By Darren Franich
April 03, 2018 at 02:43 PM EDT
Richard Foreman, Jr/AMC

The Walking Dead is a grim TV show. Typical episode summary: Beloved Character Loses Beloved Organs. So if you have a bleak sense of humor, it’s been fun to see the AMC series built on gory nihilism become a family-fun phenomenon, a megafranchise crossing all known media.

My favorite Dead-verse project will always be Fear the Walking Dead: Flight 462, which thrilled a nation across five months of commercial breaks with the tantalizing promise that something was wrong—really wrong—onboard this crazy plane. (Better title: Airline Food is People.)

Flight 462 was an offshoot of an offshoot. The “companion” drama Fear the Walking Dead launched in 2015. It began with the very beginning of the apocalypse, and shifted the action to the West Coast. The first season was a compelling dramatization of just how existentially difficult it is to travel from East Los Angeles to the beach. Since then, Fear has stumbled through new locations, killing people indiscriminately, not dead, not quite alive, like some kind of clumsy vampire. The fourth season features a new setting, new showrunners, new characters. It’s a near-reboot that’s fun and deflating: Inevitably, Fear the Walking Dead has just become The Walking Dead.

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The premiere (April 15 at 10 p.m. ET on AMC) focuses on Morgan (Lennie James), an OG Dead-ite joining the Fear cast.

I won’t spoil how his franchise transition occurs, but at one point he literally runs away from The Walking Dead, like some viewers ran from Negan. He meets chatty John (wonderful Garrett Dillahunt) who carries a cool revolver and speaks with a cowboy twang. He’s so completely the Platonic Ideal of a gunslinger that someone actually calls him a “gunslinger.” (That same someone asks Morgan, “You some kind of Karate Man?”, a sentence that belongs on a T-shirt I’d buy four of.) Fellow Fear newbie Maggie Grace plays a journalist named Althea, who drives around in a SWAT van full of automatic weapons, the kind of souped-up killer car you have to play six hours of Far Cry 5 to earn.

“But wait,” you ask, “What about characters who have actually appeared on Fear the Walking Dead before?” The survivors of last season’s dam explosion have reconstituted themselves behind a wall in a new community in Texas. The first time we see Kim Dickens’ Madison, she’s wearing a denim shirt, bandana around her neck, gunbelt slung diagonal across her waist at the same tilted angle Sinatra wore hats.

Remember when she was a guidance counselor?

One big Walking Dead idea is that the apocalypse turns everyone into a gunslinger. So Fear‘s reboot is really a return to the very beginning: Recall Andrew Lincoln in the original Walking Dead pilot, with a big lawman hat and a big lawman revolver, a lonely man on a lonely horse. That stuff’s chicken soup for this Western lover’s soul, and it’s not the worst idea for this franchise to reboot back to basics.

The problem is that everything about this reset winds up blunting the Fear ensemble’s individual character growth.

Nick (Frank Dillane) is working through PTSD by farming, just like Andrew Lincoln’s Rick in another fourth season. Colman Domingo’s morally wayward Strand is now a ride-or-die Madison acolyte. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: There’s a mysterious group of baddies who leave eerie calling cards all around the landscape, and what ever happened to all those Wolves? There’s a new character (Jenna Elfman) who has trouble trusting people, but she’s more fun than Enid if you pretend she is actually Dharma Montgomery.

Fear‘s Western rebranding has some funky charms: A repeated Merle Haggard tune, a conversation about Robert Johnson’s Satanic bargain, an old-fashioned standoff lets Dickens show off her John Wayne swagger. But the main feeling you get from Fear‘s new season is that the mainline Dead show has swallowed Fear, like a snake eating its own tail, or a zombie biting its own foot. B-

Episode Recaps

Fear the Walking Dead

  • TV Show
  • 5
  • AMC