Theme: A Season in Review
*spoilers for all aired episodes of Fear the Walking Dead*
After a six episode appetizer in season one, Fear the Walking Dead returned in 2016 with 15 episodes to its sophomore season. 15 episodes to familiarize us with the characters, 15 episodes to build allegiances, and 15 episodes to turn the patchwork Manawa-Clark family into a zombie-fighting, apocalypse-surviving unit.
We began on a boat, the Abigail, captained by the mysterious smooth-talking Strand with doubtful intentions. Madison played the often insufferable part of the mother-hen. Nick continued on his reckless path as ‘the chosen one’, mixing a disturbing disregard for his own life with an over-invested blood-drenched interest in the walking dead. In the meantime we found Travis desperately trying to set a good example for Chris, which at worst equated itself with being unbearably passive and at best to being an admirable pacifist in a violent world. Chris was a grieving son. Alicia, a naive teenage girl searching elsewhere for affections and attention. Daniel dutifully played the part of the sage old man full of good advice and keen observations while being quick with a knife. And Ofelia was present in the background, flirting with Nick and glancing sceptically at the brutality of her father.
Looking back on the whole second season, it becomes clear that Fear the Walking Dead and its characters have come a long way. And despite some flaws with episodes and character development at times being unevenly paced, I’ve mostly enjoyed the gor(e)gously filmed journey.
In the first half of the season mistakes were made by most of the characters. Necessary mistakes that would allow for character growth in the second half. Alicia underestimates the dangers of a stranger’s kind voice, while Chris gets bloody – first as a zombie-killer, then as a mercy-killer, and lastly as a revengeful killer. Travis’ lack of fatherly discipline towards Chris will reap fatal consequences later on, while Madison’s obsessed attempts to reconnect the umbilical cord with a clearly disinterested Nick ends up severing the connection completely, perhaps even for good (Although, let’s be honest, probably not. This is after all a TV show in magical TV land, where not even a zombie apocalypse can guarantee a son’s escape from his mother’s protective instincts).
Fear the Walking Dead is a zombie show but it has always first and foremost been a story about family. This family, the Manawa-Clark clan, implodes during the first half of the second season with a mid-season final that left us wondering whether they would ever reunite. In season 2b our core cast of characters are on three parallel paths. Each group must make their own sense and establish their own truths on how to navigate this new world, in accordance with the experiences they gather along the way. While it is always a risk to separate the cast in a TV show, a lot of good can also come from such a narrative device. Let’s start with the bad though.
Nick and the Colonia – all potential, no follow-through
The Colonia could have been the setting for an interesting examination of faith in the apocalypse, a relatively unexplored area in The Walking Dead TV-universe. It’s exciting stuff – the emergence of new beliefs, the bending of old ones to fit unprecedented and morbid circumstances. How do the comforts of religious rituals adapt to a world where death is living amongst us? Where does purgatory, heaven and hell fit in this unholy interpretation of life after death? Instead we got a few creepy chants and predictable platitudes about belief being stronger than the narco’s bullets, even when what you believe in, is a sham.
While Nick may be a fan favourite, his lonesome Colonia adventure fell flat for me. His blatant disregard for family, his careless actions that bring danger upon others, and his propensity to be sweet-talked by strangers that proclaim him as some sort of apocalyptic messiah, leave me, quite frankly, annoyed and cold. Nick has great potential. He’s a charming dude with a big heart and despite my misgivings he is usually alright to watch purely on the strength of Frank Dillane’s engaging portrayal. I do however wish the show was better at acknowledging Nick’s flaws. Instead they bring on one stranger after the other announcing him as ‘special’. Yet all we are shown is a big kid who loves children, is a bit too fond of dressing up in zombie blood, and is repeatedly damn lucky with the consequences that follow his reckless behaviour. I do hold out hope for Nick next season. He did after all finally turn his back on the cultish personality of Alejandro in the season finale, showing some leadership potential and greater substance of character. It was however uncomfortable to watch the Colonia narrative play out in the end, with the lone American showing some common sense and ‘saving’ the belief-ridden Mexicans. This show ought to be better than that sort of tired and, quite frankly, offensive storytelling. Stop trying to make a saviour out of Nick and maybe I’ll be bothered to care about him!
The Colonia storyline also introduced a newcomer character with the tough-talking and beautiful Luciana. Again the shadow of unfulfilled potential hangs over a character. I am all for stuffing in as many kick-ass women as you can possibly fit on a show, but when they fall into the ‘stern until a charming boy smirks my way and then I’m all about him’-kind, I lose interest real fast. Hopefully, Luciana will be more than a love interest next season and we’ll be treated to some personal growth separate from fatherly figures and boyfriends.
Let me air one final gripe with the Colonia storyline before caving in to my positive inclinations and delving into the best moments and developments of this season. Can Fear the Walking Dead please stop abusing the zombie-blood trick, when walking amongst the undead. It’s a good trick when you’re in a pickle, but when all it takes to go unnoticed amongst the flesh-eaters is a smear of red across the forehead, any actual fear of the walking dead fades away.
Yes I know humans are the main enemies and focus of this series, and I do love that angle, but by so easily erasing the threat of the zombies you lower the stakes of the world we are in. The threat of zombies must feel real and urgent if we are to believe the rapid degradation of society and humanity that is portrayed. I know humans are capable of evil without the threat of walking dead, but in this show we examine the cost of survival on the ordinary soul placed in an extreme environment. A place where the threat of eternally wandering the earth as a corpse may turn regular folks into cold-blooded killers.
This is the apocalyptic character-focused story I look for in Fear the Walking Dead, and that is luckily what I got from the two remaining storylines of season 2b.
The downfall of Chris, the rise of Travis and Alicia, and the flounderings of Madison
Family is the motor of Fear the Walking Dead and the improbable search for a home was the shared mission across storylines in season 2b. Nick found stability, a trailer, and a girl in Colonia, while Madison, Strand, and Alicia cleared out a hotel, turning it into a desirable fortress. Travis tried to convince Chris to stay at the homestead instead of roaming the open road, while Chris just wanted to go home to California and somehow belong amongst like-minded individuals.
The hotel gave the show a new and fun setting to play with – from the maze of keycard-locked aisles and doors to the quiet respite provided by a warm shower. This is something Fear the Walking Dead does very well. They mix it up. The environment is never constant, always shifting. We’ve been on land, on sea, at a resort, in a colonia, at a supermarket, in LA, and in Mexico – and we’re only two seasons in. They never allow the setting to grow stale. The new world is explored. Even better, the settings are usually well utilized to bring forth new character traits and relationship dynamics. The hotel became an avenue through which to explore the community-building abilities, strategic thinking, and leadership qualities of Strand, Madison, and, perhaps most surprisingly and definitely most satisfyingly, these traits reveal themselves in a drastically evolving Alicia.
While Strand was sadly underused, his brief moments of emotional connections with Madison, Alicia, and the groom of a dead bride at the hotel, were highlights of the season. It does worry me that we left this complicated and intriguing character alone at the hotel. It seems a waste to build his personal ties to the likes of Madison and Alicia if only to abandon those relationships in the third season.
Speaking of Madison, oh boy what a rollercoaster. Every time the show alludes to her finally stepping up as the leader our group really needs, Nick creeps back to the forefront of her mind, making her wholly irrational and, much like her son, a danger to her surrounding environment. Madison is a strange character. She is the first of the Manawa-Clarks to adapt to the brutality of the current world, while continually jeopardizing everyone’s safety for the son who left her. She is without a doubt a mother first and survivor second. This, of course, shouldn’t be a surprise as this show is all about family. What is surprising however is her desperate attempts to ‘save’ Nick at the cost of her daughter’s safety. This dynamic does bring some delicious family conflict and tear-inducing moments between Madison and Alicia, while still being a somewhat frustrating view. Madison fails as the leader we hope she could be, but on the bright side her actions do in turn reveal the independent and decisive nature of Alicia – a potential leader in her own right. Madison’s lack of control only seems to embolden Alicia on her path to womanhood.
Season 2b was truly redeeming for two characters – Travis and Alicia. Alicia Clark came into her own as a smart, quick-thinking young woman. The show has carefully developed a character with the ability to balance a loving heart with the need to be brutal in dire circumstances. Alicia cares for her fellow human being but threaten her family and she will act with lethal force, as demonstrated in the finale. What innocence remained has well and truly been lost for her. It should be engaging viewing to see how the woman Alicia will fare in the apocalypse now that we have said our goodbyes to the teenage girl.
I never thought I’d say this but season 2b has left me most excited for the journey Travis and Alicia will take together. The stepdaughter and -dad duo share an inherent hope for the good in humanity and a need to conserve some human dignity in the apocalyptic wasteland of death and survival. Above all, they are loyal to their family and they will sacrifice their own humanity on behalf of this. How these two warm-hearted and principled people deal with the bloodstains left on their hands after the finale could become a dynamic take on what ‘good people’ look like in this universe.
Travis has been a frustrating character throughout Fear the Walking Dead. His determined pacifist and passive approach to all situations was honestly annoying, but boy was the final pay-off satisfying. Already in season one, the show alludes to Travis’ violent past before his respectable life as a high-school teacher. I usually don’t condone violence but the well-choreographed explosion of Travis’ pent-up emotions, displayed through pure brute force, flying fists, and stamping feet in the finale, was as morbidly satisfying as it was shocking. The satisfaction does not derive from Travis’ betrayal of his hard-fought for values of pacificity trumping violence. The audience enjoyment comes from seeing this deeply passive character finally make a decisive shift towards being active, taking control by, ironically enough, losing it for a moment.
I look forward to seeing a capable, caring, kick-ass father/daughter team in the third season of Fear the Walking Dead.
The forgotten fourth thread – where and who the fuck is Ofelia?!
I almost forgot, as did the show at times, Ofelia is still around – alive and kicking. Originally part of the hotel squad, a despondent Ofelia remembers an ex-fiancée and sets off to find him. Ofelia is a mystery but hardly in the intriguing manner of Strand. One moment she acts the subjugated daughter, the next she is tearing through the heads of zombies with a hammer. One of the reasons I love apocalyptic tales is to see the development of ‘ordinary’ human beings becoming survivalists; the costs and burdens they collect along the way. The main thing being: I want to see this progression. Fear the Walking Dead has had some difficulties with pacing out the survival instinct learning curve for each of its characters but none have been so stark as with Ofelia in season 2b. I guess the only plausible explanation for her lightning fast transformation is that she really is her father’s daughter and Daniel has been training her for such a day in secret.
Hopefully, Ofelia will be less separated from the rest of the characters next season and become a greater part of the whole – not just a hammer-wielding mystery woman on a lonesome unexplained mission.
Good things to come…. I hope
Fear the Walking Dead is far from a perfect show but in general it excites me with its distinct and beautiful cinematography, its constantly changing and varied environments and its willingness to stick to its guns as a family-driven zombie show. That, along with a great cast, has me counting it amongst one of my must-watch shows. The two-episode finale left all characters, at the exception of perhaps Strand, in interesting situations with intriguing paths laid out in front of them. Bring on season three.