What a difference a year makes... or at least 8 months. Season 5 of The Walking Dead didn’t satisfy everyone so last summer, when its West Coast spin-off, Fear The Walking Dead, unloaded its opening six-shot salvo, many greeted it with open arms as it took a fresh look at the early zombie days. The season impressed, prompting a 15-episode continuation but have they rushed it back too soon?
The recent “season 6B” offering of the main show has seen it find some of its greatest ever form even if its closing moments frustrated so many (I stand among the minority that liked the cliff-hanger). So as Fear the Walking Dead returns to our screen, a mere 7 days after Jeffrey Dean Morgan smashed it out of the park, will the show still feel like a refreshing alternative or more of a second rate encore? In fact, it’s a bit of both. Fear the Walking Dead still impresses with its different direction but sadly feels quite tame compared to the last 8 weeks.
Monster – After Strand’s beachside house catches fire, the group are forced to set out on his boat to safety. They soon find they aren’t the only ones with the same idea placing all new challenges upon their survival.
Like any returning season, re-establishing itself is the first order of business and the episode does this very well throughout the opening act. Firstly, the “beginning of ten end” timeframe is transmitted via the spectacular visuals of the fire engulfed coastal inland. The screeching military jets overhead and talks of bombs effortless explain to newcomers that society has reached the point of rash desperate measures to try (in vain) and push back the zombie outbreak rather than being a full post-apocalyptic setting. Similarly, Travis and Madison’s beach fight reminds us of their still developing survivor status. They may take down a few walkers with hand weapons but it comes with some degree of difficulty. Instead of the reflex-like single-knife blow through the eye or temple, we’re so used to seeing from Daryl and the gang, Travis and Madison still approach walkers like they are fighting humans and as such strike several inefficient and ineffective blows against their dead opponents before finally taking out the brains. It’s highly effective storytelling to immediately put us back within the show’s mindset while still delivering decent action. This is extended further when the group passes the stranded boat as it allows each principle character to express their moral alignment over whether or not they wish to help them or understand that they can’t. The cold and calculating likes of Strand won’t even consider pulling over for risk of losing the boat or being swamped by too many people whereas the more benevolent likes of Alicia and Madison want to help with Travis caught in between as a reluctant realist. The aftermath of the Season 1 finale proves less rewarding as the group deal with losing Liza. Although there is some joy from seeing Chris work though his stepfather-hating angst, the funeral falls flatter than a frozen lake, hitting none of the emotions it aims for.
The new setting of “The Floating Dead” delivers on the show’s ideal of giving us something different but at the same time draws a nice parallel to the recent Walking Dead season for a continuing theme. Here, boats in the ocean become micro-communities with value to them with just their larger landlocked cousins of Alexandria and Hilltop. So just as The Saviours would look to covet such to territories, so too does the episode instill the idea being attacked for your stuff/supplies. While this does pan out into more tease than reward, it does successfully setup the idea of a piracy-like threat for the group to deal with. Alicia’s radio reach outs play well to the isolation as just being able to talk with someone helps her shake off the cabin fever and believe that civilization is still out there. Alicia’s scenes are also nicely worked back into the main story with purpose and consequence. The boat itself, The Abigail, is a good set location with its open decks and well-lit communal area contrasting to the bellow deck cabins. Then of course, we have the element of walkers on water for a fun twist on the typical zombie encounters. Just as some dead bodies will float, so to can the biting and grabbing extras of the show, helping to keep them as a threat and show them the problem that the group can’t just run (or row) away from). However, notable scenes in the middle section of the episode are sadly far less rewarding with even moments of dullness as things become overly sedate and the simpler character interactions don’t entertain as much as they should. There are times when the episode just feels like half a dozen or so people are sitting on a boat.
Strand continues to be the most interesting character as he establishes a clear chain of command with himself at the top. We’re still lead to believe he has a mysterious/hidden past that will probably come to light before the end of the season. The most curious point is Salazar’s observation about their wealthy host being a little too prepared for everything that has befallen the world. It paints him as a smoother version of John Goodman’s character from 10 Cloverfield Lane. Did Strand know the zombie outbreak was coming.... or was he even involved with it? He could be the show’s back door to revealing just how things all began. Admittedly, that feels more of a long shot with a secret personal drama being more likely but the potential is there if the show wishes to go big.
So Fear the Walking Dead returns to our screens with intrigue, possibilities but not quite enough single-episode rewards to make it feel like a triumphant return. There doesn’t feel any danger of the season sinking; it just needs to hit some more stormy seas rather than merely kicking back on a flat calm.