‘Fear the Walking Dead’ impresses in powerful midseason opener

'Fear the Walking Dead'
Courtesy of AMC The midseason premiere saw the Nation and rancers finally set aside differences.
'Fear the Walking Dead'
Courtesy of AMC
The midseason premiere saw the Nation and rancers finally set aside differences.

By Nicole Prieto | Staff Writer

No doubt about it: Season 3 of Fear the Walking Dead made waves as a shockingly powerful entry in The Walking Dead TV canon, outshining its sister series by an unexpected longshot. The two-episode, midseason opener, which premiered on Sept. 10, keeps pace in a series that has finally stopped dragging its feet.

The midseason finale left off with Nick shooting Jeremiah Otto, putting an end to the escalating hostilities between the Nation and the ranchers. Madison covered it up as a suicide and manages to convince Jeremiah’s sons, Troy and Jake, that their father sacrificed himself to save the ranch. Daniel Salazar made a miraculous return early in the season, putting an end to Dante’s autocratic reign over a prized water dam and vesting leadership to Lola. Victor, abandoned by Daniel, rediscovers his beloved boat, the Abigail. Over an emergency radio frequency, he shares a moment with a Russian astronaut stranded in space — and rediscovers the courage to keep moving forward.

With the Nation and ranchers on uneasy ground and their land left with only a few weeks’ worth of rationed water, the Clark family struggles to keep the peace as they encounter familiar faces and new threats. If you have not checked out “Minotaur” and “The Diviner,” this is your final warning, because here is the good, the OK, and the ugly of FTWD’s third midseason premiere.

The Good
Where to begin? Season 3 is on a whole new level with meaningful, unexpected deaths, scarily realistic antagonists and clean writing decisions.

Given Troy’s deeply troubled childhood at Jeremiah’s hand, FTWD handles his status as an antagonist with a degree of believable complexity, something that the show robbed Chris of in Season 2. Unlike Negan in TWD, Troy is far from being an evil caricature. The show gives him believable motives without justifying his brutality: Neither of his parents truly loved him, and the ranch is the only world he knew growing up. But that does not change that he is on a pointless, bloody warpath against the Nation. He is willing to disregard the lives of enemy and ally alike if it means satiating his vendetta. Instead of martyring him, the show puts him in exile — leaving the fate of this truly unpredictable character ambiguous.

Victor Strand, in all his complexity and fallibility, remains as interesting as ever. We last saw him set fire to the Abigail in a symbolic inferno and tread into unknown territory. His reunion with Madison is a shaky one, but the writing takes advantage of a moment between them in his hideout in the bazaar. Madison and Victor developed an understanding of one another in Season 2, and Season 3 does not disappoint in acknowledging their ironclad bond. Away from the trading post chaos, they simply sit together and talk. Victor’s embrace of Madison feels sincere, an aspect of his character that is rarely explored. The series would do well to relish in these smaller moments between characters more often.

Travis’ apparent death earlier in the season solidifies Madison’s status as FTWD’s lead protagonist. She takes it in stride with a brutal, calculating streak that easily rivals Rick Grimes’. To Taqa’s chagrin, she saves Victor from becoming walker-chow along the trading post’s fence — his punishment until his debt to Proctor was paid — by stealing Taqa’s gold pieces to pay off Proctor. When Taqa is outraged that she would use their water money so frivolously, she shrugs it off as a practical matter. Victor knows where a more permanent source is: the dam he was exiled from earlier in the season. It is a smart writing move with a well-paced setup. Hopefully, we will see Daniel reunite with the Clark family — and his daughter, Ofelia.

The OK
At the very last minute, Alicia inadvertently puts a stop to a violent confrontation between the Nation and the ranchers. Nick, the oddly de facto leader of the ranchers in Troy’s absence, is about to lead a raid on the Nation’s adobe armory with nothing but modified working tools and knives. But before the ragtag militia gets mowed down by the armory guards’ semi-automatics, he notices that his sister is helping a nearby Nation family dig for a new water source. He abandons the fruitless cause to lend a hand — and is soon followed by Ofelia, Crazy Dog and the ranchers.

The final scene is a refreshing take on the franchise’s love for pointless bloodshed, but it is undoubtedly a strange one. Compared to both episodes’ balanced pacing, the sudden resolution to the heightened tensions almost comes out of nowhere. Still, there is enough suspense of disbelief to just go with it. The characters only have six weeks’ worth of water left, and fewer able bodies is only going to make the ranch more vulnerable to walkers or invading groups. Everyone dropping their weapons without a fuss to work together to not die? Believable enough.

The Ugly
Refreshingly, this is a brief point. As she says to Taqa, for Madison, the ends justify the means, and her means are to be desired. Throughout the first half of Season 3, it was frustrating to see her enable Troy’s bloodlust for the sake of achieving her short-term goals, such as getting Alicia back from the otherwise peaceful parlay between the Nation and the ranch.

As a character, her brutality is often overshadowed by the depths of her children. In her absence, Nick and Alicia are left to navigate ranch social politics, driven by a complex interweaving of race, historic oppression, loyalty and family ties. By comparison, her approach to problems is often less surgical and more “blunt-force trauma.” With Madison in the spotlight, the show will need to do more to keep audiences engaged with a character commanding less sympathy by the day.

The End
The end to “Minotaur” is a triumph for nonviolence and cooperation between two disparate groups. By bypassing bloodshed, the series does not ignore that their mutual survival comes down to fundamentals like food and shelter — not pointless war games. With another strong set of episodes under its belt, FTWD is on its way to finishing up a landmark season. Episode 11, “La Serpiente,” premieres on Sunday at 9 p.m. EST.