Photo: Michael Desmond/AMC

Every season of Fear The Walking Dead and its progenitor The Walking Dead take place around a central local: a prison, a farm, a hotel. At first blush of Fear The Walking Dead’s third season, it seems that the show is setting up a military base as the home/prison for our greatly diminished crew of Madison, Travis, Alicia, Nick, and Luciana. All have been captured by brutes in military outfits, and while early establishing shots give the sense that there’s more activity going on than what we’re seeing, our characters only interact with a few young men who perform sadistic “experiments” on other sick and wounded people they have come dragged into their base, timing how long it takes them to turn to zombies with perverse glee. It’s an effective set-up and a good location, but the show isn’t interested in either.

The first two episodes that kick off season three sacrifice mood, character motivation, and tension—the hallmarks of those early stellar seasons of The Walking Dead—at the altar of getting our characters from point A to point B. The especially messy structuring of the back half of “Eye Of The Beholder” results in the sense that the writers are killing time before getting to the second episode, when things actually happen. But first, Travis brute forces his way out of captivity, only to be recaptured again… only to fight zombies, emerge victorious, then be made to fight more zombies. Similarly, Nick and a wounded Luciana find escape, then are, yes, recaptured. Were it not for the ingeniously gory way Madison and Alicia escape their confines—via spoon into eyeball—the whole episode would be a waste. The eyeball belongs to Troy, the good-looking sociopath who leads some cronies in murdering wounded people to record how long it takes them to turn.

Troy (Daniel Sharman) is a bright spot of interest in this episode, as he possess the right blend of charm and menace—call it the John Goodman factor—to make a convincing villain. And yet, after Madison has dragged him a good ways, spoon in socket all the while, all is forgiven after she removes it. This sounds unrealistic, but see, Troy’s brother is there too, and he and the others didn’t know what Troy was up to, but they do know he’s a sadistic asshole. They immediately take Madison’s side, inviting them to their nearby ranch. It’s incredibly improbable that this small group of strangers would behave this way toward Madison and her clan, and were this an early season of The Walking Dead—or just a better show—the viewer would be smartly looking for the real motivations of Troy’s brother and his friends. But this show is not good, at least with writing believable characters with believable motivations, and we must accept the unlikely turn of events.

At least Madison’s character holds—she wants nothing to do with this new group, and refuses to go with them. But a convenient zombie horde stumbles their way just when the two groups are about to part ways, forcing Madison and Nick into a truck with Troy and forcing Travis, Alicia, and Luciana into a helicopter. And lo, good actors saddled playing characters with logic-defying psychology make their way to the ranch.

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It’s good that the season opens on a two-parter, because “Eye Of The Beholder” feels too sparse an entry to make much of an impression. “The New Frontier” quickly makes up for lost time with killing off Travis, a move that—unlike last season’s Chris—was genuinely surprising. It makes sense given the context of The Walking Dead, a show notorious for wantonly killing off main characters. The difference was that, at least in the early seasons, those characters were people the audience cared deeply about, making their deaths meaningful. Maybe it’s because it comes so quickly in the new season, before I’d gotten used to being in the company of this cast of characters again, but Travis’ death, while surprising, wasn’t very affecting. I’ll miss Cliff Curtis, who’s been fantastic given the uneven character he embodies. But remember when Lori died in season three of The Walking Dead? It was a bold, impactful move. It meant something big, for Rick, for Karl, and for the show. The original’s willingness to kill off characters has long since seeped into self-parody, but early on it was a factor that gave the show its unusualness. Travis death feels like a bid for the same shock, but it doesn’t achieve it.

Photo: Michael Desmond/AMC

And while our remaining four main characters do eventually get to the ranch, there’s another main character that I, at least, had more or less forgotten about: Victor. Turns out we’re still following him, which is cool, because I like Colman Domingo, but with his character still all the way back at the hotel in Mexico, he’s very far away from the action, and his story feels more than a little superfluous. It’s also another plot point that just doesn’t gel logically: He pretends to be a doctor to pacify the desperate group locked out of the hotel, successfully pulls shrapnel from one and then delivers a baby, and Karen (Elena Reyes) still kicks him out? It’s another scene that beggars belief—why on Earth would she make him leave?—and I can only assume it’s just another inelegant way to get him where the writers need him to be.

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The under-baked motivations strain the show to its breaking point. Madison, already ruthless and now able to go full Rick with Travis’ death, tells her children that they’re staying at the ranch, and they’ll take it over if they have to. Why? Because fate brought them here. Not because it’s safe, not because there’s fences and supplies and resources and people—because Travis died in an attempt to get there. The woman who, a scene prior, said she didn’t believe in God apparently does believe in fate in a post-apocalyptic world. Surely there was a better way for our characters to end up here.

Stray observations:

  • The sound effects of the spoon-in-eyeball socket scenes were almost too much for me. So squelchy.
  • “Eye Of The Beholder.” Get it?
  • The dubious, convenient zombie horde at the end of the first episod was just the final lazy story device after a whole episode of them. Fear The Walking Dead forgets, in this opening episode and chance for a fresh approach, that the zombies that make a zombie show interesting are not effective as cheap plot devices, but as agents of tension, chaos, and wild-card possibilities.
  • Nick drove me absolutely crazy with his teenage whining. Why couldn’t he die?

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