AMC

Fear The Walking Dead Stumbles Through The Zombie Apocalypse

The once-promising spinoff sets down a difficult path in its mid-season premiere

[Note: Spoilers up to the seventh (May 22) episode of Season 2.]

Right up until its mid-season hiatus, it was easy to justify Fear the Walking Dead’s existence even if you weren’t an AMC exec in charge of shoring up the network’s overall flagging ratings. The prequel spinoff to The Walking Dead, arguably the most popular show on TV, offered plenty of its own rewards. Season 1 of Fear compellingly chronicled the rapid collapse of civilization, with ordinary families — like those of guidance counselor Madison (Kim Dickens), English teacher Travis (Cliff Curtis), and barber Daniel (Rubén Blades) — eventually fleeing a preemptive military plan to exterminate them to contain the zombie infection. The first half of Season 2 found the three families, their numbers somewhat depleted, on a luxury yacht with the James Bond villain-esque Victor Strand (Colman Domingo), encountering isolated survivors with fascinatingly divergent modes of adapting to the apocalypse. Each time the characters thought they knew where their moral limits and tribal loyalties lay, they were challenged — by a family of self-sufficiency nuts, by a band of modern-day pirates, and by Madison’s addict son Nick’s (Frank Dillane) strange communion with the dead.

And then came two near-fatal blows to the show. Nick recklessly abandoned his mother and sister Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) in Mexico to search for an (end-of-)death cult that saw the zombies as something more than whack-a-mole monsters, while Travis’s teenage son (Lorenzo James Henrie) — a barely sketched character for most of the series’ run so far — suddenly turned into a raging psychopath. When the second season resumes on Sunday, August 21, the remaining eight episodes will have a lot of course-correcting to do.

Based on the first three post-hiatus installments, there’s much to both anticipate and dread. The mid-season premiere starts ambitiously, if rather slowly, with an episode that focuses almost entirely on Nick’s journey on foot toward the cult. Many more Mexicans than Angelenos seem to have lived through the zombie epidemic, and Nick’s run-ins with the new economy that’s arisen around the post-disaster economy — with cartels trading access to supermarkets for drugs — is one of the world-building highlights of Season 2. The spiritual response to the rise of the zombies is also a great idea — it’s definitely served The Leftovers well over on HBO — but the story line appears to demand patience for a real pay-off, even if it adds a promising wrinkle to the zombie mythology.

Elsewhere in Mexico, Madison and Travis grapple with parental crises. At an almost deserted luxury resort, Madison and Victor get drunk in a morose and embittered scene that Dickens will likely use as her Emmy reel. Travis parted ways with his girlfriend and her daughter to save them from the lately Dexter-ish Chris, but his hopes of revivifying his young son’s sensitivities are imperiled by a pack of crazy gringos who see themselves as the bro-kings of the new universe. Even as the world is ending, Fear argues convincingly, it’s possible to mourn a young man’s loss of innocence and sense of fairness. Though apart, Madison and Travis grapple with the same issue: whether it’s worth the effort to give themselves a false hope about the fates of their children. Their doubt and despair are understandable, but the apocalypse is young yet, and their new world so curiously unpredictable.