The Real Villains of Fear the Walking Dead

As with any great dystopian drama, it’s ordinary people who are scariest in the hit AMC spinoff, not the encroaching zombies.

Justina Mintz / AMC

From the moment it was announced, the title of Fear the Walking Dead seemed to underline the AMC show’s pointlessness. Yes, there’s plenty to fear from zombies, but that’s what The Walking Dead is for—what more could a spinoff add? Set in the days and weeks after the apocalyptic outbreak that its parent show is now six years into, Fear the Walking Dead can’t offer real suspense on the zombie front. Viewers know from the get-go that society is going to collapse. But as leaden as it sounds, the show’s title has proven thematically apt: Like any great dystopian drama, it’s about how fear of death and the unknown make people behave in terrible ways.

Much as in The Walking Dead, the encroaching zombies are just window dressing for the threats humans pose to each other as the rule of law crumbles. The Walking Dead saw its protagonist wake up from a coma months into the crisis, by which point every city was crawling with people-eaters. But Fear’s first episode begins just as the first hints of “infection” are emerging, and its opening season has covered just the first few weeks of its spread. The villains of the show aren’t the zombies, who rarely appear, but the U.S. military, who sweep into an L.A. suburb to quarantine the survivors. Zombies are, after all, a recognizable threat—but Fear plumbs drama and horror from the betrayal by institutions designed to keep people safe.

Probably the biggest criticism one could make of Fear the Walking Dead is the absence of surprises. To viewers of the show’s forebear, early Fear episodes with suspenseful scenes of people turning into zombies will come off as tiresome. And like the original show, Fear isn’t much interested in the origins of the zombie-creating infection. But midway through the first season, it finds compelling new villains: the soldiers tasked with protecting the vulnerable. When the military arrives, mowing down hostile “walkers” with ease, setting up camp to screen out any further infection, the moment is presented with an ironic note of triumph. The main character, Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis), tells his group they can rest easy—help has finally arrived.

Travis is part of a blended family that includes his wife, ex-wife, and son, as well as a guidance counselor named Maddie (Kim Dickens) and her son and daughter. As the soldiers begin hauling anyone spiking a fever away to quarantine zones, Travis insists their intentions are noble while the rest of his family begins to realize the military doesn’t really have a plan except to crush any potential threat. Are you a zombie? They’ll shoot you in the head. Do you look sick? You’re probably about to be a zombie. Do you have a problem with their approach? Then they have a problem with you, too.

One of the show’s most brilliant touches has been the characterization of the soldiers themselves, not as impassive robots hell-bent on enforcing martial law, but as worryingly recognizable guys around town. Whenever Travis pleads with his local commander to address community fears and complaints, he might as well be talking to an ornery bowling buddy. The soldiers are tetchy and irritable rather than monstrous, clearly overwhelmed by the impossible situation they face, and granted authority through the guns in their hands and little else. In a pivotal scene, one of them tries to cajole Travis into firing a killshot at a distant zombie through a sniper scope, even though he knows Travis believes there might be a cure. The soldiers insist the zombies are dead beyond salvation—an unfortunate truth on the show, but also a sad reflection of just how dehumanized the enemy can become in the midst of war.

The latest episode, “Cobalt,” revealed the military’s endgame: With the zombie situation deteriorating, they plan to flee and wipe out everyone they leave behind, at this point motivated only by the need to survive, rather than to protect. Countering that is the family unit that has forged new bonds in the crisis. These organically loyal communities, the writers Robert Kirkman and David Erickson argue, are the only kind that can survive in such a world, much like the central band of survivors in The Walking Dead.

More than anything, Fear the Walking Dead is a drama about occupation, the breakdown of society, and the ease with which seemingly decent people can decide that might makes right. Like any dystopian fiction, it’s easy to dismiss as fantasy, but remove the zombies and Fear could be taking place in dozens of real-world locations. There are occasional eye-rolling leaps of logic—the neighborhood barber Daniel Salazar (Ruben Blades) is revealed to be a former Salvadoran soldier with expertise in torture—but they’re easier to accept if you remove Fear from its suburban L.A. setting. This is happening here, Kirkman and Erickson are saying, but it could happen anywhere.

The question is where the show can possibly go next. Fear the Walking Dead has advanced the clock on society’s breakdown far enough that it’ll soon catch up to the beginning of the original show; it’ll need to continue to find new angles on their shared universe to remain relevant. Sunday’s season finale should offer viewers a clue about the second season. But even considering its belabored title and the storytelling challenges posed by its very existence, Fear the Walking Dead has already done a smart job uncovering new horrors in a fictional world that’s teeming with them.