As The Walking Dead returns to form during its penultimate season, spin-off Fear The Walking Dead similarly crawls towards improvement. After a slow start, the final few episodes of season 6A pulled the show out of mediocrity, carefully accelerating the pace with some gripping plotlines. Yet it’s hard to escape the feeling we’ve been here before. Each post-hiatus revamp brings a new villain to topple, factions to unite or a vital object to track down – before setting up yet another series for zombie fans to hungrily gobble down.
Fear The Walking Dead isn’t willing to totally reinvent itself in its newest episodes – the first of which airs next week – but the twists and turns it takes are some of the most surprising in years. Picking up soon after the midseason finale, we find John Dorie (Garret Dillahunt) at rock bottom, ruing his decision to abandon wife June (Jenna Elfman) and ride off to Janis and Cameron’s secluded cabin out of harm’s way.
His self-loathing sesh is soon interrupted though by Morgan (Lennie James) and Dakota (Zoe Colletti), who are on the run from Virginia’s (Colby Minifie) patrolling rangers. Anything beyond this setup would step into spoiler territory, but there’s sufficient opportunity for characters John, Morgan and Dakota to dig into their morally grey motives. Answers to many of the season’s big mysteries are well handled too, though in some unpredictable ways which is novel for a show with only one go-to move: kill everyone.
It helps that (for the selection of episodes NME saw at least) Fear has ditched the anthology format. With most of the survivors now living in either Morgan’s new homestead or Virginia’s base of operations, the focus is far tighter and less inconsistent. There’s a definite sense too that showrunners Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg want to placate a fanbase that has taken to the internet as a way of getting them sacked – 3,500 signed an online petition last year. Seemingly in answer, the new adventures are stuffed with throwback Easter eggs and visual nods to classic storylines. Eagle-eyed viewers will notice one such reference during episode nine which concentrates on Virginia and unravels in enjoyable, Spaghetti Western style. There are still hiccups, like the convenient plotting that’s been an issue throughout season six, but it’s easier to forgive when strands are pulled together in a sequence of satisfying, cinematic stories.
While Fear The Walking Dead’s narrative hasn’t always held up under scrutiny, the performances are continually strong. Here, Colby Minifie is finally given the material she deserves as Virginia, exploring the vulnerability beneath her cowgirl theatrics. Elsewhere, Lennie James’s Morgan is the show’s consistent moral anchor, but it’s Garret Dillahunt’s John and Jenna Elfman’s June who shine brightest — the fresh instalments twisting their relationship into something altogether more meaningful and unexpected.
Questions over Fear’s purpose in The Walking Dead’s wider TV universe remain unaddressed, but for now this spinoff has bounced back with its most impactful and gratifying experience since season four. Whether it chooses to evolve from here or sink back into the same cycle will prove the real test.
‘Fear The Walking Dead’ returns April 11 on AMC and BT in the UK