One of the ways that Fear the Walking Dead, AMC's The Walking Dead spin-off that finished the first half of its third season Sunday night, differs from its mothership series is that it lacks a primary antagonist. Where The Walking Dead likes its over-the-top big bads like the Governor (David Morrissey) and Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Fear has studiously avoided such theatrics, working instead to create complex characters who all operate in shades of gray rather than black-and-white villainy. There are no good guys and bad guys, only people doing what they have to do to survive.
This has to change.
Fear's subtlety is becoming a hindrance, because this is not a subtle genre. We tune in to The Walking Dead to see Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) go HAM on some zombies, and we come back because we get hooked by the big, simple emotions — we hate Negan and want our heroes to get revenge on him! (Season 8 is going to be entirely driven by this.)
Fear gets this equation wrong. It leads with the human drama, focusing on the trials and tribulations of the Clark and formerly Manawa family. This worked better in the first half of Season 2, the series' strongest run of episodes so far when it became a show about a dysfunctional family trapped together on a boat and forced to deal with its issues, but now the whole Manawa family is dead (we miss you, Cliff Curtis) and the intimate family drama has been sort of replaced by a bigger, more Walking Dead-esque family drama where it's more about tribe than nuclear family.
But this bigger scope requires bigger characters, and Fear hasn't kept up. Racist egomaniac Jeremiah Otto (Dayton Callie) was the closest thing Season 3A had to a villain, but he spent more time talking quietly than chewing scenery. Qaletaqa Walker (Michael Greyeyes) did brutal things but ultimately turned out to be a pretty reasonable guy. Neither of them have unforgettable calling cards like the Governor's eyepatch and tank full of severed heads or Negan's barbed wire-wrapped baseball bat and leather jacket. They will be pretty much forgotten by the time 3B rolls around.
There is one character who has shown flashes of potential of becoming the over-the-top villain the show needs: Troy Otto (Daniel Sharman), Jeremiah's unstable and violent younger son. When he finds out that Madison and Nick (Frank Dillane) killed his father — which he will — their uneasy detente will end and he'll go on the warpath. Hopefully he slides into full-on psychopathy.
The concern here, though, is that Sharman won't be able to sell it. Troy is too youthful and uncharismatic to really be a great villain.
The best thing to do would be to bring in a new character, maybe the leader of a band of marauders who are at the gates of the Broke Jaw Ranch. Somebody with a Charles Manson-type energy. It is set in Southern California, after all, and a Manson Family-style death cult seems to fit in the world of Fear the Walking Dead. Jeremy Davies might even be available.
These changes likely couldn't go into effect until Season 4, but there's a pretty good chance that the show will change substantially next year. Showrunner Dave Erickson is leaving, and Once Upon a Time producers Andrew Chambliss and Ian Goldberg are taking over, with The Walking Dead executive producer Scott Gimple coming aboard, too. They may push it in a broader, more vintage Walking Dead direction.
It's time. Fear the Walking Dead did an admirable job of attempting emotional realism, but here's the thing: zombies aren't real. People don't talk the way they do on these shows. Embrace the unreality and give us somebody to root against.
Fear the Walking Dead returns for the second half of Season 3 September 10 on AMC.