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Fear the Walking Dead‘s freshman season was, on the whole, uneven. Out of six episodes, only last week’s penultimate episode really left me excited to see where things might go in this particular sector of the zombie apocalypse. After watching “The Good Man,” I’m more than a bit worried about where the show will take things in its second season (which was ordered by AMC before the show even premiered).
The crux of that worry stems from the show’s treatment of Travis. I know I’ve been pretty hard on the character from the word go, but considering how the series has now set him up to be our central hero (after spending the bulk of the season focusing on Madison, who has turned into a very interesting character in this short span), I think that scrutiny is warranted. Up until the final few scenes of the finale, I was watching the series assuming it was Madison who would emerge as the Rick Grimes lead, responsible for the safety of this family of travelers. But when the show made the decision to have Travis kill Liza, that changed the trajectory of the season arc for Travis without earning that change with what came before.
Travis has been our pacifist character. He’s the one who trusts those in power and believes that things will get better. He’s been so focused and single-minded in this belief it has almost gotten him and his family killed on several occasions. He has been the moral center of the series, calling out those who stray from the moral path- including both Madison and Daniel, two characters far better suited for this new world, but who have certainly taken steps (in Daniel’s case, leaps) into the moral grey area. But in this episode, we see him pummel a man into a bloody pulp and kill Liza after her impassioned speech explaining that there is no cure and she will turn. Now, those actions coming from Daniel or Madison would feel like natural steps for their characters, particularly in the case of Madison, who has yet to kill despite appearing to accept that such acts are necessary in this new world. Just think of the fallout in season two had Madison been the one to end Liza’s suffering. That would have been one spectacular storyline, and it would have given us a chance to see Travis work through his internal issues with what the new state of the world asks of him. But having Travis, who has abhorred violence, take that step without seeing how he came to that decision? It’s a major step for the character and I don’t feel like it was earned.
Now, if the Travis we see in season two is a hardened shell of the man from season one, I can forgive the writers for taking Travis from zero to 60 with this. But in order for this change in Travis to work, we need to know more about him. Why has he been so reluctant to accept what is happening? Why does he always see the good in people? When it comes down to it, we have spent very little time with Travis. We know about Madison and we understand where her practicality in the face of change comes from. She lost her husband and had to raise two kids on her own for awhile. She has dealt with a drug addict son and made sure he survived. And then there’s Daniel- we know exactly how he became who he is in the face of death and danger. But Travis is a blank page. Why did his marriage fail? Since he snapped so quickly when Adams shot Ofelia, is there violence in his past? The show needs to give us some indication about who Travis was before all of this so that we can understand his transition into who he will become.
Outside of the switch from a more singlular focus on Madison to a focus on Travis, the episode as a whole was very scattered and unfocused. Perhaps it was an attempt to capture the feeling of chaos that was at the center of the walker attack, but it only succeeded in creating confusion over characters and story. While the cast of Fear the Walking Dead isn’t nearly as expansive as The Walking Dead, there are still a good number of characters to corral, and using a strobe effect during a walker attack with the bulk of the cast isn’t the most effective thing to do when we’re still getting to know the characters. I honestly couldn’t figure out half of what was happening during that scene (not to mention the flashing started to give me a headache). Fun effects are great, but until I can tell all of the characters apart from the back, the sense of dread and fear is overshadowed by me trying to figure out who is actually in danger before the light flashes off again.
Despite all of this, I’m still planning on tuning in for the show’s second season when it airs in 2016, solely due to three characters: Madison, Daniel, and Strand. In those three characters, the show has managed to capture the same magic found in the best characters of The Walking Dead. First and foremost, each one is built to survive this apocalypse. We know they have the ability to command those around them and to change their own personal code in the face of the unknown. But each one also has clear vulnerabilities that could be their undoing. And that is what makes them the keys to the future success of Fear the Walking Dead. These are the most complex and interesting characters within the series and should be the central building blocks of the story moving forward (until the show has the chance to develop additional characters to surround them). If the series chooses to focus on building from its strengths and not simply throw weaker, less developed characters to the forefront within additional development to buoy them, I can certainly see the series growing into one of the more interesting on television. But if characters like Travis are suddenly thrust into the lead without giving us reasons for their massive character changes, things could get dicey really fast.
— I can’t say I was surprised that Liza was our fist major death, but I was certainly sad to see her go. Elizabeth Rodriguez is a major supporting player at Orange is the New Black, so I was expecting her to not last too long on Fear the Walking Dead as a result, but Liza was one of the bright spots of the season and I would have loved getting to know more about her and her past with Travis. That relationship was one of the storylines that was given a really short shrift and it could have gone a long way to letting us see more about Travis.
— A bit more about my issues with the handling of Travis. I can understand why he attacked Adams, but I don’t quite understand where that burst of violence came from. Yes, he trusted a man who betrayed him in the end, but Travis has been set up as such a calm and level-headed character on the whole, that bursts of extreme violence aren’t characteristic of his character. If the mere thought of having to kill Madison or Liza before they turn would “break him,” I’m struggling to understand how such a kind and nonviolent man could have such violence in him (and the answer being “because it’s the apocalypse and people change” is a lazy answer and one I hope the show avoids using).
— As usual, the scenes with Chris and Alicia were essentially pointless.
— The Strand enigma is wonderful. I have so many questions about this character (masterfully portrayed by Colman Domingo). And, perhaps best of all, I’m looking forward to the show possibly exploring the question of why everyone doesn’t simply get on a boat and escape North America. Are other countries around the world infected? Is there something wrong with the ocean as well?