Spoilers ahead for shows with the words “walking” and “dead” in them.
Even though both share a central overarching premise of “surviving a zombie apocalypse,” The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead aren’t the most easily comparable shows, since the former’s focus is on stragglers coming together and the latter is about a close-knit group trying not to fall apart. But their seasonal structures are similar, as both shared a six-episode first season before expanding to more than double that, and Fear the Walking Dead Season 2 seems to be taking the same kind of deliberately unexplosive approach to building up character development that its predecessor did, and I’d like to halt things to point out what Fear should learn from the flagship’s sophomore season.
Introduce a long-lasting conflict or mission, and make sure it matters. Fear the Walking Dead got off to a fantastic immediate beginning, as the families went through hell before being forced to hop onto Strand’s yacht. (Or IS it Strand’s yacht?) But it’s been a series of stop-and-go story points since, and predictable ones at that. Alicia is talking to a strange person over the radio and he sounds like he won’t try and rob or murder them? Of course that guy is going to end up trying to rob or murder them. The group finds a family of people who managed to live this long into the horror without dying yet? Of course those people’s lives are going to get ruined as soon as they let the central squad into their home.
While #Search4Sophia2011 is a definite sore spot in The Walking Dead’s past, it’s hard to argue against the importance of having a constant and defined mission, which allows not just a narrative path to either follow or deviate from, but is almost necessary for any eventual payoff down the road – or the ocean, in this case – to be a success. The Walking Dead shifted gears from Season 1 and introduced a bunch of new characters , using Sophia’s disappearance as the background noise, and the group that emerged from that mini-arc was a stronger and more focused set. At this point, the only thing Fear the Walking Dead has that’s close to anything along those lines is Strand himself, who has mysterious motives leaking from every pore, and this could possibly all be worth it if he ends up becoming an antagonist in the future.
Keep the outside population involved while they’re still around. Fear the Walking Dead kicked off with the dramatic advantage of delivering the early days of society’s collapse that Walking Dead viewers only got to experience in glimpses and anecdotes. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoyed Season 1 overall, despite the problems; I like seeing how people behave in awful and dire situations, even when it’s scripted with the heaviest of hands. But instead of showing us more of Los Angeles’ downward spiral, Season 2 immediately cardoned off these characters from the rest of the world. The escape to the water absolutely makes sense from their perspective, but the story could have done well with more of these early days taking place on land with things going to shit, with a trek out to sea getting introduced later. It’s an interesting part of the past two episodes, don’t get me wrong, but one that wouldn’t be any less interesting in Season 3 or 4.
The Walking Dead frontloaded Season 2 with all of the characters at Hershel’s farm, with some far more important than others. (Sorry, Jimmy.) Along with Randall’s crew, this influx of new blood not only broadened everyone’s storylines, but it also gave the drama some whittlin’-down targets for rest of the episodes, and without yet needing some Big Bad to focus on. I don’t think Fear the Walking Dead needs to throw a dozen other people onto the boat for the series to be incredible or anything, but we probably need more than just Soon To Be Dead Family #1 popping up as a release for the Manawa/Clark/Salazar cabin fever that’s bound to get thicker as the season continues.
Someone important needs to go. With its focus on family, Fear the Walking Dead is at an obvious disadvantage when it comes to killing off a lead character as far as sheer numbers go, although this ups the ante when it comes to how important those deaths are to others. The series wisely killed off Liza in the Season 1 finale, which knocked the pressure off of such a big shock happening at any point soon. I don’t fly the “someone’s gotta die!” flag or anything, but for all the character-to-character plotting that this show will go through, the sun still sets on a world where almost all threats and conflicts begin and end with death. So to try and deliver otherwise would be a fool’s errand.
Choosing to end the midseason finale with the “death” of a walker was an interesting choice for The Walking Dead in Season 2, and its effectiveness worked not only within the context of the first half of that season, but it allowed the second half to focus more on “Rick v Shane: Dawn of the Dead Justice,” which ended with Shane getting a double dose of dying. Before that happened, though, we had to bid a nauseous farewell to Dale, who remains one of the most moral and interesting characters, despite the inability not to picture his shocking and disgusting disembowelment when his name comes up. Fear the Walking Dead doesn’t have to put down two of its most prominent survivors, but the haggling will go no lower than one person, and making it someone from Madison’s family would be good.
There are, of course, more things to take away from The Walking Dead Season 2 that this companion drama could and should have taken as inspiration, but the three tips listed above would do most of the work in winning reluctant audiences back. Figuring out a way to pull off a crossover between the series would also bring a guaranteed ratings boost, but I get why no one wants to fall back on that as an easy out. Still, if they happened to pass by a DMV where one of the employees has been holed up since the outbreak happens, and that employee happens to be Negan…
With Season 3 definitely happening for Fear the Walking Dead next year, we can only hope that the ongoing season goes forth in such a way that keeps us from falling overboard before Season 7 of The Walking Dead gets here. Find it every Sunday night on AMC.