Dave Erickson breaks down his final episode as showrunner and talks about both his biggest pride and biggest regret while working on the show
SPOILER ALERT: Read on only if you have already watched the season 3 finale of Fear the Walking Dead.
Madison Clark is alive! As for everyone else…?
Season 3 of Fear the Walking Dead ended with the death of another Otto (this time, Troy), a new villain (Proctor John), Strand shooting Daniel in the face, Nick blowing up the dam, and some crazy weird Christmas dinner dream sequences that ended with the surprising cameo return of Cliff Curtis’ Travis — if only for a brief moment.
In the end, we saw Madison swim to shore, but no signs of anyone else in the boat or on the dam when it blew, leaving the fates of Nick, Alicia, Daniel, Strand, and even the evil motorcycle club unanswered. As showrunner and co-creator Dave Erickson tells us, that open-ended finish was intentional due to the creative transition between seasons, as Erickson steps aside to develop new projects for Sony and AMC (including a new AMC adaptation of David Cronenberg’s book Consumed) while the new team of showrunners Andrew Chambliss and Ian B. Goldberg as well as overseer Scott M. Gimple take over and decide what they want to do moving forward into season 4 (beyond the already announced crossover with The Walking Dead).
We asked Erickson all about the transition, what he’s most proud of, his biggest regret, and to give us all the scoop on the season 3 finale. The departing showrunner was more that happy to oblige. (Read through both pages for the entire interview and also make sure to check out our post where Erickson reveals the series-ending scene he’d like to see.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this work in terms of you crafting how you wanted this season to end, along with incorporating the wishes of new showrunners Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg, who are taking over, in terms of how they wanted to set things up for season 4?
DAVE ERICKSON: To be honest, I was left alone so there really wasn’t any story meetings or contacts about what the plans were for season 4. The goal for me was to wrap things up for the emotional and dramatic standpoints. We’ve been exploring violence, and morality obviously throughout the season, and I wanted to bring those things full circle.
The intention was always to destroy the thing that held back the resource and the thing that justified the violence, which was the water, so the dam was always going to go. I think that there was a version of this where if I was going to stay on it might have been a little bit more clearly defined in terms of who survived exactly, and who was going to be ready to rally and go to war with Proctor John in season 4. But being not entirely certain what the intentions were going to be from Scott’s camp, we chose to leave it a little more open-ended, so at the end obviously the only person we see make it to shore is Madison. And we can find out, as I’m sure we will, in season 4 who else made it out of the water.
So the story is basically exactly the way you want to do it. The only difference is you said, ‘Okay, let me leave a little ambiguity here in terms of the other characters so that they can play with that however they see fit moving forward’?
Yes, and one of the things I wanted to do was really define the chasm, between Madison and Nick in particular. Alicia sort of became sort of an independent force unto herself and I think we got to that place with her. And it was great to see the character get there but also it was really wonderful to see what Alycia actor did with it and how she grew that character, so that was great.
But yeah, I think when you introduce our big bad in Ray McKinnon’s character, Proctor John, and I think that you definitely have a group across the board — Madison, Nick, Alicia, Salazar, Strand — all who have beef with that guy. So yeah, definitely we were leading into that becoming our main adversary in season 4. So there are elements that I personally would like to see play out, but it was important just to give enough ambiguity so that they can take it and run with it in any direction they want to.
So why Nick and not Strand with the detonator there at the end?
Nick was looking for another way. I think what’s interesting to me is Nick kind of went back to the beginning of the relationship between Strand and Nick and in a brief pop in season 1 where Strand has the key to this cell that they’re locked in on the military base and Nick lifts stuff from his pocket. And that’s how Nick takes a little bit of control back from Strand in the season 1 finale.
And so it’s a call back to that, and I also think what it afforded Nick was an opportunity. He’s killed and he’s suffered the weight of that since the mid-season finale, and now he sees a third way. He’s looking for another way that doesn’t necessarily cause or call for violence. If that means he’s going to sacrifice himself, he’s willing to do that. So he sees an opportunity to save his family and also offer Strand a degree of mercy and forgiveness.
Everyone’s fighting for this resource. Everybody’s been seeking the water from the very beginning. It was on Strand’s agenda coming out of the gate, and what he’s trying to do is create an option where this doesn’t require violence, doesn’t require war, and I’m going to free my family in so doing and I’ll sacrifice myself if that’s the cost.
So it was important to get Nick to that place, and what he’s really doing is he’s showing Madison that there’s another way to do it. Madison has returned to violence, she’s really come full circle when she takes Troy out, and Nick recoils from that and then tries to absorb it and figure out a way to spit it back out in a somewhat more benevolent and positive sense. So that was the reason for it and I think he knew that Strand had the detonator and he knew that this was his only way to sort of kill one, two, three birds with one stone.
Explain where the idea for these very surreal and disturbing Madison Christmas dream sequences come from.
I wanted to mess with the structure a little bit, and we had talked in the writers’ room about Jacob’s Ladder and this idea of her experiencing something in this dream state that we’d come to realize is not just a dream. It’s really her death and the things that she’s seeing into the final moments of her life as she drowns. I co-wrote that episode with Mark Richard and a lot of the imagery really came from his twisted mind in that respect. It’s really getting her to a place where she decides to survive and it’s seeing the worst case scenario. It’s a world in her mind in which because of her actions Alicia has died. It’s a world in which her son looks at her with scorn, derision, and hatred. It’s a world in which there’s peace back with Luciana and they’ve had a baby, which might be a zombie baby. It’s all kind of twisted and strange.
It was building toward this idea, this image of the perfect Christmas dinner which she alludes to in episode 15. It’s seeing that and then taking it away from her, and a big part of what the finale is about is specific to Madison is this idea that she has created this compromise that may have led to this moment. and what that sort of represents is this sense that she’s responsible. And when she pulls herself from the river at the very end, it’s sort of a Bridge Over The River Kwai moment where she’s looking around and asking herself: What have I done? Directly or indirectly, she feels responsible for this. It’s a course that she set out on and took everybody with her. So it’s definitely something she’s going to have to wrestle next season and look at the destruction that she and her family have caused.
How did you get Cliff Curtis back to film that very quick cameo?
I called him up. The idea was Madison saw in her last moments the one person who had really loved her unconditionally. It was important that she saw him and then it was also important that he was not able to save her. And I think it was a combination of that recognition that gave her a kick-start. Had she not had that vision, I think she would have just sunk and then she’d be gone. So as we got later in the season and were imagining what that sequence would look like, I called Cliff and Cliff got on a plane. So, it was a nice family reunion quality. It was nice to really have the whole gang back together.
We’ve asked this question many times over the years, but it seems at its most prevalent now. Strand tries to help the Clarks escape and keep them safe, but he also shoots Daniel. Is he a hero or a villain?
Neither. Strand is for himself and his intention at the very beginning of this season was to get to the dam, find Dante, reconnect with this guy because he recognizes that water is power in this world. If you were going to rebuild civilization, that’s your starting point and that gives you power.
So he sees Madison sacrificing a lot to reunite Ofelia and Daniel and he doesn’t approve. He thinks it’s a mistake. God knows he has no faith in Daniel because Daniel left him to die earlier in the season, so he tries to broker this deal. And one of the deal points is the saving of Madison, Nick, and potentially Alicia. And in his mind in terms of the moral algebra, that makes it okay. Ultimately he is doing for himself and he’s putting himself in the position of power. He’s basically trying to take the seat that he’s been seeking from the very beginning of the season, but I think he believes it’s the best that he can do given the circumstances. And what’s interesting is that ultimately he’s not a violent man and when the time comes for him to kill Salazar and Lola, he fails. And then when he has the drop on them he doesn’t do it, he can’t go through with it.
And I think there’s a distinction. He’s definitely a survivor, but he’s a guy that relies on his wits and his intelligence and his ability to talk his way into and then out of other situations. I think of them all as good guys, to be honest. Troy is the one exception because Troy’s a sociopath and I think he’s a different egg. But even Troy in the way Daniel Sharman played him, he has charming qualities. There’s a charisma there despite it all. But we don’t forgive him his sins and his crimes and ultimately he pays for them. So Strand is a character who is definitely self-serving, but I also think he does have love and a caring sense when it comes to Madison and her family.
NEXT PAGE: Erickson on saying goodbye to the show and his biggest regret
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was the plan to always kill all of the Ottos by the end of the season?
DAVE ERICKSON: Jeremiah was always going to go. Troy was a hard one because I actually had a conversation with Daniel earlier in the season where I said that at that moment my intention was to not kill Troy. And then when we got to a place where I realized I had to have a bit more closure than I had originally intended, I had another conversation with Daniel where I said, ‘You know how I said I wasn’t going to kill you? Well, unfortunately, now I am.’
From a story perspective, it made sense and it actually worked with the narrative. And the truth of the matter is he deserved it. I mean, if anybody on our show deserved to go it was Troy — just based on the place where we met him, based on the things we’ve seen him do, and frankly, the things that Madison’s abided by.
I think it was in that moment [where she kills him] she realizes that I tried to do the right thing, I tried to offer charity and I tried to offer kindness and I let him go and now because of that the ranch is gone, the dam is compromised, and I think that’s the moment where Madison comes full circle. That’s the moment where she realizes, this is who I am. Nick’s not wrong. That violence is ingrained in her and what she realizes is that she deviated from that course. She wasn’t true to herself and people suffered because of it, and so in that instance, she decides to put him down. And that has a direct impact on Nick as Nick moves into the last episode because he wants to reject that and find another way.
Where did this idea come for the latest villain of Proctor John, played by your old Sons of Anarchy buddy Ray McKinnon?
Well, what’s interesting about this season is we didn’t have a traditional big bad. Jeremiah and Troy are the closest we came to it, but I also think they were never just pure evil. So really Proctor John is a person who has embraced the reality of this world, really had embraced it pre-apocalypse. He’s not necessarily evil; I think he is practical, he’s pragmatic. He knows that violence is the currency. We talked a lot about Strand’s ability to name the currency of the time, and for Strand, it’s water. For Proctor John, it’s violence and it’s part of nature and he recognizes that.
And I definitely think he’s the closest we come to a big bad so I have no idea what the plans are for that character moving forward, but it was important that we had somebody who could manifest that and could embody it, and we got lucky because Ray just happened to be available. I don’t think he’d acted since Sons because he’s been running Rectify for the past five years.
You co-created the show with Robert Kirkman and have been with it every day since the very beginning. What does it feel like now to be done with it and moving on to developing other shows?
It’s bittersweet. It’s been a good run. I’m really happy with the work we did in season 3. I’m curious to see where the guys take it moving forward. It’s been fun. The closer I got to the end of season 3, the more clearly I started to see season 4, so that was a little bit strange. It’s difficult to let go and I think I’ve directed it long enough. We finished the last effects shots last Wednesday so it is now time officially to put it to bed and move on and do other things.
My wife Sheri Elwood and I are going to adapt David Cronenberg’s book, Consumed, for AMC. That’s the next thing that’s up in terms of projects to come. And then I’m actually going to go work with my old friends at Sony as I signed a deal with them, so we’re noodling over potential projects, which hopefully will manifest in the next several weeks.
What’s the thing you’re most proud of with the show as you look back?
It really started as a family drama. It began as this dysfunctional blended family and then we killed off one-half of that family, so it’s no longer blended but it’s still hugely dysfunctional, and I think at its core what’s compelling to me is watching how specifically Madison, Nick, and Alicia have changed and grown over the past three seasons. And I also think one of the things I do appreciate is that I think we took time with it. We gave them their due. We didn’t churn them into zombie killers within an episode or two, and it’s something that they’ve continued to wrestle with. And I hope that we’ve played to the tropes of the genre and I hope that we’ve embraced the universe that Robert created.
The thing I’m most proud of is I do think tonally the show is its own. I do think that it’s become something unto itself and obviously we abide by the same rules of this world but that within that world we’ve sort of carved out something that’s specific, and something frankly that could survive on its own merits.
I’ll ask you the flip side of that because everyone can be critical of their own work. Do you have any regrets and things you look and say, “Hey, we zigged here, and I wish we had zagged instead,” or anything like that?
Yeah, hindsight being 20/20, from a narrative and plot perspective, I wish we’d got to Mexico sooner. It pains me because Bernardo Trujillo designed the Abigail boat and it was a massive expense in terms of construction and design, and then was a massive expense when it came to the effects that accompanied it.
So I don’t regret the boats, but I do think what it caused in the first half of season 2 — the show had much more episodic feel than I think it had in the later part of that season or had this season, and I wish we had arrived sooner and invested in Celia and the folks at Abigail’s compound a bit sooner and had more time to explore that because that ultimately has become more of the pace of the show. It would have been nice to have grounded ourselves longer either at the hotel or at the compound or both, and specifically at La Colonia. I mean, we got a good chunk of time in the back half last season there, but I think it would have been great to indulge more deeply into that.
Make sure to check out our post where Erickson reveals the series-ending scene he’d like to see, and for more Fear the Walking Dead scoop, follow Dalton on Twitter @DaltonRoss.