Upon its return, AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead did the unthinkable. In the show’s two-episode Season 3 premiere, which aired on Sunday, Fear further separated itself from its juggernaut sibling The Walking Dead by killing off a major character, out of nowhere, just minutes into the second episode. In an era of TV dominated by surprise deaths, Fear the Walking Dead pulled off its surprise in satisfying fashion.
Early in episode two, “The New Frontier,” the group takes off in a helicopter with a militia led by two brothers, Troy and Jake Otto. They’re heading to the Ottos’ survivalist compound, led by Otto patriarch Jeremiah (Dayton Callie), which has taken in survivors who earn shelter by pitching in with farming and other chores.
But a sharp marksman manages to shoot — from ground level, inexplicably — into the helicopter, nailing Travis (Cliff Curtis) right in the neck. As Travis bleeds out, he hardly musters a goodbye as he falls out of the chopper from who knows how many feet up in the air.
There are a lot of unanswered questions surrounding Travis’s death. We don’t know who attacked him (or why) and never saw his body. Sure, this could be a way to bring him back by miraculous circumstance, but for all intents and purposes, Travis Manawa is dead. Even if he survived the fall, Travis would still die from the pain and/or from bleeding out of a neck wound.
It’s a huge loss. Travis’s death came out of nowhere, and so early in the new season. It’s a shocking move by Fear the Walking Dead a zombie series that might have killer ratings but is culturally invisible and does not inspire fandom the way The Walking Dead has throughout its lifespan. But maybe that’s its best asset: The anti-climactic death of a principal character demonstrates just how unconcerned Fear the Walking Dead is with being popular.
As the patriarch of the show’s previous two seasons, Travis was the perfect avatar for Fear the Walking Dead and its idea of the apocalypse. Unlike the doomsday prepper’s wet dream that is The Walking Dead, AMC’s summertime prequel/spin-off is less concerned with cosplay-ready villains and more interested in the slow corrosion of a civilization. Travis wasn’t a sweaty hero cop with a southern drawl like Rick Grimes, but a high school English teacher of minority descent. He’s not an ex-soldier or ex-anything — he was just a man living ordinarily until the day zombies happened. And, since the show takes place much earlier in the zombie plague than The Walking Dead, there hasn’t been much time for him to develop into a hardened warrior. In this sense, Travis was the perfect center for Fear the Walking Dead, whose greatest task was to carve a different identity than the one that dominates Sunday nights in the fall and early spring.
Fear the Walking Dead is less fantastical in its end times and more grounded in how people would actually behave when governance and social order evaporate. So while the spin-off series isn’t often as viscerally exciting or flat-out nuts as its elder sibling, it definitely isn’t any less interesting. Of course, as Fear the Walking Dead gets long in the tooth, it may begin making the other show’s mistakes. Season 3 appears to be predominantly set in a survivalist compound where shelter-seekers must earn their keep. After seven or so seasons of such settings in The Walking Dead, what feels fresh for a different show already has a tinge of the derivative. But offing a major character early without much build-up or fanfare isn’t a bad way to start.
Fear the Walking Dead airs at 9 p.m. Eastern on AMC.