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Fear the Walking Dead finishes its run by going backward, not forward

We’ve been watching Fear the Walking Dead since its early ‘good’ days (read that as “the first couple of years, give or take”). Okay, we admit it, we took a few years off and then came back and then left again, but we’re all caught up now… and we’ve looked upon the revelation of these last few episodes with the same dread and secret hope that we did with the last few eps of The Walking Dead itself. And how sad we are to have our worst expectations fulfilled once again.

Look: people dying in the TWD universe isn’t just a given – it’s a requirement. And their deceased bodies rising back up to snack on the living is equally inevitable, absent the merciful shot or stab to the brainstem. But things started to go bad for both The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead when people kept seeming to die and then remarkably – sometimes impossibly – survived death to reappear in some new usually less interesting and far more (often temporarily) dangerous forms.

It’s rather ironic that TWD’s writers would become terrified with letting people –ie, characters – go. But here at the very end of the Fear, that’s exactly what’s happened: they’ve gone backwards, not forwards, recycling characters not only from years in the past, and ever hauling in story-lines from the other series – rather than moving the world or the characters forward. Worse, the characters they’ve brought back aren’t acting like “themselves” at all. You’ve got Madison, the stand-up center of the original show, emerging from years as an inexplicably sinister child-robber (?) to waffle between evil and desperation, with a totally unnecessary respiratory ailment. In the process, one of the few truly likable and heroic characters in the canon is now a totally unlikable – inexplicable, in fact – asshole who isn’t even a good super-villain. You’ve got Morgan, whose one consistent behavior over all the years, in both series, was his focus, his intensity, now afflicted with some kind of brain disease and has become not only unreliable but uninteresting. Victor Strand has also shown up half a continent and a decade away from his last character turn with yet another version of himself (and an entirely baffling modern-day hairstyle), and then there’s the redoubtable Ruben Blades, the grimly competent and infinitely dangerous family man/assassin Daniel Salazar – the only character other than Madison to survive the entire run of FTWD – who has lost his grit and has been shoved into the background, slipping forward now and again only to advance this week’s plot but to offer nothing like the powerful performances of the past. And don’t get me started on the utter waste of Jenna Elfman’s June Dorie. So good. So wasted.

Meanwhile everyone, everyone has become obsessed with Madison’s thought-to-be truly dead daughter Alicia, turning her into an unrisen messiah they talk about endlessly and virtually worship. Alicia (apparently because she simply wouldn’t sign up for more than a single episode for her return engagement?) has become a blessed memory, a one-armed wonder that everyone – everyone – is obsessed with finding in her walker-form just to give her a “decent burial” – in a world where no one, including Madison’s long-forgotten husband and dimly remembered son – never got a fraction of the same attention. And as the series staggers to a close, this weird universal focus on Alicia leads Madison up and down and all around — committed, obsessed, betrayed, turned evil, then switched back to willing martyrdom, sometimes in the space of a single scene, causing a kind of character-based whiplash that can’t be healthy for anyone concerned. Then there is the rise and fall, also with multiple repeats, of this season’s Big Bad Troy, yet another long-departed character who really should be dead himself, and doesn’t have any personality at all, filled with pointless secrets and personality pivots. (And come on, after all his lies on top of lies, why did Madison, there at the very end, believe that last one even for a little while?)

The last fifteen minutes of the last episode are all the more heartbreaking because they let us glimpse, just glimpse, the series-ending episodes we could have had. The good-natured but ruthless Salazar and his cat. June’s return to Texas, struggling with the memory of John Dorie and what she finds and builds there, the establishment of a fragile reunited nation, and dealing with the NEW threats to it, by Luciana and Dwights and Ofelia and the rest. What a great bunch of stories they would have been, if FTWD had simply moved forward instead of just recycled the past for the last season — even to the point of recycling chunks of a past that wasn’t even theirs. This final result was just a mushy stew of fan service and cast availabilities, and that’s a damn shame. 

This is no slam on the performances. Lennie Jones, Ruben Salazar, Kim Dickens, Colman Domingo and so many others really are excellent at what they do, and the show-runners are relying entirely on their skill and force of personality to shove them through one last set of ‘resolutions’ for stories that had already been resolve or simply petered out.

Virtually no one acts like the people we first met or even any logical, long-lasting evolution of those characters. Key players from the past, like John Dorie or Travis or Al, are virtually unmentioned. And what all this means in relation to the ongoing TWD story that’s unfolding in Dead City, Daryl Dixon and beyond goes entirely unmentioned. We don’t even know if they’re happening contemporaneously. And at this point… we don’t care.

A whole lot of people worked for a whole lot of years on Fear the Walking Dead. They did some good work there, and turned in some truly impressive performances, and you can see their abiding and genuine affection for each other and their work in those ‘farewell’ moments after the last episode. And hey, remember the promise of those first couple of years? Go back and look at Seasons 1 and 2, featuring some of the same actors in a much better place, and you can still get a glimpse of what could have been. They – and all those millions of TWD and FTWD fans – deserved a lot more that this chaotic, manipulative mess of an ending.

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