In the premiere of Fear the Walking Dead’s second season, the mysterious yacht owner Victor Strand (Colman Domingo) gives a succinct rundown of the new world order to his stowaways, whom he rescued from the zombie apocalypse. “Let me explain the rules of the boat,” he says. “Rule number one, it’s my boat. Rule number two, it is my boat. If there remains any confusion about rules one and two, I offer rule number three: It’s my goddamn boat.” And with that, Strand illustrates how simple and arbitrary “laws” can become at the end of the world—and how willing people are to abide by them if it means they’ll be safe.
The Walking Dead, AMC’s long-running hit and Fear’s parent show, began with a world already overrun with zombies. Despite occupying quasi-prequel territory, Fear the Walking Dead is compelling for the way it actually portrays the slow, painful breakdown of society. In the first season, a Los Angeles family watched as zombies started to pop up in their city, normal life collapsed, and the military started to herd people into camps before being overrun. In the second season, the surviving characters have huddled onto Victor’s yacht and set sail for open waters, where even more new, nebulous laws are taking hold.
It’s only been one season, but Fear the Walking Dead is already doing a better job than the original of examining how civilization—rather than a small band of survivors—reacts to and evolves during the crisis. The Walking Dead, directly based on an ongoing comic book by Robert Kirkman, is a simpler tale of survival that has turned into a grim (if wildly successful) slog. Around the corner is either another awful villain or a wall of flesh-eating zombies, and efforts to rebuild society in the show always revolve around protection, isolation, and bonds of deep trust forged by years of bloody battles. Anytime some semblance of community is built, the show simply tears it down again.
Meanwhile, the heroes of Fear the Walking Dead aren’t soldiers, and as they strike out into the ocean in the second season, they’re still learning how to adapt to life without traditional systems of authority. The first season was a surprisingly hard-edged, political work that cast the U.S. military as the primary villains, ones who quickly turned against the people they were supposed to protect as the world around them fell apart. As the season ended, the blended family of Madison (Kim Dickens), Travis (Cliff Curtis), their children, and their neighbor Daniel (Ruben Blades) fled the military’s quarantine camps for Strand’s boat, a luxury yacht parked in the Pacific Ocean that he claimed to own.
In the first season, Fear the Walking Dead’s tension derived from the military’s secrecy and soldiers’ erratic behavior (eventually, it was revealed they planned to flee and wipe out everyone they left behind). In the second, the power is suddenly in the hands of the main cast, especially Victor, which proves an equally terrifying prospect. Victor is friendly enough, but he won’t allow any other survivors onto his boat, which leads to many wrenching scenes of desperate dinghies petitioning for help and being ignored. Fear the Walking Dead could easily feel claustrophobic, but the show uses its setting to its advantage, ratcheting up the paranoia as the survivors begin to wonder about Victor’s background and his plans for the future.
The most recent season of The Walking Dead was riddled with pointless cliffhangers and featured a drawn-out plot involving a new supervillain too cartoonish to take seriously. Fortunately, Fear the Walking Dead’s second season manages to maintain the great momentum of the first, even as it transitions to a new arc. It’s also much more fun than it sounds (even though half of the cast is made up of angsty teenagers), as the show takes typical story tropes and manages to smoothly mix them with zombie-horror adventures. If the first season was a domestic drama, focusing on Madison and Travis’s blended family as they tried to keep everyone together, this second season is a naval adventure, as the group bands with new, darker allies to fight off pirates and monsters on the high seas.
In Sunday’s episode, Daniel darkly refers to Victor as “Ahab,” and indeed Victor’s edicts do sometimes echo the dictatorial madness of Herman Melville’s famous creation. Domingo, a Tony-nominated actor and playwright, is giving a command performance this year, a fascinating portrait of the kind of authoritarian whom society reforms around after being blown apart. It’s heartening to see the show take the chance to build that kind of a character from the ground up and invest the audience in his decisions going forward. It might be a comic-book show spinoff, but Fear the Walking Dead is proving that it won’t settle for a story with easy heroes and villains.