Fear The Walking Dead season 3: Dave Erickson interview

We chatted to the Fear The Walking Dead showrunner about character deaths, spoilers and his departure...

Warning: contains major spoilers for Fear The Walking Dead.

As part of our set visit to Mexico for Fear The Walking Dead’s third season, we had the chance to speak to showrunner Dave Erickson about the various twists and turns the first few episodes have already revealed as well as his thoughts on the show as a whole. It seems like only yesterday we were interviewing him about the pilot episode and launch of Fear, yet this season will be his last on the show, so it seemed like a good time to pick his brains about various highlights from his time working on it. Mr Erickson was good enough to spare us a generous amount of his time, having been prised from the writers’ room and so we battled through the usual Skype glitches to ask a multitude of questions, starting with a little bone pick over a core character’s death…

We’ve just seen the first three episodes from season 3, so the first thing I must ask you about as we’ve been discussing it all day is – whose decision was it to kill off Travis so quickly!?

Dave Erickson: [laughs] Here’s the thing – the story that I played for Travis this season – it was essentially a story of redemption and atonement, he needed to make good for failing Chris, which I think was how he perceives the loss of Chris last season. He also felt that he had to make good on a promise he had made to Liza. I mean essentially, he failed – his failure was compounded by the fact that he had not made good on a promise he made to his dying ex-wife and then he failed to protect his son. And I think for me the only way he was going to atone for that, was by saving the surrogate which is – was Nick. It was a version of the story, early in the break of the season where we – the arc was going to be – would have played out of more episodes and then there was a version like that.

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We made some adjustments really early on. We decided that Nick will be reunited with Madison in the premiere and essentially the story didn’t change. So, the fact that he had made good on his promise, the fact that he had found Nick, returned Nick back to his mother, essentially ended the story. So, it was going to happen in the season in some way, shape, or form and it just ended in getting his. And I think for me what’s interesting is what it does to the group, because Travis has been the moral compass from the beginning of the show essentially – he didn’t lose himself until episode 14 of last season.

What’s interesting is to see the impact that his death will have on Madison specifically, but also Alycia and Nick because they now both carry that burden – the fact that they went looking for Nick and the reason they ended being taken, was essentially because of him. So I think in the moral algebra of it for all of them, the weight of that loss happening actually impresses something upon each of them as we move forward. So in that respect, I mean from a story perspective, I think it’s helpful.

That’s a long winded way of saying that it’s my fault! [laughing] The decision to kill him was always there and it wasn’t easy, because Cliff is an amazing actor and I think, I am very curious to see how the audience responds because there was a lot of frustration with him over the first season and a half, just because, especially in season 1 when he was the idiot that wanted to talk to zombies. He was the guy that couldn’t wrap his brain around this notion that these things were not monsters and not humans and I think his insistence on trying to maintain some version of [a belief in humanity] was actually frustrating to people. I do think there is a danger in that, we finally arrived at a place with that character where you become a little bit badass and he tapped into that violence and he’d become really consumed by the apocalypse and just as he gets into that vein, it got cut short. So, I think it’s a little bit jarring but hopefully that will be good for the show and for the characters.

Yeah, it definitely had the right impact on me – I was gutted, but it did feel like it was probably his time to go. Seeing him become impressively violent was great, exciting and a visceral thrill, but then where do you go from there? He can’t go back to who he was and he can’t just be that aggressive all the time.

No, I think that’s true and also mixed within that is what we see – what you are going to see over the course of the first eight episodes and going into the back half it’s – for better or for worse what that does is it actually open up a story for Madison in particular. I mean you are going to see a woman who sort of doubles down on her own moral compromises this season and we are going to see her doing things that might have abhorred Travis had he survived and I think it actually opens up some interesting avenues for her.

Andrew Bernstein shot it beautifully, and I think Cliff played it beautifully, but when Madison is reunited with Nick and Alycia and they have that family group hug it’s probably obvious, but there is a reason why Travis is not part of that hug. There is a reason why Travis – there was a distance there and I think even though he has now served his function and he has reunited the family, he doesn’t feel a part of it and I think it’s fairly clear to me that there is a certain – the intention was that it was a melancholy moment even though ostensibly it’s a happy moment. The fact is it was not something he was able to share in. I think when you see that and his tone and his attitude in the last act, I think it’s clear to me anyway, that he has already made up his mind, he is not going to be a – he will not be part of his nuclear family, his apocalyptic family anymore. That was the end, anyway.

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And talking of departures from Fear The Walking Dead – you’re leaving at the end of season 3. Does it just feel like the right time to go, as you’ve established the universe and so it feels safe to leave it to someone else to progress?

Yeah, I think it’s been – I think Gale said this in an interview – it’s been a very intense three years plus, give or take and there’s not – when you are running the show, there is not a lot of down time. There is not a lot of family time. So, the goal was for me to try to get the show to a place by the end of this season where it felt based on what story that I’d like to tell. I’m curious to see where Scott and Andy take it when they start next season, but I do think that there is an end point for me this season where I feel like I told enough of the story, that I feel at least that I found a conclusion.

And then I think it was just time to try something that’s perhaps less zombie centric! But I think that’s it essentially. There are some things – it fetters me because there are certain things I would have liked to have explored in terms of the extending storylines, distance relationships for which I did have specific ideas on how they would end and what the final turns might be. But you know I think the show is in a good place and I think that it’s really in a good place to hand it off to be quite honest.

No, that’s fair enough, just as long as you don’t kill off all the existing characters in this kind of ‘Well these are my characters, so I am just going to kill them all off and you can start from scratch!’

We have talked about that to be honest [laughs]! Let everybody go in one fell swoop and let them get on with it. But no, it’s actually – it’s exciting, to get fresh perspectives, new blood you know, the great thing about our show versus – and I rarely compare the two, but our show versus the original, is we do have the flexibility of going wherever we want to go. We don’t – Scott’s very good about working the comic and expanding on the comic and finding interesting versions to keep the audience engaged. We have the benefit of – there is no blueprint, there is no outline for it besides the rules of the zombie world we can do whatever we want. I am curious to see where it goes. It will be exciting.

And do you have a favourite episode?

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Oh my favourite episode… Of the series so far, it’s probably 2-08 which was our mid-season premiere last season and that was an episode that featured Nick, it was when he travelled from Guadalupe to Tijuana. I just – it’s standalone in that it’s one of the few episodes we did where it really focusses on one character and I thought Frank was wonderful in it. I also thought it was a nice balance with present day jeopardy and a little more backstory. I’d say that one and then also Jami O’Brien wrote the mid-season finale this season which is – which you will eventually see – and there is a lot of information about Madison that comes up in that episode, it’s pretty heavy, so that one Andrew Bernstein directed it. Probably those two I think 2-08 and 3-08 right now, are two of my favourites.

2-08 was interesting for me because it really marked that transition when Nick became a leading man within the show, so having watched him develop as a character, it was when we realised that he was capable of holding up an entire storyline by himself, essentially.

Yeah, I mean yes that’s true and I think what’s – there’s an interesting transition going on in the first half of this season in that there was a version of the story that would not have had him reunite with Madison for a bit longer. And it’s – it’s tricky because anytime we put Nick and Alycia with mom, there’s always going to be that mother child dynamic which is something that we – it was something that he escapes in some respects.

I mean his rejection of Madison at the end of the middle of last season, there was an attitude – it felt like wilful rebellion to a certain degree. It felt like ‘There’s something about you mom that’s wrong and I can’t be with you anymore, I’m going to correct it.’ The other side of that for me though, was I think it was an extension of the addiction story. I do think that his rejection of mom, his decision to pursue the dead and walk with the dead, it had everything to do with a physiological response to being with them. And I do – and I talk to Frank about this all the time – I do think he got a rush, the character got a rush off of that interaction and there’s something about his need for heroin, his need for death that drives him.

And in the first half of the season those things seem to be gone. What’s interesting to me and it will start to develop, is his relationship with Troy. Because in Troy we find somebody who obviously is not a good person, but Daniel plays him with the strangest degree of empathy to such an extent that, even though he is sociopathic and he does incredibly horrible things, there is still a charm to him. And I think the direction that that story is going to go, you saw to a certain degree in episode three, but there is an interesting relationship that will develop between Troy and Madison, between Troy and Nick.

And oddly enough, going to your point, I think that’s going to start to turn, it’s going to help me define Nick’s identity in a darker way. I think he is going to have to come to terms with his fascination with the dark side of human nature, which Nick has and it’s interesting in some respects they have – they’re very different characters, but I think they have strange similarities and there are things – there’s a certain simpatico that develops, which is going to be disturbing to Madison, because I think in that she is going to see repeated behaviour and she is going to see her son going to a place where his self-destructive tendencies will be realized again.

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You said that you don’t plan ahead in terms of which character you’ll kill, but does the same apply the other way around – do you know if a character will come back, for example Daniel Salazar, did you know he would come back when you left him in the fire?


Because we didn’t actually see him dying…

Daniel was a particular case and there was another – there were a number of extenuating circumstances, but the intention was always for Daniel to come back. I think he – that was a situation where the character was one we were not really willing to let go off and I am glad we didn’t. I am glad Ruben was able to stay with the show because I love working with him and everybody also does. I think he’s realized that character in very compelling way so that was exciting.

I think that and let me clarify… when I started working on the show there were some characters – I mean Robert had already done quite a bit of legwork before I’d even came on and there were some people that in his mind were going to die and some of them – you know, there are some characters that were going to die in the premiere, within the pilot who didn’t and are still with us thankfully. And then there were some that were always – it was always forecast, it was always planned.

It was just a question for me of when was the best time, you know, if it’s with Travis as an example, at what point have we told enough of his story that it was just a side relative to the narrative. I think Chris is an example – I did know relatively early that Chris’s death would turn Travis in a way that would I think get him off of his… it would drop him off from a real high ground and he was born for the character.

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Right now, yes there are certain plans for this season, there are certain plans I’m sure that – there are two key characters and I knew one of them was going to kill the other, but that was something that was going to happen I think much later probably season 5 I think, that would have led to the end of the show. But there’s certain key characters, certain key turns, story turns that I had thought of even when I first started writing the pilot with Robert and then there were some that developed organically as you build the story so it varies, it varies.

What would you say your proudest moments have been in terms of what you have created on the show, or maybe moments between characters?

I have to say honestly there have been more moments this season, because we finally turn certain corners where the back story started coming to fore, where we have started to inflate the present day story with Madison’s history, with Nick and Alicia’s history and that simply is – it’s one of the things I think that defines the show in a way.

But it is interesting to watch Madison’s trajectory, because what she’s doing right now, what she does this season in terms of her moral compromises, to me, does echo what’s going on in the States specifically right now. You know I think when you tip the balance for a candidate who has as far as certain views, be they misogynistic, be they racist, be they xenophobic and you isolate one or two things you find that you see as positives you can’t then divorce yourself from the negatives that go with that person and I think what Madison is going through this season is not dissimilar from that. I think she is aligning herself with people like Jeremiah Otto, Dayton’s character, and I think Dayton plays it beautifully, who is not a good man. I think the way and the reasons he started his militia and began his prepper movement stem from a lot of the elements that I just mentioned.

And I think Madison in an effort to protect herself and protect her kids she has to – tries to turn a blind eye to some of the ugliness of this man and this place and she will suffer for it. I think her entire family will suffer for it. My hope is that by the – as we turn into the back end of the season – where I would like to get back to is some kind of hope and I think that Madison will have to go through this. And it is a very dark turn for her, but she has to get there, go through that and to find herself and find her family, in that sense.

And in order to do that, I think she is going to – she will lose her way to a certain degree but I guess to answer your question, I think for the most part of this season is that we – I think we are laying developments and hopefully doing it in an organic way that serves the larger story and hopefully it makes it entertaining. And I also think we are able to manage those elements while still including the genre tropes that we will expect from the world of zombie, you know? But yeah, I mean I am very proud of this season in particular because I do think a lot of elements that have been laid down are starting to play out, so hopefully that’s going to be realized on screen, hopefully people will be feel that as they watch the season.

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And I think another element that we’ll see, especially as it pertains to Jeremiah Otto with his family, is the crimes of one’s past and the burden – the sins of the father are going to visit Troy and Jake as the story plays out. And I think what’s interesting to me about the Otto story, as it connects to the Clark story, is that I think the burden for Nick and Alycia is very much connected to Madison’s past and to her parents, her father, her mother and a lot this stuff is going to permeate through this season as well.

Talking of Madison and the parentage and the history, it just made me think of the scene in episode 3 of this season where alcoholism came up in Jeremiah’s video footage with his wife, and he says that his wife was lost to alcohol and then Madison says the same thing about her father, so I wondered how much of that will be a part of what informs her character and their relationship?

I think from that particular scene, for me, I don’t know if it’s conveyed as well as I would like but there’s two things going on. I mean when she shares… I think it’s in 3, she’s watched the video, she’s seen the darker side of Jeremiah it actually gives her a better understanding of Troy and Jake as well. I mean it’s her learning the family and then manipulating it. When she ultimately shares this – when she finally shares the information with Otto, when he tells him that Nick’s an addict, you know that’s her trying to connect to him and ultimately manipulate him and I mean she’s walking this very fine line. We’ll see Nick and Alicia do it to a certain degree as well. She makes a decision which seems quite rash at the end of two, you know, and that is despite the horrors we have seen, despite what we know Troy is capable of, we are going to make this our last stop, no more running.

The goal for her is to manipulate the situation and make it work in her favour and Kim has this innate empathy, I find, so even when she is manipulating somebody, working them, sometimes you know she is such a subtle actor and in the best possible way a very naturalistic actor, she is allergic to overacting, which is a gift.

But yeah I do think we’re starting to see a character who is figuring out how to push buttons and she definitely does it with Troy. Even when he shows up in the bunkhouse and scares the shit out of her, she is able to contain, she is able to recognize his type and it stems from her personal experience, but also her training as a guidance counsellor. The fact that she has a background in psychology, the fact that she is able to understand, to a certain degree, who this guy is and knows that he is dangerous and knows that there’s always that – you know, as much as she might be able to manipulate him and there’s always – and she’ll face this later – there is also a real chance that he is going to explode.

It creates a nice tension in that relationship and I think, strangely for Troy, it creates a dynamic where for the first time he will come to realize the relationship with his mother and father was not a good one! But he really believes that Madison understands him and the truth is she does, she does understand him, she does relate to him in some very perverse way. She doesn’t condone what he does, but I think that helps her ability to work him and make that place a sanctuary that will work for – is a sanctuary that will work until the zombies catch up with them which they always do!

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Dave Erickson, thank you very much!

Fear the Walking Dead airs Mondays at 9pm on AMC, exclusive to BT.