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How a Midseries Overhaul Fixed ‘Fear the Walking Dead’

After reorienting itself in its fourth season, the spinoff has become as compelling as, if not more than, the original series

AMC/Ringer illustration

For its first three seasons, AMC’s Walking Dead spinoff, Fear the Walking Dead, greeted viewers each week with a disconcerting assault on the senses.

The opening title sequence’s black background and ominous sounds promised sadness and scares, while its flickering text felt like it should come with a seizure warning. It didn’t introduce characters or tease the story or setting. And most notably, it never changed.

Which is why it was so surprising — and, perhaps, heartening — when Fear returned for its fourth season in April with an opening title sequence that looked like it belonged to a different show, if not a different genre. Gone were the jump-scare-style appearance of the title text and the dissonant screech of the earlier score. In place of the latter was a light, tinkling, glockenspiel sound and a twangy Western guitar. Instead of darkness, a wide-open landscape stretched into the distance — covered by clouds, admittedly, but with a little light breaking through. And on the left side of the screen, a solitary figure stood by a fire, inviting viewers to make a connection and possibly sit and stay for a while.

For some longtime Fear fans, the new look was jarring. “It feels so out of place,” one YouTube commenter said. “It [doesn’t] feel like I’m watching Fear the Walking Dead.” For the stewards of the series, though, changing what watching Fear feels like was the idea. The redesigned intro was just the first indication of a comprehensive overhaul that extended to every aspect of the show, from the creative team to the cast to the visual style, storytelling approach, and episode structure. Saddled with dwindling ratings and an indistinct identity at the end of its third season, The Walking Dead’s less celebrated descendant embarked on an ambitious reboot that tried to do for Fear what critically acclaimed course corrections had done for HBO’s The Leftovers and AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire in their second seasons. The drastic restructuring seems to have had the intended effect: After suffering steep declines in Fear’s second and third seasons, the ratings have stabilized (and even slightly rebounded) this year.

Attempting to start fresh in Season 4 was an even taller order for Fear, but the spinoff, which was recently renewed for a fifth season and returned from a hiatus on Sunday for the second half of Season 4, has made the makeover work, morphing into a weirder, wilder, and more adventurous show that stands apart from — and in some ways surpasses — the franchise flagship.

The break between seasons 3 and 4 was a time of turmoil for Fear. Season 3 showrunner Dave Erickson stepped down from the show and transitioned to a multiyear development deal with AMC. In response, Walking Dead showrunner Scott Gimple — who would soon relinquish his own showrunner role after eight seasons to take over as chief content officer for the Walking Dead franchise — joined Fear as an executive producer and helped oversee the search for a replacement showrunner. Or, as it turned out, two: Gimple had previously collaborated with Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg on non–Walking Dead projects, and the two prospective hires had worked together as producers of Once Upon a Time. Steering a series, Gimple says by phone, is a “triple full-time job” that sometimes benefits from a tag team, and so when AMC asked him whom he had in mind, he recalls, “I said those two guys instantly.”

Chambliss (Dollhouse, The Vampire Diaries) and Goldberg (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, FlashForward), who are veteran writers and producers of genre shows, were fans of Robert Kirkman’s comics as well as the TV series that spawned Fear, and over the phone, Chambliss says that he and Goldberg were eager to embrace The Walking Dead universe’s capacity for “larger-than-life characters” to “have these very emotional stories against this fantastical genre background.” To do that, though, they wanted to depict that universe differently than Fear had to that point, which involved some amount of risk. “The anxiety never ends,” Gimple says, while adding, “New voices allow for new stories. And after all these years, that’s what’s so critical. Leaning on what has worked in the past, I don’t think it works after nine years. You need variety.”

Part of that variety involved making cast changes: The Walking Dead’s Morgan (Lennie James), who had starred in Gimple-written episodes including “Clear” and “Here’s Not Here,” crossed over, which meant writing in a two-year jump to bring the prequel spinoff into temporal alignment with its antecedent series. Chambliss and Goldberg also decided to kill off Fear’s two most central characters, Madison (Kim Dickens, who didn’t want to leave) and Nick (Frank Dillane, who asked off the series), which left Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) as the sole remaining member of the Clark-Manawa clan — which had numbered five when Fear began — and Strand (Colman Domingo) and Luciana (Danay Garcia) as her sole surviving companions. The new co-showrunners also brought in new blood (with more on the way), led by Garret Dillahunt as lovestruck lawman John Dorie, Jenna Elfman as John’s skittish but beloved Laura, and Maggie Grace as former war correspondent Althea, or Al. Once Madison and Nick disappeared from the picture, the new core cast members outnumbered the three holdovers, who didn’t even appear in the Season 4 premiere until its final few seconds.

As I wrote at the time, Fear felt for one episode like a promising blank slate, and while the franchise’s history made me skeptical that the series could sustain that sense of freedom, the episodes since that time double down on breaking new ground for both Fear and the franchise.

“We really want to avoid repeating where characters have been before,” Goldberg says. “We want to give them new problems, both emotional and walker-related.” The most important component of “tak[ing] the series in a[n emotional] direction it hadn’t been before, or maybe hadn’t explored as fully in previous seasons,” he says, is “bringing characters toward hope, and making it a journey toward hope. And also exploring ideas of community and isolation, and what that means in this world.”

When it comes to hope, the audiences of both Walking Dead series have been burned before. In previous seasons, any suggestion that things were about to be better has all but assured that things were actually about to become worse. Chambliss and Goldberg realize that they have to overcome a “Lucy holding the football”–level of mistrust of positivity, as well as a cynical attitude toward character growth and dilemmas that resurface every season. Morgan himself has flipped from pacifist to mass murderer and back again, and countless characters have wrestled with the question of how to maintain humanity and morality in a lawless, uncivilized world, a rich but tired debate that Chambliss and Goldberg say they’ve taken pains to avoid rekindling yet again.

After filming in Baja California, Mexico, in seasons 2 and 3, Fear relocated to the geographically diverse area of Austin, Texas, for Season 4, which led to a lot of new backdrops. “There are so many really interesting things in and around the city,” Chambliss says. “Depending on which direction we head, we can be in hill country. We can be in flat grassland. We can be in what looks like a desert, and it really does afford a palette for the show that is varied and gives a lot of opportunity, not just visually, but also for story.” One of the first half of the season’s set pieces takes places at a water park that the showrunners spied off the highway on a scouting trip; 10 minutes and one phone call later, the location was locked in.

Fear has made the most of the region (and the reboot) by refusing to force its characters to stay in one spot. The show’s current season has been a restless road trip, with scant consistency in setting besides Al’s armored vehicle, a clever solution to the problem of keeping its characters moving without constantly leaving them vulnerable. “On a creative level, we love doing it, but on a production level it’s definitely much more challenging when you don’t have a base of operations,” Chambliss says. “And I think our location team got really tired of seeing the slug line ‘Exterior: Road’ this season.” The location team’s pain is the audience’s gain, providing a real reprieve from The Walking Dead’s monotonous, Georgia-only exteriors.

There’s also a newfound creativity to the action that stems from a concerted effort to think of things that haven’t turned into tropes over 15 years of comics and more than 10 years of TV. “Half the fun of doing the job is sitting down and just saying ‘no holds barred,’” Chambliss says. “Let’s think of the craziest kind of things that you would do in the zombie apocalypse, whether it’s to survive or what you use for weapons to kill the walkers, or even the types of walkers.”

In Sunday’s midseason premiere, Alicia wields an unusual weapon: not a gun, a knife, or a machete, but a jagged piece of broken-off metal. In one scene from Episode 10, she grabs an obelisk-shaped statuette and dual-wields the two sharp objects. Episode 9 also introduces the idea of a beleaguered survivor pinning notes to walkers’ clothes like messages in a bottle, and shows Strand briefly leading a debauched, Last Man on Earth–style existence in an abandoned mansion. Earlier in the season, we see that John’s river-adjacent cabin is protected by a moat. These are all small touches, but they signal something new.

It’s also new that there isn’t yet an implacable Big Bad along the lines of The Walking Dead’s Governor, Gareth, or Negan. “What we got excited about was exploring villains that didn’t attack,” Goldberg says. The result was the Vultures, a group of nomads who camp outside of settlements and simply wait for them to fall, having learned the hard way (along with Walking Dead watchers) that supposedly safe places don’t usually last. The Vultures aren’t evil or megalomaniacal, and they don’t monopolize a season or two the way The Walking Dead’s villains have been liable to do. Their meeting with our heroes, Goldberg says, is “really more of a philosophical battle than blunt-force violence.”

The group’s major adversary as the season’s second half starts is a massive storm, which has some symbolic significance — “It’s the embodiment of what’s going on inside all of them,” Goldberg says — but is also both funny (watch out for flying walkers!) and sensible (a zombie virus wouldn’t hamper hurricane season). Maybe because of the show’s focus on avoiding old territory and dreaming up unspoiled scenarios, its previous problems with implausible plotting have all but been banished; the thought “Why would he/she do that?” arises much less often now than it did in the past.

Of course, plausible plotting flows naturally from well-drawn characters, and all of Fear’s new additions fit the bill. John is a gunslinger who’s sworn off his guns, so honorable that he returns (and reviews) the movies he “rents” from a local store, and so dedicated that he keeps looking for his lost Laura even after the preexisting characters try to tell him she’s dead. He’s haunted by the memory of a criminal he accidentally killed, but he’s also, as Goldberg says, “so optimistic and so driven and so unwilling to be beaten down by the darkness that can often encompass people in this world,” which makes him almost unique in The Walking Dead’s world. “We needed an actor who could play both sides of that coin, who could convey humor and lightness and warmth but also could on a dime, turn, and you could understand the darkness underneath the surface,” Goldberg says. “Garret Dillahunt has done that his entire career.”

If John isn’t entirely unique in his unwillingness to let the apocalypse affect him, it’s only because he’s accompanied by Al, the former journalist who’s still doing her job by recording the stories of everyone she encounters. Her work as an oral historian presumes that someone will one day want to know those stories, which makes her activity inherently optimistic. “The other thing that really excited us about the character was that [she’s] someone who is essentially doing the same thing they did before the apocalypse,” says Chambliss, adding, “In a way, she’s almost thriving in this world. And it’s very different than any other character we’ve seen before.”

Elfman, meanwhile, was a surprising recommendation from the casting team, considering her comedy background. “It was something that was really outside the box, and I think that’s what attracted us to the idea,” Chambliss says. Elfman, he adds, was “hungry to do something different” and has relished acting in the moment instead of waiting a beat to draw a laugh from a sitcom’s studio audience.

And although Morgan’s crossover was partly a ploy to boost ratings, he’s grown along with the series, overcoming the aversion to attachment that ostensibly sent him away from Rick Grimes’s group. “He’s already come a long way from the man who we saw on Episode 401, but he’s still got a long way to go,” says Goldberg. In the midseason premiere, Morgan hints that he might be about ready to return to Alexandria, but Goldberg won’t comment on the prospect of a reverse crossover, divulging only that “Morgan has a very long journey ahead on Fear the Walking Dead.”

The influx of new talent helped transform the tone of the series, but the season’s departures and deaths have contributed, too, serving a deeper purpose than The Walking Dead’s ghastly executions of Glenn and Abraham. “Madison was the character who was central to everyone else,” Chambliss says. “She was Alicia’s mother. She was Strand’s best friend. She had become almost a surrogate mother to Luciana, and she was also Nick’s mother, even though they had a very rocky relationship. … Her loss is the thing that drove them to this very dark place.” Nick’s vendetta against the Vultures, and his own end, are natural outgrowths of Madison’s death. And the way that she went out — proving that there’s more to life than simply surviving — is, Chambliss says, “something that the surviving characters are going to carry forward.”

From one week to the next, Chambliss and Goldberg have concocted appropriately unorthodox episodic showcases for their uncommon characters. For the first half of the season, the showrunners structured the narrative around two timelines and regular flashback scenes, a device that they’d employed on Once Upon a Time. The two-timeline structure is subject to two pitfalls — a lack of suspense, and viewer confusion (hello, Westworld) — but Chambliss and Goldberg neatly sidestepped both, using Madison’s uncertain fate to keep viewers hooked and alternating filters to draw a visual distinction between the happier past and bleaker present. They also reminded themselves to “change up the way we told each kind of flashback story,” shifting between traditional flashbacks, a documentary format, and a narrative told by one character.

Within that two-tiered scaffold, the showrunners experimented further, testing the limits of what the audience would allow. “We really wanted to push the boundaries of the types of episodes we can do,” Chambliss says. “So there’s a lot of variation. We have episodes that are dark. Then we have episodes that are humorous. We have episodes that are just weird. It was really about stretching our wings and seeing exactly how far we could push the show and really put the audience in a place [that], just when they think they’ve figured out what we’re doing tonally, we throw a little bit of a curveball.”

The season’s — and the series’ — most memorable and engrossing episode is its fifth installment, “Laura,” a quiet and touching chronicle of John and Laura’s meeting and romance that Goldberg sums up as “two damaged, broken souls finding each other in the apocalypse.” Almost all of the episode features just the two characters and takes place in or around a small house, as does the upcoming 10th episode of the season, “Close Your Eyes.” “Those are some of our favorite episodes,” says Goldberg, who likens them to films that tell self-contained tales. “We really enjoy the challenge of doing smaller, two-character kind of stories where we can really dig into the emotions.” Undergirding every episode is a new and distinctive look, which the showrunners credit to The Walking Dead’s director of photography, Michael E. Satrazemis, who also joined Fear this season as a producing director. “We conceived of this season as a Western,” Goldberg says. “And so we set some rules for ourselves … we didn’t move the camera a lot. We played a lot of things in the wide.”

Which brings us back to the opening title. “The previous season’s [opening title] was darker,” Goldberg says. “There was a horror element to it. In the same way that in our stories we’ve embraced more hopeful, a little brighter, some more humor, and … a little bit more of the weird, we really wanted to convey that even from just that little bit of music that launches us into the episode every week. It’s just setting a new tone for the show.”

Every week, the title sequence changes in some subtle way, offering Easter eggs for attentive viewers but also emphasizing the episode’s theme. In the season premiere’s opening title, the lone figure standing by the fire represents John, who starts the first scene with a forlorn monologue about looking for Laura. By the midseason finale, the loner is surrounded by several other figures; he has found friends, reinforcing the theme of community trumping isolation. Fear ends the first half of its reimagined season with a similar scene, which Gimple cites as an example of the series’ unusual interplay between humor and horror, or between intense fights for survival and the mundane moments that expose the absurdity of everyday existence. “There’s an incredible tragedy that’s occurred and a very awkward peace that has happened between these people who have been trying to kill each other,” Gimple says. “They’re all sitting around the fire eating noodles. And those noodles have an incredible emotional weight to them, [but] you can’t get away from the fact that they’re all sitting around the fire eating noodles. There’s something sad, funny, strange, beautiful about it.”

One of AMC’s goals in redesigning the series, Gimple says, was “to make Season 4 a place where people could check [Fear] out again if they wanted to.” The reboot does supply an easy starting point for people who never watched Fear before, but it’s fascinating for fans who first saw the series when it was something else. Along with the slight ratings rebound, an increase in average IMDb user ratings also suggests that the changes have largely met with approval.

The steps that AMC took to freshen up Fear — a change in leadership, a character crossover, a pair of prominent deaths, and a time jump, among other maneuvers — might have amounted to nothing more than a futile, last-ditch effort to salvage a sinking series. But the multipronged approach paid off. “It was very scary, and I’m thrilled with the reaction we’ve had,” Gimple says.

When Fear premiered in 2015, it was supposed to stand out from the flagship because it focused on one family and because it was set during the world’s descent into anarchy. As its timeline advanced and its scope broadened, Fear surrendered any distinction between it and the flagship show, aside from the distinctions of being less popular and less well liked. The reboot was intended to restore a different distinction. “I really wanted it to continue to occupy its own space,” Gimple says, adding that the show’s new voice is “dark and sad and [there are] moments of real grace and joy and humor and weirdness and some unbelievable moments of action. … It just really is a different flavor.”

Fear has always had more freedom to improvise than The Walking Dead because it’s not based directly on Kirkman’s comics and doesn’t need to do justice to specific source material. In the past, that absence of signposts hasn’t always helped. “The blank space is sure a lot of freedom, but you also don’t have any training wheels to lean on,” Gimple says. Finally, though, that double-edged sword is cutting in the spinoff’s favor. Thanks to the reboot, The Walking Dead’s best self can now be found on Fear.