out the series’ worst instincts, it never goes far enough. That much is true in the Clark children’s hijacking of Althea, John, and Morgan, and it’s especially true in the “mousetrap” gang who first trade two prisoners for some kimchi-flavored soup and then show up to steal Althea’s van and prove the show’s tired ethos is still alive and well.
In all, Fear the Walking Dead’s supposed revamping so far appears to be more of a blood infusion than anything else. Lennie James is a terrific actor and he along with Garret Dillahunt do seemingly elevate the material to a certain degree. Dillahunt in particular brings a kind of humorously low-energy fun to the show, providing a necessary counterpoint to the otherwise incessant nihilism running through it. The real test will be when Kim Dickens and the rest of the cast actually have the chance to interact with Morgan, John, and Althea. That’s when the show will demonstrate whether it has been revamped for the better.
Fear the Walking Dead continues next Sunday with ‘Another Day in the Diamond’ @9pm on AMC.