Fear The Walking Dead always had an edge over The Walking Dead. While its sister series started spinning its wheels in its third season and hasn't yet found an organic way to make an endless stream of zombies and dystopian communities interesting, Fear The Walking Dead has been savvier from the start. The series has a more intense style that was allowed to ebb and flow depending on who was directing each episode. Fear used its muscular cinematography, rich color palette and a dark, moody score by Paul Haslinger to heighten each character’s psychological isolation from each other. The writing is stronger, with less of the plot motivated by idiocy or meanness on the part of the heroes, and the way the actors play off each other would be compelling in any setting or genre. Most importantly, the zombies aren't always the threat they are in The Walking Dead; it's tough to remain afraid of something if it's constantly on screen and there's a reason the word "fear" is in the title.
There was also the simplicity, quickly forgotten in The Walking Dead, that murdering monsters that look like people has a profound effect on even the hardest person. Nick (Frank Dillane) in particular, who never had the firmest grip on reality or his own sanity to begin with, began to buckle whenever presented with too many corpses of innocent people. Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie) lost it completely, as any young man attracted to violence but ultimately afraid of it might. Daniel (Rubén Blades), the former torturer, began to have flashbacks to the mayhem he caused and suddenly every bit of violence in his life began to coalesce, like white blood cells attacking the lies he uses to live with himself. His monologue about his time on a death squad to a kidnapped marine made the most of Blades' natural gravitas as a performer, but also hinted that he'd always be a little more equipped to handle the horror around everyone, but the show quickly put the lie to his resolve. That Fear never forgets that we're all human is one of the many reasons it's been worth sticking with. When Travis (Cliff Curtis) and Madison (Kim Dickens) have conversations about their children, it isn't just about their response to zombies, it actually draws on their previous life at home. They have pasts as well as presents, and this whole zombie thing is just one stressful piece of the puzzle.
Its sense of place was another point in its favor: While The Walking Dead's version of the American South got monotonous immediately, the LA chapter in the opening season often flirted with the kind of buzzing atmospherics that marks the Michael Mann-derived work of Nic Winding Refn, It Follows, or Hyena. Its version of LA as pre-haunted flirted with uniqueness, even if it never quite got there. That it tried was admirable. Its vision of Mexico, particularly when in the hands of a master like Gerardo Naranjo, who I'm guessing had a thing or two to say about the bleached colour palette of his episode. Mexico felt like something approaching the real thing, not a fake version of a zombie wasteland. The landscape was nuanced.
Now in its third season, Fear The Walking Dead must decide what direction to take the story and what kind of place it wants to inhabit. The Walking Dead illustrated that, without a definitive ending in sight, a series like this can too quickly become Dynasty with a body count. The series proves the richness of its craft almost immediately by separating the cast and making them fight for survival, a not uncommon occurrence on The Walking Dead. The difference is in the execution. When we rejoin Travis and Madison, her children, Nick and Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), and Nick's girlfriend, Luciana (Danay Garcia), they’ve been kidnapped by a paramilitary group. Their ingenuity and brutality in one-upping their captor, Troy (Daniel Sharman), is gripping and grotesque, Madison jamming a spoon in Troy's eye and threatening to pop it out being the grim highlight. The dynamics between the characters changes by the end of the episode, which makes their struggle little more than a detour, but it hardly matters when the execution is this exciting: The gorgeous shallow-focus cinematography, frenetic editing, and endearingly exhausted performances make each of the show's tangents reason enough for Fear The Walking Dead to exist even if they hint that the series has no long-term storytelling ambitions. Things just happen, but that can be a virtue.
The best example of this purposeful aimlessness might be when the relentlessly cagey Strand (Colman Domingo), who's been conning his way out of danger since the first season, pretends to be a doctor to curry favor with desperate locals in the seaside hotel where much of season 2 transpired. This backfires almost immediately when a man asks him to deliver a baby at knifepoint. Domingo's facial expression when he realizes he's going to have learn natal care in a hurry is a hilarious moment of humanity, one of a few the series allows itself. The funniest moment the show has yet produced occurs when Madison and her children land at a survivalist’s compound and discover an infomercial created by folksy Jeremiah Otto (Dayton Callie) that's so crooked and clever it would have worked equally well as a pre-credits scene on Breaking Bad. Madison and her brood surviving in Otto's ‘ranch’ is exactly the kind of go-nowhere arc that's proved so lethally boring on The Walking Dead season after season. Fear the Walking Dead has the filmmaking chops, comic energy, and trust in its performers to make the shapelessness seem like a good idea, even if it’s what got The Walking Dead in dramatic trouble.
The cast is shaken up a little in the third season, but the mix of intelligence, exhaustion and reluctant compassion still animates the central players. Callie, always a welcome screen presence, caused by the departure of a crucial cast member in the opening seconds of the second. He’s a good foil for the steely Dickens, one of the most effortlessly human performers on TV. Dillane still supplies entertaining unpredictability as former junkie Nick, and in Sharman's Troy he has a foil worthy of his showy, chaotic theatrics.
But the greatest choice the series makes is in teasing the return of the great Rubén Blades, who so lit up the first season and a half of Fear The Walking Dead. Blades is one of the finest and most underrated screen performers, and the opportunity to watch him wend his way through another season is a tantalizing prospect. It's elements like his gracefully spooky performance that made the series such a thrilling watch. The writers and directors of this b-side show have a good thing going, and don’t look to be running out of steam anytime soon.