This article contains spoilers for The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead.
It’s going to be a long sixth months until The Walking Dead returns and fans find out whose skull was caved in by Lucille. Fortunately, while Walking Dead fans wait for the bloody return of the beloved show, they will have Fear the Walking Dead to keep them occupied.
Now, no one on Fear the Walking Dead has become as beloved and iconic as Rick Grimes and his group of survivors, but that doesn’t mean Fear isn’t an important part in the growing Walking Dead universe. How can characters that have only appeared in six episodes be vital to the narrative? Well, the answer is that Fear the Walking Dead can and does go in directions the original Walking Dead can’t. In fact, this companion series scratches a whole different set of itches than its predecessor — and we all know that fans of the survival horror genre have a great deal of itches to be scratched.
After all, survival horror, particularly zombie survival horror, is built on tension, and what is more tense than being chased by hordes of the flesh-hungry undead? Well, if you watch The Walking Dead, the answer is tons of things. Things like the Governor, the Wolves, and the Saviors. Things like Negan. On The Walking Dead, it’s almost as if zombies have become an old hat. That’s okay because quite frankly, after six seasons, Rick and his survivors have probably killed more zombies than you can shake a katana at. Instead, the producers of The Walking Dead have found great ways to freshen up the show’s narrative by introducing villain after villain to test the mettle of Daryl, Michonne, Glenn, Carol, Maggie, and the rest. The show has morphed from a George A. Romero riff into a nihilistic nightmare of epic scope, but somewhere along the line, the pure and simple premise of man versus walking corpse has been obscured.
With Fear the Walking Dead, the horror of the zombie has been rekindled. The cast of characters in Fear have not encountered many zombies (at least as of yet), and therefore, feelings of loathing and primal terror still permeate the proceedings. When Rick sees a zombie, it’s like someone else seeing a squirrel. A really gross squirrel that wants to devour your pancreas. Zombies have become almost mundane in the world of The Walking Dead.
But not on the streets of Los Angeles. Which brings us to the change of environment between the original show and Fear. The original Walking Dead takes place in a wide open rural environment, in wooded areas, and remote locations. And yes, our heroes regularly go into claustrophobic places (the slaughterhouse that Carol and Maggie wreaked havoc in this season comes to mind), but for the most part, everything is very open. Fear the Walking Dead allows the creators to put their terrified and desperate characters into the confines of an urban arena of horror. It’s a whole new, hellish playground to explore as characters strive to navigate tunnels, apartment complexes, and suburban environs in order to escape the walkers. This allows the writers and producers to show how a city clogged with humanity would break under the weight of the dead. This is a truly horrifying notion and one that the open skied Walking Dead can’t really explore.
But the biggest difference between the two zombie dramas is the leeway Fear has when it comes to character. Let’s face it, contract negotiations notwithstanding, fans pretty much know who will live and who will die on The Walking Dead. Yeah, fans bit their nails down to the cuticles this year over Glenn’s almost demise (and they still are gnawing those nails because Glenn still has the favored odds of being on the wrong end of Lucille), but you can pretty much bet Hershel’s farm that Rick, Carl, Michonne, and Daryl will remain safe as far as The Walking Dead goes.
In a survival drama, that takes a bit of the bite off the narrative. As far as fan love is concerned, it’s awesome that the original show has established characters that have become so hugely iconic – and to be honest, the series has the ability to create rich, diverse characters almost at will – so that there’s a lot of potential for meaningful and impactful deaths (Denise anyone), but the fact that the core characters will always remain safe (merchandising, merchandising) takes a bit of the edge off things.
Not so with Fear the Walking Dead. Yeah, the showrunners have created a fascinating core group of characters, but there is still an undercurrent of dread to the proceedings. Yeah, actor Frank Dillane’s young junkie character, Nick Clark is the show’s most interesting case study and Clark’s family members are all well fleshed out and oh so human, but if Nick becomes zombie chow, would this really create a ripple in The Walking Dead’s fan base? On TWD, every death is risky in that it might alienate the fan base, but Fear does not have that problem and choices can still be made to serve the dramatic tension and story beats of the narrative. It’s a purer horror tale that only has to serve the needs of the story and there is something quite refreshing about that.
Hopefully, one day, the Fear the Walking Dead characters will be the stuff of internet memes and fan lust, but in the meantime, they remain cogs in a gripping, frenetic, nerve-jangling drama where everything can and does happen.
Fear the Walking Dead exists because the world built by its predecessor is a spine-tingling look at the nightmare version of our real-life fears. The original series is character driven, but the premise of a world gone to rot brings with it endless possibilities. The last thing on a viewer’s mind when watching The Walking Dead is what’s happening in LA, but Fear makes that question live and breathe and also expands this rich universe into places that the original series can’t go — like into drug dens, sky scrapers, and into the failing infrastructure of a once thriving urban environment.
Through Fear, fans get to witness the collapse of society, not just experience the aftermath Rick Grimes woke up into in the The Walking Dead pilot. Fans have front row seats to the collapse of everything in a world where vestiges of media still exist from the point of view of the military and from the perspective of the government. Fear the Walking Dead holds a twisted lens up to society to show marginalization and corruption, as the carefully held precepts of polite society crumbles. The series shows society where it is lacking and perpetuates the idea that, if the unthinkable happens, this fractured culture would not have the wherewithal of a Rick Grimes or a Carol Peletier to see things through.
Fear the Walking Dead is a cultural mirror that goes places the original series can’t, it can kill whomever whenever, and it expands the rich world Robert Kirkman created to unexplored places. Fear the Walking Dead proves that there are infinite stories in this world and gives fans the notion that the world of The Walking Dead will continue past the stories of all the survivors that sat quaking in Negan’s circle of death. Fans know and cherish (and dread) what is coming next in The Walking Dead. But for Fear the Walking Dead, the sky is the limit.
Don’t forget to listen to Den of Geek’s Walking Dead podcast, No Room in Hell!