"Fear the Walking Dead's" anthology-style premiere explores if Morgan is dead, alive or something else altogether -- then, the "World Beyond" kids proves there is sometimes value in reckless youth as "Walking Dead" goes back-to-back.
We get that this is usually when we'd be getting a new season of parent series "The Walking Dead," but this was also an opportunity to offer more "Dead" programming over a longer period of time if they'd just aired these back to back rather than concurrently.
Is this a sign that AMC doesn't have as much faith in the franchise as it once did? According to the show's creators, it was the network that made the decision to pull the plug on the parent series after its upcoming Season 11.
Now, that could be because they will at that point complete their adaptation of creator Robert Kirkman's compete comic book saga, so it logically made sense to them. It could also have to do with contracts and how expensive shows can get as they get on in years, so they'd rather do things like the Daryl and Carol spinoff series.
That series, though, was apparently in development before the creative team knew the main series was getting axed. So there are a lot of question marks in the air about the future of this franchise. Meanwhile, all the creative teams can do is try to prove there's still live in the zombie genre.
It will be a while before we know what it all means, and a lot of those decision might be waiting to see how this back-to-back "Dead" double dip does with fans and in the ratings. Interestingly, the shows contrast one another well.
They also remind us of some of that early excitement of the original "Walking Dead" before it got bogged down in its growing complexity and community. "Fear" is feeling more wild west than ever before with its Morgan-centric premiere as we find out once and for all what is going on with Morgan. Dead? Alive? Something in between?
Then, "World Beyond" finally fulfills its early promise that it would remind us more of teen-centric projects like "Stand by Me." That film and story in particular seems to be a tremendous inspiration as this, too, is a quest for adventure by kids who are immediately in way over their heads.
Thanks to the bravery-slash-stupidity that only a teen who doesn't fully understand consequences can fully embrace, they find themselves stumbling in the right direction so far. There is in both shows an undercurrent of menace and darkness, and both set the stage for very different journeys to come.
We'll admit there was actually a brief moment at the close of last season where we considered they might actually kill off Morgan. It would challenge the other characters to step up and determine their own destiny.
Plus, after a decade of playing the same character (on and off), perhaps Lennie James was ready to move on? Thankfully, that isn't the case at all. And after being cagey about it during the long hiatus, we finally got to see what happened to Morgan Jones.
This is definitely a story about transformation, and it is apparently also the death of Morgan Jones. It's just that neither of those things come about the way we might expect. Instead, it is once again a story of Morgan finding hope and a reason to keep fighting.
We got that with a solo outing for James, featuring only a few guest stars along the way and a quick appearance by Virginia at the end to lay the groundwork for their war to come. As teased even before Covid shut things down, this season will work more like an anthology, with different episodes featuring different characters, or combinations of characters.
If there was any doubt that this was fully the Morgan show, those doubts are laid to rest with him getting the final shot of the season finale and the whole premiere episode to tell his story. Thankfully, James has the presence and gravitas as an actor to pull it off.
Injured almost to the point of death, we learn that some mysterious benefactor actually saved him and stitched him up, though they apparently did a terrible job of it as they left the bullet in. Nevertheless, that's why Morgan is alive, and it's also why walkers ignore him.
Morgan smells like death thanks to gangrene taking root in his wound, and that death is why he's able to save a former ranger of Virginia's who defected thanks to the messages of hope Morgan and our "Fear" family have been leaving in recent seasons. Morgan may have again given up hope, but not this man.
His hope that there is a better way than Virginia's ruthlessness is why he defected, it's why he saved Morgan and it's why he believes that there could be the kind of community Morgan and his friends have been wanting in the hideout he and his pregnant wife found.
What had once been a drowned town beneath a lake was now exposed after a dam breach. But it's still a lake on maps, making it a rather safe haven so long as no one looks too close. It's unclear if this is the dream Morgan is setting out to fight for by the hour's end, but he's definitely ready to fight.
The hour also featured a truly badass hunter named Emile, who gave Morgan back his killer edge -- seriously, Morgan killed and beheaded him even while injured -- and a killer new weapon when Morgan co-opted Emile's battle axe.
By the hour's end he had even gone so far as to shed his old identity. Leaving Emile's head in the box intended for his own as a gift for Virginia to find at a corpse road block, Morgan was nonplussed by her threat to kill all of his friends if he let them know he was alive.
"Morgan Jones is dead and you are dealing with somebody else now," he told her, and he certainly looked the part of yet another new man, new focus and new direction for the long-time, fan-favorite character,
The premiere also introduces yet another side quest -- at least we don't see a connection to the main plot yet -- in the form of a key. The first man Emile kills has it around his neck when he gets beheaded. Then, Morgan finds the key when Emile's head comes off. Then, we meet two guys apparently waiting for the first guy with the key, painting a message on what certainly looks like a land-bound submarine.
Mystery, intrigue, uncertainty, Morgan back to his "TWD" badass ways on horseback looking not unlike Rick Grimes with that hat and coming for Virginia. He may be one man and she may be a whole community with armored vehicles and weapons and lots and lots of people, but we might just have to bet on the guy who could barely stand through most of this episode.
From here, we will start jumping around across the rest of the cast to see how they've been separated and forcibly integrated into Virginia's conglomerate of communities. And how they're going to start fighting back. It's the biggest, boldest and most ambitious storytelling approach we've seen yet for one of these shows and we're pretty excited to see how they pull it all together.
If "World Beyond" is going to delve into flashbacks to deepen our understanding of these characters, we kind of wish they'd just gone ahead and started with this episode. We could have learned who these kids are and why they'd left the safety of their community in flashbacks to last week's bogged-down premiere that waited until the last few minutes to really get going.
This week, the action kicked off immediately as Iris and her gang of Endlings (as Hope dubs them following an Elton story) quickly began to find out just how unprepared for this world they are. Seriously, they've been behind walls and safe for years and years now.
"TWD" introduced us to unprepared characters when we first got to Alexandria, but even then they had people who weren't so soft, as it were, protecting them. This foursome has no one but themselves and they are all in over their heads. In this hour alone, they encountered two different walkers and failed to kill either one.
Instead, Iris fell with one into a drainage canal and even then it didn't die. And they didn't kill it. We get that they didn't need to kill it when it was impaled and stuck, but they needed to kill one so they could get over it and move on.
Later, Silas froze when they encountered a lone walker on a lonely stretch of road and still none of them killed it. Instead, it followed them to their treehouse hideout that night, hanging out until Hope came out and lured it into a swimming pool where she -- you guessed it -- did not kill it.
Last week, Iris said that by the time they get to their New York destination, they would be ready for this world. Let's hope so, because right now they are so not ready for it. And they're in Montana with a very, very long way to go.
But, and this is where some of that "Stand by Me" energy was coming in, they absolutely were not going to let their general survival incompetence slow them down. In fact they were going to enter the B.O.G. (Blaze of Gory) where they would be surrounded by smoke and empties, as they call them.
An adult who'd failed so miserably at dispatching even a single empty to this point might think twice about walking into a literal herd of them, but all these four needed was a pep talk when they begin to doubt and the power of youthful optimism and more than a little youthful stupidity got them moving.
We'll give credit where it's due, the smoky scene with the four most unprepared kids for the apocalypse walking into a sea of walkers and buses certainly got our hearts pounding. We weren't expecting any of them to die just yet, but this also looked like a disaster in the making, and that's the kind of tension we want to be feeling when watching "Dead" TV.
The characters on "TWD" and "Fear" have all become so strong and capable, we'd almost forgotten what it was like to watch truly unprepared people entering a world where the dead truly are the biggest threat. "TWD" and "Fear" folks just walk around swinging through dead skulls like they're made of butter. Even half dying, Morgan took out how many dozens just tonight?
That idea that these empties are a real danger has been eroded over the years in the other series, with humanity emerging as the biggest threat, so it's nice to see them rise up again as the biggest danger these kids are currently facing.
That's not to say there aren't other dangers, though we had no appearances by Elizabeth or her CRM henchmen who wiped out the gang's entire community -- yeah, they don't know that yet, either. We're still not sure why that was necessary, but we're okay with stepping away from all of that for a moment to let these kids firmly hold the spotlight.
Well, these kids and their two adult guardians -- or at least that's what we anticipate when Felix and Huck finally catch up to them. Felix got the "Lost" flashback treatment this week, revealing how he was rejected outright by his father when he found out his son was gay.
Even on the night the sky fell -- which is when the apocalypse began for this group -- he tried to return home to help only to be rejected again. The university colony where everyone holed up was just down the street from where he lived, so on their quest to find the kids they actually went past the house.
This is proving an effective way to flesh out some of these characters. Did we need this particular detail about Felix? Not really, we already learned he was gay last week when we found out his husband was the head of the sister's father's security detail when he went to the Civic Republic (CRM).
But it's still nice to get that extra texture to him. Used effectively this style of flashback can save awkward expositions in the present by revealing truths about the characters in the past. Here's hoping we get this treatment with some of our other characters (especially Huck and Silas). With only seven main cast members, we should be able to do this, right?
Last week, we said we wished "World Beyond" had launched with a two-hour premiere as that first hour was rather lackluster. Hopefully, "Dead" fans stuck around this time to sample the second episode, because it really is an improved product. These kids are so reckless and stupidly crazy, they should be fun to watch to see how long their luck holds out.
And all the while, we're learning more about that titular "World Beyond," including the CRM organization that took Rick Grimes and gave "Fear's" Althea a sweet romantic encounter. This organizaion has now kissed all three "Dead" shows, so we're eager to learn as much as we can about it -- you know, for when those Rick movies finally come out!
"Fear the Walking Dead" and "The Walking Dead: World Beyond" continue their back-to-back seasons every Sunday night at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.