'Fear the Walking Dead' Season 3 Review: AMC’s zombie spinoff finds its footing again

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The final moments of Fear the Walking Dead's disappointing second season, which concluded in October, feel pretty pointed in the present. A group of Mexican survivors — forced out of their community, essentially becoming refugees — make their way to the U.S.-Mexican border, only to be shot at and scared off by a group of armed white men, who capture two of the series' protagonists. Yeah, the optics are quite political. 

Given that intense ending to the season, it may come as a surprise that Fear the Walking Dead's third season isn't all that politically charged — though it certainly has its moments. But The Walking Dead companion series doesn't need to be. At its best, Fear the Walking Dead isn't going to be a critically acclaimed drama with thought-provoking subtext, nor should it try to teeter between prestige and gory zombie camp like its flagship series. The show isn't constrained to any source material; one of the big issues with The Walking Dead in recent seasons is a slavish devotion to following the comics, as if it's afraid to try anything new. 

You can see by contrast that Fear the Walking Dead has some creative freedom, which leads to genuinely shocking moments in season three — ones that will remind zombie fans of The Walking Dead's glory days. In short: It's not award-winning television, but it's a hell of a lot of fun. 

OK, yeah, this is a pretty grim photo! Source: Michael Desmond/AMC
OK, yeah, this is a pretty grim photo!  Michael Desmond/AMC

Season three picks up shortly after season two leaves off, with Nick and an injured Luciana held captive by the mysterious new group. They're joined by Travis, Madison and Alicia, who coincidentally tried to find Nick — and technically, they've succeeded. 

But the men holding them captive don't have their own community. They're a subset of the Broke Jaw Ranch, another post-apocalyptic safe haven. The twist this time? The ranch was created by a doomsday prepper, which arguably makes it the most viable community from either AMC series. Indeed, it has plenty of room, shelter and food; not to mention, it's isolated enough that they won't expect hordes of the undead. 

The problem is, once again, a human one: one of the leader's sons, Troy. Troy's outfit is the one who captured Travis and co., and others before them, preferring to use the guise of "science" for his sadistic, sociopathic means. It's probably not a coincidence that Troy, portrayed by Daniel Sharman, bears a physical resemblance to Game of Thrones' Ramsay Bolton, formerly the most hated man in television. To Fear the Walking Dead's credit: You wouldn't mind seeing Troy get punched in the face after spending a few minutes with him, and that's kind of the point. 

Meet Troy, the guy you're going to really want to see punched in the face  Source: Michael Desmond/AMC
Meet Troy, the guy you're going to really want to see punched in the face  Michael Desmond/AMC

The biggest issue for the series is a familiar one: How do you make another post-apocalyptic safe haven interesting and different? I can't say that Broke Jaw Ranch bucks the trend in the three episodes provided to press, but it's also unclear how long the Clark family will stay there under the unsettling patriarch Jeremiah, and his troubled, punchable son Troy.

Since it caught up with The Walking Dead after season one — in other words, we're in full-on zombie apocalypse mode now, as opposed to seeing the outbreak in real-time — Fear the Walking Dead has struggled to create its own identity. Going through the same cycle of its protagonists joining new communities before said communities ultimately fall apart and everyone moves on (with some casualties, of course) is a hard sell. How is this all that different from The Walking Dead, and why should you spend your time with these characters? 

In Fear the Walking Dead's case, it's the shock factor. Aside from Negan's gruesome introduction, The Walking Dead has moved away from killing off any of its core cast members. We're basically assured several more years of Rick, Carl, Michonne and Daryl, unless one of the actors wants to jump ship. Without spoiling much, Fear the Walking Dead — and again, they're not following any prewritten comic book narratives — has no qualms putting its biggest characters in harm's way. People can die in unspectacular, understated ways — take Chris' death in season two, which occurred off screen and is only revisited in a brief flashback. 

It's also — and this shouldn't be overlooked — a lot of fun. Rick fighting an armor-clad zombie in a junkyard gladiator ring last season on The Walking Dead was entertaining, but Fear the Walking Dead throws one character into a pit with a horde of zombies, which said character has to defeat using assorted objects and their bare hands. Another character uses a human shield, threatening their hostage with, I kid you not, a spoon. That is art. 

If for whatever reason you can only commit to one AMC show about zombies, Fear the Walking Dead's third season makes a compelling case. It may not sustain this level of entertainment for the long haul, but the current product is, at its worst, mindless entertainment. And for a show about zombies, is that even a bad thing? 

Source: AMC/YouTube

The third season of Fear the Walking Dead premieres June 4 at 9 p.m. Eastern. 

Mic has ongoing coverage of Fear the Walking Dead. Follow our main Fear the Walking Dead hub here