For The Walking Dead franchise's tens of millions of fans, the heroes' short life-spans are a feature, not a bug. Anyone can die on these shows — that's what makes them so exciting. When the flesh-eaters are closing in, there's no guarantee that the good guys are going to make it, prominent placement in the opening credits be damned.
So why get invested in the private lives of zombie-snacks? That's a question that even the main series has sometimes had trouble answering satisfactorily — though obviously at no cost to the ratings, which keep rising along with the body- ount. And judging by Fear the Walking Dead's fairly shaky first season finale — "The Good Man" — co-creators Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson have just as much trouble getting viewers to care about their West Coast human survivors. The big question after six episodes is whether the duo have done enough with the Los Angeles branch of their Dead empire to pump audiences up for another season next summer. The answer? Yes and no.
To be clear: Neither of the shows has ever lacked for fleshed-out non-flesh-eating characters. (Over the course of five seasons, the parent series has built up a formidable stock company.) But there's a moment near the middle of the episode when the undead hordes shamble down a flickering hallway toward Fear's stringy-haired, self-destructive junkie protagonist Nick Clark, and while the music, photography, and lighting are all creepy as hell, it's hard not to hope — just a little — that maybe this annoying boy-band reject will get eaten.
That's no knock against the actor, Frank Dillane; and really it's not a major knock against the show as a whole, which has mostly been a well-crafted piece of action-horror. But this spin-off is still at its weakest when it focuses on the players instead of the game. And that's a big problem with this first season fade-out, because after its rush of violence and danger fades, the drama settles back down to the Clark, Manawa and Salazar clans, all making major decisions that should matter more than they actually do.
Roughly the first two-thirds of the finale follows the three families' escape from their suburban compound in El Sereno, and their attempt to retrieve their relatives from a nearby makeshift military installation. Maddie Clark, Travis Manawa, and Daniel Salazar keep venturing deeper into the darkness of the city, and further into a nightmare. These are scenes of raw-boned survival. There are monsters outside and unknown troubles inside, and every decision is potentially fatal. That's what show can be when it's really rolling.
Also good in "The Good Man?" The return of Colman Domingo's Strand, the slick-talking pragmatist, who gives the reassembled bunch a plan to follow and leading them out of the heart of the city and to his fortified, well-supplied oceanfront house. In the last two episodes, he's been compellingly dark and rational, cutting through all the waffling and foolhardy heroism with a curt, "You can't save everyone." Thank goodness this hustler survives the finale; here's hoping Domingo's already signed his contract for Season Two.
But the other guest star from the second half of FTWD Season One — Shawn Hatosy — may be a goner, given that Travis beat his Corporal Andrew Adams to a pulp and left him in a parking garage, with zombies swarming nearby. And it's here where things start to break down a little. It's supposed to be a big deal that Daniel has tortured Adams, and that Travis decides to let the Corporal escape rather than allowing him to stick around. Instead, that whole storyline is curtailed to the point that when the Army grunt comes back and petulantly shoots Daniel's daughter Ofelia, it comes across as way too arbitrary — even for a Walking Dead show.
And really, that's the way almost the entire last third of this feels. After arriving at Strand's home, the gang only has a moment to catch a breath before their host is talking about leaving again — while looking yearningly at his yacht floating out in the ocean — and Travis' ex-wife Lisa is revealing that she's been infected. None of this resonates, nor does it necessarily point the way to where the next season might go. It's all sort of… tacked on.
There's plenty of reason to come back to find out how these characters are going to make their next move, pinned-in along the California coast. But the best parts of of this final Season One hurrah were the swooping shots through a devastated Los Angeles — devoid of power, dotted with fires, and never likely to be the same again. It's somewhat telling that these are also the parts of the episode with the fewest people.
Previously: Pledge of Allegiance