[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for the first half of “Fear the Walking Dead” Season 4.]
“Fear the Walking Dead” has always had difficulty distinguishing itself from its forebearer. Sure, it focused on a single family, the Clarks, and had a number of significant changes in scenery, but it was still just another zombie survival show, with the detriment that it took place a few years earlier in the timeline of the main show, making it feel all the less vital.
So when new showrunners Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg, along with franchise steward Scott M. Gimple, opted to do a soft reboot of the show at the beginning of Season 4, time-jumping to “The Walking Dead’s” present and adding fan-favorite character Morgan to the regular cast, it was the rare act of cynical corporate synergy that actually made a degree of creative sense. “Fear the Walking Dead” could revitalize itself while having deeper ties to the flagship show, with the hope of a more extensive crossover down the line.
But a leap in time wasn’t the only big change the new showrunners had in mind. Along with Morgan, several new major characters were introduced, including John Dorie (Garret Dillahunt), a lonely gunslinger looking for his lost love, Althea (Maggie Grace), a journalist seeking to chronicle the stories at the end of the world, and June (Jenna Elfman), a former ICU nurse with a habit of fleeing when things get difficult.
These additions were genuinely refreshing, especially John and Al, two characters with strong motivations beyond simple survival. It’s amazing what storytelling possibilities open up when a character on a “Walking Dead” show wants something other than food or revenge. Dillahunt also plays John with an earnestness that’s virtually unheard of in this franchise; John’s obvious decency is what cracked Morgan’s desire for isolation.
But while the new cast additions were welcome, many other creative decisions in Season 4’s first half were much less successful. In particular, the episodes used a time-jump structure, cutting between “Before,” where the Clark family and others had set up a community in an abandoned baseball diamond, and “Now,” where the Clarks had lost everything and found themselves in conflict with Morgan and the other new characters. These jumps ostensibly existed to build tension, but mostly served to undercut it, obfuscating what the show was trying to accomplish.
What the time jumps ultimately built to was the revelation that Madison Clark (Kim Dickens) had heroically died at the baseball diamond, sacrificing herself to save her community. What’s more, early in the season Nick Clark (Frank Dillane) was shot and killed in the present, so the show lost two of its original leads over just a handful of episodes.
Dillane had requested his release before Season 4 began filming. Dickens, not so much. And Madison’s death felt more like a stunt than an organic storytelling choice – a way for the new showrunners to assert a truly new direction by burning down any remnant of what the show used to be.
It certainly didn’t help that the mid-season finale depicting Madison’s end, “No One’s Gone,” was a truly dire episode of TV. The characters all looked like imbeciles, and Madison’s ability to lure hundreds of zombies with a single flare and then find no exit out of an enormous baseball stadium beggared belief. Not to mention the whole sequence was shot with a weird slow-mo mosaic style that made following the action nearly impossible.
The end of “No One’s Gone” had both the Clark group and Morgan’s group together around a campfire, having established an uneasy accord. Which brings us to “People Like Us,” the mid-season premiere. The cast has again scattered, although they’re still on friendly terms. Morgan has decided he should return to Alexandria, which might pique fans’ interest for a substantial crossover, but since “The Walking Dead” is doing its own significant time jump before its next season, the odds seem low. It’s mostly an excuse for Morgan to check in with everyone so the audience can understand the new status quo.
The back half of Season 4 is in a weird spot. Madison’s death was the final scene of the mid-season finale, but since it happened in the past, for most of the characters it’s old news. Heck, some of the new additions never even met Madison. Nick’s death is much fresher for everyone, even though it happened six episodes ago for the audience, so these new episodes have to deal with how the original cast reacts to the presence of Charlie, the young girl who shot Nick.
The results reveal a show that’s still trying to figure itself out, and if the first two episodes are any indication, it will take the rest of the season for the show to establish an equilibrium. The episodes are downright subdued, choosing to focus on character rather than action, and while that’s to be commended (along with the choice to return to linear storytelling), the results don’t exactly make for exciting television. The giant storm that blows in to separate the characters so they can work out their issues is a pretty rote plot device, but at least there’s not a new group of sinister humans to menace our heroes (yet).
“Fear the Walking Dead” spent the first half of this season breaking down the show, with decidedly mixed results. Tearing something apart isn’t difficult – the trick is developing a show that’s truly worth watching. The back half of Season 4 looks to quietly rebuild, but it remains to be seen if it can succeed.