Fear the Walking Dead was never the out-of-the-gate hit that The Walking Dead was, and its first two seasons brought both middling ratings and mixed reviews. Plenty appreciated the high-concept Los Angeles–set first season, but by the end of the second season, many had jumped ship (pun intended).
As season 3 began, the bulk of action shifted to one location, the doomsday prepper-populated Broke Jaw Ranch, and fixed a few of its missteps. But its ratings continue to decline — a worrying trend in TV overall, but especially relevant for a show that is living in the shadow of its mega-successful older sibling — and although FTWD might technically be the third-biggest cable series, it has shed more than 7 million viewers between its highly anticipated debut and the season 3 premiere.
After the mid-season 3 finale Sunday night, however, the show is creatively the strongest it has been since it debuted. AMC has already renewed the show for a fourth season — but will there be enough viewers left who care that it’s coming back?
Here’s a look at how the show has occasionally misstepped, how it’s course-corrected, and what it needs to do next now that it’s reached a promising turning point.
When the show began, it was about two families in Los Angeles trying to survive a mysterious virus outbreak. Then it was about them escaping on a boat, then it was about them holed up at a Mexican hotel. But once the show realized that it had an incredibly topical setting on which to focus — the already-fraught border between the U.S. and Southern California — it settled into a much more interesting, nuanced story.
— Life In Geekville (@GeekvilleLife) September 12, 2016
Like TWD, FTWD hasn’t been afraid to kill off main characters. And since we hadn’t really had enough time to really fall in love with anyone, it wasn’t too big of a blow — until Travis’ (Cliff Curtis) tragic end, that is (a move that propelled the story forward in great ways).
— Maggie Johnson (@MaggieeeLeighh) June 7, 2017
The audience knows the show is about zombies, but the characters took an excruciatingly long time to figure out that the only way to kill the infected was via a shot to the brain. There are only so many times you can watch these characters struggle to fight the walkers before you bail.
“It’s hard when you’re playing the apocalypse, and you’re doing discovery of the apocalypse, because you have to mourn every death and you have to consider every kill and you have to be aware of processing information that’s new and fresh,” Alycia Debnam-Carey told Rotten Tomatoes on the show’s remote Mexico set. “Whereas now, this season, is a lot about survival and and access of what’s needed and central and action and pragmatism.”
While there are plenty of strong female characters on The Walking Dead, the show still very much belongs to Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). But over the course of FTWD’s third season (so far), Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) and her daughter, Alicia (Debnam-Carey) have emerged as the strongest characters. Madison cemented her place as the show’s true leader with a major confession about her past followed by a bold power move that left Otto (Dayton Callie) dead, both of her children killers, and her in charge.
“It was horrifying for Madison to witness her child going there,” Dickens said of Alicia’s killer instinct.
But that — and Nick’s (Frank Dillane) actions in the midseason finale — have clearly steeled her resolve and turned her into the leader she now is.
The way Madison rose to power is very, very different than Rick’s ascent. He was already a lawman, and then uniform didn’t hurt. Madison, on the other hand, has had to figure out the post-apocalyptic power dynamics for herself — and how to exploit them for her own gain. Now that she’s acknowledged a huge part of her past, how will she use that experience in the future? How will she view her children now that they’re both killers (like she is)? How will her kids view her now that they know about her biggest secret?
“There’s always that moment when you learn [about] your parents in a way where they stop being your parents and they become someone; they become human,” showrunner Dave Erickson told RT on the show’s set. “Both Nick and Alicia see that side of their mother and get her for the first time and get why she can be aggressive and tough and, sometimes, cold as she is.”
Then there’s the plain fact that, as a woman — post-apocalyptic or otherwise — Madison faces a very different world than Rick Grimes. It’s one that will be fascinating to explore — and hopefully people will stick around to watch.
Fear the Walking Dead returns this fall on AMC.