This Fear the Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
Fear the Walking Dead Season 3 Episodes 1 & 2
Fear the Walking Dead’s two-part premiere provides some crowd-pleasing moments, like the hard-fought Clark family reunion, as well as the promise of sanctuary. But we’re also presented with an unexpected character death and the equally unexpected dilemma of ethnic cleansing. And this is all in the course of two hours in FTWD’s new season. One can only imagine (and hope) the rest of season three maintains this level of intensity. So let’s get into the first two episodes, the action-packed “Eye of the Beholder” and drama-heavy “The New Frontier.”
It would be easy to discuss what happens to Travis—and no, I don’t mean his final transformation into a true zombie-killing machine. But I want to save this for the end. It would also be easy to discuss the new characters thrown our way—namely the Otto family. And we’ll get to them in due time. But I want to talk first about Madison, who is quickly becoming Fear’s Rick Grimes. I mean this in the best way possible, of course, as Fear has been lacking in a strong central character. The show gave Nick a go in this role last season, and while I very much like Nick, he’s not well-suited for the role of FTWD’s resident badass. For a while it seemed as though Travis was being built up for the part, but, well, that’s not going to happen now, is it?
So, Madison it is. Only a few days may have passed on the show since “North” but one gets the sense that a kind of time dilation occurs in this post-apocalyptic world. Daily survival is hard fought and hard won, one moral compromise at a time. In season two, Madison didn’t quite have her wits about her, distracted as she was by losing Nick and the safety of the vineyard all at once. And we know she hasn’t been the most attentive parent on either side of the apocalypse. But now that the Clark family is finally, finally reunited, her focus is on keeping them all together—no matter what it takes. And it’s here we see shades of Rick Grimes, specifically when she reveals her grand plan is making the most of their stay at the ranch, even if it means taking it over by force. If this isn’t a page straight from the Grimes playbook, I don’t know what is. While some may see Madison’s course correction as derivative, this doesn’t bother me. It’s about time Madison came to her senses, as her carelessness has continually put her group at risk. (Seriously, why turn on the hotel’s lights? Why?) Plus TWD has female badasses to spare—so there’s no reason for FTWD not to follow suit.
But Madison isn’t impervious to pain or loss. Kim Dickens shines in “The Final Frontier,” showing us toughness and vulnerability in equal measure. She’s been through hell to keep her family safe, but she’s only one person, and it’s a cruel, cruel world. We need to see Madison brought low by grief, just as we need to see her command the room when lives are at stake. Dickens shines in both regards.
Alycia Debnam-Carey is also great in “Frontier.” For a time it looked as though she were an up and coming badass herself, but the new season quickly casts these assumptions aside. She can still handle herself in a zombie melee, and she has enough forethought to hide a knife in her boot, but at the end of the day she’s still a teenager, a high school student before the world ended. Since then, she’s stared down death in its many forms, killing the living and the dead alike. It’s left her shell-shocked and confused, her soul abraded by an ever-mounting body count. Ultimately, it’s Travis’s self-sacrifice that breaks her, as it does Madison. Madison pulls herself together; Alicia, not so much.
Nick has changed as well, though in his case, he’s crippled by guilt for unwittingly leading his loved ones into harm’s way. Gone is his carefree attitude about walking among the dead. We’re already two episodes in, and he has yet to don his trademark “blood suit” as he did in every other episode last season. Survival was never a game to him, but he never seemed to take it quite as seriously as everyone else. Seeing a more serious Nick isn’t a bad thing. It’s good to see him more grounded and less patient. He doesn’t like or trust these survivalists, no matter what Madison says or does. And that’s fine, too—the more friction, the better. And who could blame him for distrusting the Ottos, given that Troy Otto is a murderer.
Which brings us to the aforementioned ethnic cleansing we see in “Eye of the Beholder.” There isn’t something rotten in Denmark—Denmark itself is rotten. It’s one thing to be rounded up at the border and thrown in a cell. But it’s quite another for innocent people to be executed in the name of so-called research. That this happens in a military setting lends the proceedings a more sinister air. But these are not soldiers, despite their uniforms. And these killings aren’t research, no matter what these military types call it. Leading the way in these experiments is Troy Otto, played with just the right amount of smarm, charm, and menace by Daniel Sharman. He may be offering Madison and Alicia tea upstairs, but downstairs, Travis, Nick, and Luciana are being led to the slaughter. Troy and his men are basically customs agents from hell, assessing refugees coming over the border with different sets of criteria. If you’re white and healthy, you’re golden. But if you’re sick or injured or, god help you, brown, you’re as good as dead.
Given current events, it’s hard not to draw parallels to the real-world rise of nationalism and isolationism. One would think (and hope) that the “us or them” attitude would be reserved solely for the living and the dead, that the color of one’s skin would be less important than being healthy or infected. But sometimes the old ways of thinking are harder to kill off than civilization itself, with people clinging to certain comforts and beliefs no matter how toxic they might be. For some, survival of one’s race trumps survival of humanity itself. Sure, we’ve seen man’s inhumanity to man play itself out before on this show and on TWD. The Governor is no Boy Scout, nor is Negan. But for them, their cruelty has more to do with power or pride than with prejudice. Travis sums it up best when he says of Troy, “He’s allowed to exist. Others here allowed that to happen.”
Fortunately, this is balanced out by Troy’s brother Jake (Sam Underwood). He’s a good man who doesn’t see eye to eye (no pun intended) with his brother’s less tolerant worldview. Their father Jeremiah (the excellent Dayton Callie) appears tolerant as well—his patience with Madison and Nick’s dangerous antics is almost saintly. Maybe his measured demeanor is genuine, or maybe there’s something more ominous simmering just below his calm exterior. Time will tell. And time will tell how long his Broke Jar Ranch will withstand the zombie menace.
Now, as for the elephant in the room, I need to ask the obvious question: Is Travis really dead?? I’m not the only one in denial—Alicia is holding out hope that he somehow survived. From a viewer standpoint, Travis’s death comes so quick and so early in the season that it’s hard to believe that FTWD would actually kill off a main character so matter-of-factly. Of course, it always feels like a cheat when certain characters are too big to die. It’s a trope, this so-called plot armor. TWD’s Rick, Michonne, Carol, and Darryl all seem to be equipped with it, lo these many seasons, robbing the show of some of its drama. So if Travis is indeed dead, good on you, FTWD. (But I need to see zombie Travis before I believe he’s truly dead. The same goes for Daniel while we’re at it!)
Some closing thoughts:
Colman Domingo is great in “Frontier,” imbuing Strand with a kind of smirking insouciance that was sorely lacking in season two. His isn’t a false bravado—the man really is that confident. But he’s also a confidence man, and it gets him exiled for the second time in as many seasons. He has a powerful scene with Ilene (Brenda Strong), the mother of the bride. She may have tried killing Strand, but they’ve come to an understanding of sorts since then, about themselves, and about the state of the world. Domingo gives us humor and heartbreak, all within this same affecting scene—and FTWD is better for it.