Fear the Walking Dead is having its best season ever
After a down year, the zombie spin-off is having a resurgent season 6.
But then something funny happened on the way to what many predicted would be pop-culture irrelevance: Fear the Walking Dead became must-see TV. The move in the season 5 finale to split up the group and then focus the first half of season 6 on deeper dives on individual characters has played huge dramatic dividends, giving viewers not only the best season yet of Fear the Walking Dead — current critics and fans scores on Rotten Tomatoes are 86% and 85%, respectively, the highest ever for the show — but one of the best stretches for any season of any Walking Dead series.
So how did showrunners Ian Goldberg and Andrew Chambliss — along with Walking Dead chief content officer Scott M. Gimple — do it? Not only have they gone with a less is more approach in terms of the number of characters we follow each week, but they have tested the characters mentally, physically, emotionally, and ethically like never before. And that has led to a boldness of action that has proved irresistible.
If it is not Morgan shockingly beheading a bounty hunter and sticking his head in a box as a message to his adversary, then it is Strand straight-up murdering one innocent and then hastening the execution of another to protect those he cares about. If Dwight is not leaving the love of his life he crossed the country to find shortly after being reunited, it is John Dorie driving away from his wife because he can’t take what he has become in his current set-up. And then there is June, who when push came to shove, refused to save a dying Virginia by chopping off her zombie-infected hand… only to then shove right back by negotiating a new hospital out of her change of heart.
While Fear has continued to lean into its classic western vibe, it has also taken inspiration from specific films that has led to fantastic genre-busting results. Althea and Dwight’s fight through the bubonic plague and zombie-infested office building in “Alaska” was an homage to Die Hard. John Dorie’s murder mystery in “The Key” was Chinatown in the zombie apocalypse. And the most recent installment, “Bury Her Next to Jasper’s Leg,” was an oil-based epic on par with There Will Be Blood.
The end result is a bolder, more badass collection of stories that manages to feel narratively cohesive while, at the same time, visually and tonally independent. EW spoke to Goldberg and Chambliss about Fear the Walking Dead’s season 6 renaissance.
ENTERTAINMENT WEKELY: This season has been one of the best seasons of any Walking Dead show ever. And I want to start by talking about last season. Because there was some criticism about how last season played out, and I’m sure you guys heard some of that. So my question to you two is: How, if at all, is that connected to what we are seeing on screen in season 6? When you all sat down to map out this season, did you shift anything in terms of how you were approaching or telling this story in reaction to season 5 at all?
IAN GOLDBERG: It's something that we talk about a lot, but it really is true: Our goal when we start any season of the show is to reinvent and to keep it fresh. And we certainly did that between seasons 5 and 6. And where it starts from is the emotional stories.
Season 5 was an unusually bright and optimistic and kind of benevolent vibe that was happening between our characters. They were uniting behind this shared philosophy of helping people out in the world. They were sort of masters of their own domain. And whether that was something that spoke to you as an audience member, that was very much the intention there, was to tell a story that was hopeful and optimistic. And by the same token, by the end of the season, the goal was to sort of rip the rug out from under everybody. And that started to happen when we introduced Virginia and her group, and really kind of had a finer point on it in the finale when Morgan was shot and everyone was separated from each other.
So we kind of feel like we couldn't have had the character shifts in season 6 and that reinvention and new tone and new journeys that people are grappling with, unless we brought them to a place of complete hope and triumph. It just wouldn't have felt as earned. So I guess that's a way of saying we needed to put people in the positions they were in, in season 5, to land them where they start in season 5.
I spoke to Scott Gimple about this a while back, and he told me “Season 5 was about setting up this journey that these characters are on through there to season 6, and I think people are going to see the relationship between those two seasons.” He went on to say that he really thinks when people ultimately look back at the show they are going to look at season 5 a lot differently and he used season 2 of The Walking Dead as an example where folks were complaining a lot — “Ugh, how much longer are we going to be on this farm. Nothing’s happening.” And then we got to Barnageddon, and you realized it was worth the wait and that impact of the barn would not have been the same if we had rushed the other stuff. Do you see that same relationship here between seasons 5 and 6?
ANDREW CHAMBLISS: Yeah, I think when you kind of look at the show as a whole and look at the seasons outside of just the individual seasons, you can definitely see the relationships between them. And it's interesting, because when you're so deep in working on this stuff, you obviously see the way people react, and it's not always the way you hoped it would be. But we're working pretty far ahead of what's airing, and you kind of have to be committed to what you're doing, because it's just so hard to be reacting to every week when an episode airs.
And we very much have, since we came in, in season 5, been laying out the way the show was going to unfold over multiple seasons. And we're continuing to have discussions about how it will continue into the future. And it's really looking at ways that each season can differentiate itself from one another, how these characters can be pushed to new places. And it really is kind of mapping out these arcs that go across seasons. Otherwise, I think we run in danger of repeating ourselves or sending characters into familiar territory.
This sounds like a dumb question, but without getting feedback, can you all tell when you have a really strong stretch of episodes or, conversely maybe if an episode doesn’t work as well as you’d hoped? Or are you too close to be able to really know in terms of how the public and bloggers will react as you’re putting this stuff together?
GOLDBERG: I mean, I'll say it's been really nice that people are responding positively to season 6. That's always fantastic to hear. We want the fans to love the show. And so, we're thrilled that people are liking season 6 but, it is impossible to know, Andrew and I are very tough critics of our own stuff. We go through many emotional highs and lows with each episode, from script, to post, and then beyond. But at the end of the day, we are proud of all of them.
They're all very different. Season 4 is very different than season 5, is very different than season 6. But I would say that there's always some things that you wish maybe turned out a little different, some things that maybe aren't in your control, or a little different than we imagined them while we were writing the episode. But I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we're very proud of all the episodes we've done since we joined the show in season 4 and happy that that fans are responding to this season.
CHAMBLISS: I think the storytelling that we're doing season 6 is kind of our favorite kind of storytelling to do, which is focusing on characters and taking them in a complete journey within each episode. And I think we've said this before, but our favorite episodes of The Walking Dead are the ones that do that.
And I think because we are telling these kinds of stories that we love to tell as we were looking at season 6, as it was all kind of coming together and we were getting cuts and we were getting scripts that we felt really good about it. And then you just have to kind of wait and put it out in the world and see how everyone responds. And I think we're just really glad that people are responding really well to all the things that we enjoy about the show.
And it's also been a really interesting journey, because we started shooting season 6 way back in November of 2019. And we thought all of this was going to air late spring, early summer. And obviously, the world had different plans, and we've been sitting on these first seven episodes that we were able to finish in time and just really eager to share them with everyone.
I’ve been really impressed with how strong this season is because I think it’s very difficult when you do a bunch of these deep-dive episodes with just one or two characters because you have a very big cast, so when people have to go multiple weeks without seeing their favorite character, that can be hard. For example, we’ve had 6 episodes so far and have seen Wendell for a total of about 15 seconds. Tell me about handling that balancing act.
CHAMBLISS: It's definitely a bit of a juggle, but the thing we've done when we lay out the story is make sure that the kind of serialized elements weave characters in and out in such a way that we aren't away from any single character for too long. And we had conversations with the whole cast when we were kind of moving into this mode of storytelling, where we said, "There's going to be episodes where you don't appear, but when you are on screen, the story will be about you. You'll be front and center. You'll be able to take the character on a deeper journey than you would if we were kind of telling a traditional ensemble narrative where we're seeing everyone every week." And I think across the board, the cast has been very excited about the fact that they can dig into their characters so deep and that we can actually see real change within those characters within a single episode.
You're nodding your head, Ian. I was wondering about those discussions you guys have with the actors. I was thinking, "Maybe some people like this because they get to do juicy, deep dives." And when their number is called, it's batter-up time." But on the other hand, they have to sit back more as well. The spotlight's on someone else, maybe they don't all like that.
GOLDBERG: We're fortunate in the sense that everybody has really warmed to it and taken to it. And I was nodding because Andrew's talking about change within episodes. That's what's so exciting to us. I think sometimes you hear now, especially on big drama shows, that like the season is one long movie, which is interesting. But I think we're kind of doing the opposite, where yes, that's the case, but each episode is its own movie, and you really can tell a story of change in a character. So it's not contingent on, "Well, you got to keep watching this in order to understand next week's episode." You really are telling a complete journey that still has a cumulative effect. But I guess it's fun to just lean into the idea of an episode being its own self-contained thing for a character.
So let's follow up on that. Ian's talking about, "Listen, we're trying to make 16 mini-movies, here," and we’ve talked all season long about some specific movie inspirations for episodes this season like Die Hard and Chinatown and There Will Be Blood this past week with the oil. How does that work in the writers’ room in terms of incorporating some of those influences into the show from week to week, even if it’s just a slight tonal or visual shift so all the episodes feel a bit different yet also fit together thematically?
CHAMBLISS: For us, the episode ideas kind of always start with the character story. And then it's looking at that and finding the kind of high concept hook that will complement it. And those may be ideas that we've never had before, or we've got a whiteboard filled with just ideas, where it's just like, "I have no idea what story this goes with, but I would love to see a crime solved in the apocalypse." And that's how we ended up marrying it with the Dorie character story and got episode 604.
So we definitely pay attention to the types of stories we're telling week-to-week to make sure that we have some variety. And it's been really interesting, because as we look at the kind of eight-episode chunks that we normally tell these stories in, we're doing in such a way that cumulatively the story are these individual stories. But then as we start to get closer to 607, 608, we're starting to bring all of those individual stories together to still have kind of a cumulative story where we see how all the little threads tie together.
The season we're airing for season 6 is a little different, because we only were able to finish up to episode 607 before we shut down because of coronavirus. But when we do end up entering 608 and 609, we'll see how all the individual stories that we've laid out and All the individual character journeys come together in this story, that's a bigger whole, and it really is kind of like a puzzle that finally comes together.
Does that mean that by the time we get to episode 9, this spread-out group will be coming together? We've had these stories and been going to all these different locations to see different people, but are they finally going to meet back up?
GOLDBERG: I think we could say that's in the cards.
We’ve really seen Strand return to his ruthless ways of old. In a less selfish way than when we first met him, and now for what he sees as the greater good, but still pretty ruthless. Was this a note that you all specifically decided for season 6 to want to make Stand a little more dangerous?
GOLDBERG: Well, one of my favorite things that I've read about what people like about Strand this year is the let Strand be Strand idea. I think that's a cool way to crystallize it. But the interesting thing for us with Strand is he's a bit of an enigma. You can't entirely wrap your arms around what's motivating him at any time.
And I think what interested us most of this season is, in season 5, he vowed to do damage from the inside with Virginia. And we're seeing this season that he's continuing to do that, but he's already doing some pretty morally gray stuff in the service of that. And he's damaging his relationships, including one with Alicia, which we saw in episode 602. And I think the thing that we're most interested in is what's the ultimate cost there? Is he going to be able to do the good that he thinks he can do? And even if so, what's the cost to him, to his own soul, to his relationships, with the people he cares about the most? And it only gets explored more with Strand as the season progresses.
Okay, before I let you guys go: You started off the season, you had this guy who had a wife. And she's pregnant, and he's trying to help her… but he gets bit and dies. Then you had Dwight and Sherry finally being reunited after so much time apart… and then they promptly break up. Now you have John and June relatively freshly married… they split up. What's going on? Why do you guys hate love?
CHAMBLISS: [Laughs] I don't know. Maybe you should ask my wife. But no, I think it really is just testing all of these relationships and seeing whether or not that love is strong enough to withstand the separation, the kind of moral ambiguity that Virginia's reign has kind of imposed on everyone.
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Fear the Walking Dead