‘Fear the Walking Dead’ course corrects its troubling Native American storyline in midseason finale

In my initial review for season three of Fear the Walking Dead, I noted that the season wasn’t as politically charged as you might expect — especially considering season two wrapped up with a group of Mexican refugees being shot at by armed white men at the American border. The biggest takeaway from the three episodes sent for review was the shocking death of series’ co-lead Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis) at the beginning of the second episode.

But since those three episodes, Fear backed itself into a strange and potentially problematic corner, as the main conflict at the newest apocalyptic safe haven, the Broke Jaw Ranch, eventually unfolded. As the season goes on, the Otto family — patriarch Jeremiah (Dayton Callie), troubled Ramsay Bolton lookalike Troy (Daniel Sharman) and prodigal son Jake (Sam Underwood) — and their ranch are being regularly attacked by a group of Native Americans.

This group, led by a man named Walker (Michael Greyeyes), makes their grand entrance in episode five, when Troy and his armed militia find another search party from the ranch massacred. One member of the doomed party is scalped and left alive as a crow pecks on his skull.

Brains make good bird food, apparently. Richard Foreman Jr./AMC

It made for visually striking (and disturbing) television, but it also perpetuated some offensive Native American stereotypes. Walker wants the Otto family and the rest of the Broke Jaw community to leave because it’s the land of his ancestors. It’s not that the contentious — and to be clear, still extremely relevant — issue of colonialism, especially as it relates to Native Americans, isn’t something worth pursuing; the problem is that Fear’s interest in the subject appeared disingenuous.

Best case, it was a lazy, poorly contrived framework misusing serious and sensitive subject matter. The character development for Walker was nonexistent — we also don’t know the names of anybody else in the group, though we know several from the ranch — and he seemed like a plot device whose purpose is simply to pose a looming threat to the ranch. After all, in The Walking Dead universe, the most dangerous foes are rarely the undead: Usually, it’s other people.

The optics were bad: You have a group of white ranchers clashing against Native Americans. It’s Cowboys and Indians but in the zombie apocalypse. What’s more, it presented Walker’s group as the antagonists — at best, misunderstood adversaries — because it pitted them against the Clark family. Typically, no matter the questionable morals of a group, the audience will side with the people we’ve followed from the onset, an allegiance that’s often underlined by the creative team’s story choices.

In The Walking Dead, for instance, when Rick and co. engage in an unprovoked attack, slaughtering an entire outpost of Negan’s men while they sleep, there’s some moral handwringing from certain members of Rick’s crew, but ultimately Negan is still pegged as the villain, and this is before we even meet him. We’re invited to have the same partiality with the Clarks at the Broke Jaw Ranch — but in this case, it’s a group of minorities that are being presented as the villains.

Walker, played by Michael GreyeyesRichard Foreman Jr./AMC

Near the end of Fear’s two-hour midseason finale Sunday night, the result of this storyline looked catastrophic. Thankfully, though, the show corrected course by doing something its parent series never does with Rick’s group. In the end, the Clarks actually take the moral high ground — but, of course, they do so in a morose, Walking Dead-sort of way.

Nick (Frank Dillane) discovers a body buried underneath the house he had restored, pulling out a skull with a bullet-sized hole right through the temple. It begins a series of reveals about Jeremiah’s heated feud with Walker, which for weeks has been layered with frustratingly vague assurances that the land was either stolen or purchased fair and square, depending on who’s talking. In the finale, we learn Jeremiah previously murdered three Native Americans who went onto the ranch, including Walker’s uncle, and killed Walker’s father when he tried to confront him about it. Land rights aside, pre-zombie apocalypse, that’s murder.

“We’re on the wrong side!” Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) says to Nick and Madison (Kim Dickens), which, while a bit on the nose, at least reinforces the notion that the Clarks chose poorly — and that the show’s been treating Walker and the other Native American characters unfairly. So Madison attempts to parlay with Walker, returning to him the skull of someone presumed to be his father. “This isn’t my father,” Walker says. “This is an old white man’s shame.”

The gesture does, however, offer a solution to a potential shootout between the ranch and Walker’s group. Walker wants Jeremiah’s life in exchange for peace. It’s not diplomacy, but it’s in line with The Walking Dead’s sense of justice.

Madison wants Jeremiah to do the deed himself, to put the community — including his two sons — over his own hubris. You can guess how that goes. But Nick arrives on the scene and pulls the trigger, leaving mother and son to stage Jeremiah’s death as a suicide, to fool Jake and Troy. With that, the ranch’s conflict with Walker’s group is seemingly resolved as the series enters its midseason hiatus.

Also, Nick cut his hair for no particular reason Richard Foreman Jr. /AMC

Still, it doesn’t completely absolve the Clarks’ actions this season. They’re guilty of willful ignorance throughout their stay at the ranch, setting aside Troy’s disturbing behavior, Jeremiah’s racially charged comments and the noticeable lack of any person of color in the community. Even Nick’s love interest Luciana (Danay Garcia), once healed from her injuries, chooses to leave. Imagine if Travis, a man of Maori descent, made it to the ranch — I suspect that’s part of the reason he was killed off in the premiere.

The Clarks’ last-minute realization also doesn’t absolve the the creative team’s story choices this season either. Fear should commit to Walker and his group as actual characters, and it should prove they weren’t just some plot device to give the show a threat for this half of the season. If it drops that community altogether when the series returns, that would confirm it. Walker’s a shell of a character and, yes, we still don’t know a single person from his group by name. That needs to change. The show’s writers can, and should, dig at the politics between Walker and the ranch now that the Clarks are in control.

But despite almost ending in total disaster, I’m still a lot higher on Fear than its flagship series. (That’s been true ever since The Walking Dead tried to hide Glenn behind a dumpster and fumbled its Negan introduction.) This show’s completely removed from the comics, which gives the creative team a liberty that can lead to some genuinely shocking developments — seriously, Travis’ death is perhaps the most unexpected moment from either Walking Dead show. But they also used that same creative freedom to clumsily portray the plight of an oppressed and oft-stereotyped group. Here’s hoping, unlike the parent series, they can learn from their mistakes moving forward.

Oh hey, it’s the ranchRichard Foreman Jr. /AMC

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