As Fear the Walking Dead continues its surprising season three renaissance tonight, I wanted to explore a bit why the show is starting to connect with me while The Walking Dead is losing my attention after seven seasons. Some of it is length, sure, as any show going that long will run into some fatigue issues, but there’s one core difference I think isn’t talked about enough.
The Walking Dead is effectively a superhero show. No one has superpowers, but it’s a superhero show all the same, pulled from the pages of a comic that features much, much larger than life characters surviving and impossible situation is very comic book-y ways.
It took a while for almost everyone to get this way, but at this point in the series, we have assembled a veritable Justice League/Avengers of post-apocalyptic survivors:
Rick Grimes – Ex-sheriff’s deputy and tough-as-nails leader always attached to his Colt Python.
Michonne – Former wanderer turned ally with a katana on her back at all times.
Daryl – The crossbow-wielding biker with a heart of gold who is seemingly unable to die in any situation.
Carol – A woman pretending to be Bruce Banner when she’s actually the Incredible Hulk, a frenzied engine of destruction.
Morgan – A former Wildman turned into a pacific monk that will still kill with his bo staff if his allies are threatened.
Ezekiel – A zookeeper who acts like a king with a sword-cane and a trained tiger as a sidekick.
I could go on, but they’re all facing off against…
Negan – The supervillain with the blood-red scarf and tight leather jacket, wielding Lucille, the barbed-wire bat that has executed dozens of dissenters, including two former members of the Justice League.
Do you see what I mean? It’s a combination of these cultivated “badass” personas, combined with signature costumes and signature weapons. Even though they lack superpowers and are not billionaires with metal suits, they are superheroes, for better or worse. Contrast that with say…the current state of Fear the Walking Dead and its cast:
Madison – Former guidance counselor trying to save her family.
Nick – Former drug addict trying to protect his girlfriend (and sometimes his family).
Alicia – Teenager trying to keep her family together.
Strand – Former con man who lies a lot.
Daniel – Former CIA-trained torturer looking for redemption (and his daughter).
Out of all of those, maybe Daniel could be in the Walking Dead JLA with that backstory, but you see my point. And their supervillain so far this season? An old man with a survivalist camp, and he might not even be a bad guy.
The point I’m trying to make is that these shows are splitting in really significant ways because of these different types of characterization. At first, I would have said the cast of Fear the Walking Dead was just flat-out more boring than The Walking Dead’s roster being so significantly less comic book-y and iconic, but now I can see how that’s an actual strength. It’s why the storylines of Fear the Walking Dead are starting to remind me of something I might read in my favorite work of zombie fiction, World War Z, while The Walking Dead is stuck in this loop where this epic band of heroes must square off against a supervillain and the cycle repeats and repeats and repeats.
The cast of Fear the Walking Dead being “human” allows them to act and react to their situation in interesting, believable ways, when honestly, when’s the last time say, Daryl…actually did anything interesting or meaningful on The Walking Dead? We all love Daryl, but what does he….do, besides grunt and kill things and be tough? That is the entirety of his character at this point.
And when The Walking Dead takes a breath and does try to humanize its cast, it can get weird, like how Carol, after kill number 25 or something, decided that murder was bad and she was tired of it so she left the group to go live in a cabin by herself. That development didn’t work because the audience went, “Wait, what? This is Carol, supreme badass killer extraordinaire. Why the hell would she get sad and reflective and retire all of a sudden?” The transition from superhero to normal human struggling with the morality of her actions didn’t work in that situation because The Walking Dead has not developed itself into that kind of show.
At least so far in Fear the Walking Dead, we haven’t seen any of this happen yet, and its characters remain more “real.” No one has iconic costumes or signature weapons. Everyone is just people, scrambling to survive and protect their own, even ones that are badasses like Daniel, as we saw in last week’s epic episode.
I think there’s room for both shows to exist, and they work on different levels. But this is why I think Fear the Walking Dead is really starting to come into its own while The Walking Dead has been struggling for a while now. They’re the same type of show, existing in the same universe even, but they are drastically different in the lens they use to show the survivors of the zombie apocalypse.