The ATX Festival is always full of surprises, and this year Fear the Walking Dead made their way to Austin for a panel and interviews.
We had the opportunity to sit down with a handful of other reporters to chat with Co-creator and EP, Dave Erickson, EP Gale Anne Hurd, and stars Kim Dickens (Madison), Alycia Debnam-Carey (Alicia), Colman Domingo (Strand) and Dayton Callie (Otto).
Find details from the conversations below for an analysis of Fear the Walking Dead Season 3, including discussion of Travis' death, Madison's leadership, Alicia's relationship with Jake (and the head in the cage), troubled sons Nick and Troy, the joining of two families and Strand's more singular journey.
The freedom of not writing an adaptation is not lost on Hurd, who is associated with both The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, "It's not based on a comic book so there are no expectations from the fans and allows us an opportunity to answer some questions that the fans keep having about both the comic book series and The Walking Dead like, 'Well, I'd survive the zombie apocalypse by taking a yacht and going out to sea.'
"We saw how that worked out.
"Then we have another group of fans going, 'No, what I'd do is there are prepper communities out there and they're prepared for the apocalypse.' And this season, we get to find out exactly how that's going to work out. So there's no canon we have to follow other than the rules of the zombie apocalypse as created by Robert Kirkman.
"It's a much better question for Dave Erickson," Hurd suggests when asked about the decision to kill off Travis, "but it was much more about the arc of his character taking him from sort of the moral compass and conscience of this show into someone who can take and defend his family, not only the living survivors, as evil as they can be, but also an entire gladiator ring of the infected.
"The deaths, hopefully, have always completed the character's story, but also allow for the survivors to be affected by that outcome to see where Alicia and Madison and Nick go from there."
Callie's first comment proved his history in comedy should be put to use, "They had to make room for my ego. Two egos really wouldn't work."
When a reporter asked about Alicia and Jake, Debnam-Carey was willing to weigh in on why she thought he may see some sparks flying, even if she wouldn't commit to a smolder or a full-on blaze, "They're two characters who have gone through a very traumatic experience together.
"They lost two people that are very close to them at the same time. For him it's Charlene for her it's Travis. Their helicopter goes down. That's a really life-changing moment. They had to be able to work together to get back to safety. That immediately set up the bond they will have one way or another throughout the rest of the season.
"What's also unique is they both have a troubled sibling and both have a difficult relationship with their sibling and then the parent because of that. So they share a lot in common and obviously, we'll see that develop because they can relate to each other in a very different way than they can to some of the other characters."
We're just getting to know Jeremiah Otto, and in the universe of The Walking Dead, the idea the next character introduced might be a villain is always playing on people's minds. Callie, though, could never play a villain. Really.
"I could never judge him as a villain. I would never play a villain," Callie shared. "I can only play a guy who believes a certain thing. So, I don't think so. I'll never be a villain. You may see me as a villain, but I won't see me as a villain. You can't play a villain. You can only play a person who believes a certain way. It may not be what other people think is right, but it's what he thinks is right. [looks at Debnam-Carey] You don't see me as a villain."
Debnam-Carey laughed dryly, "Not yet."
His son comes across as a villain. "He's an unguided missile." "That's a good way to put it." Debnam-Carey laughs. Callie continued, "He just needs a little beatin' once in a while."
Gayle supplied, "Well, you can imagine scenes to come, you've seen some, between Madison and Jeremiah, you know, two people who have different approaches to keeping your family or in your case, your extended family alive..."
"But they also have a lot in common," Callie interjected, before hearing uproarious laughter from another table and giving them a piece of his mind, "Hey. Hey! We're having an interview over here! Hey, please? Keep it down a little bit?"
Giggles and chit chat showed how much the cast enjoys working together before Callie continued, "The way I see it, Otto and Madison have a lot in common. They're both trying to protect their family and feed them. There's a lot in common, that's all I see. They handle it in a different way, but I think there's a good bond between Madison and Otto."
When talking about a possible big bad for the season, Hurd reminded us about The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead are two different shows.
The pressure for the introduction of Negan was immense, as is the impending all-out war storyline. Hurd said, "There are not panels we need to bring to life in the storyline, and it's going to be a surprise if we introduce a big bad and who that might be which is generally not the case with The Walking Dead."
Is it wrong to like Fear the Walking Dead without one big bad? At this point in the storyline, their world seems like enough of a big bad for them to handle. "Especially at this point, when you consider that even innocent Alicia has killed someone in cold blood," Hurd says.
"I don't think there's anyone...Regardless of whether they've killed someone in cold blood, they have done things that certainly would not be considered the right honorable thing to do, but that's what happens in the zombie apocalypse. You do what you have to do to survive."
Everyone has to have some measure of the fight, even an "evil" instinct to survive against other families trying to do the same.
Debnam-Carey said, "If you think about the Clark family as a whole, everywhere they've stamped their mark or found themselves – a new environment, a new house, a new group of people – they somehow manage to destroy it. [A lot of laughter] Like that destructive force that comes with blood bond, it's so much more complicated than good or bad, evil vs good. There's such a nuance.
This is a family that will do anything and destroys anything that gets in their way. That's a fine line, so it's much more, I think, closer to real human instinct, than having a typical or hyped up big bad character, because you're seeing these people trying to make choices that are just between bad and worse. They always somehow seem to be coming out with bad choices."
"And for every family that you run into, they might see you as their big bad," I said.
"Exactly, yes," Debnam-Carey agreed. "Like on the island. We turned up, destroyed everything and left. But it's the same with the hotel, though. We turned up, destroyed everything, and left. It's a very interesting metaphor for this world, this new existence that they have."
"When you talk about Otto's, it's the same kind of thing," Callie explained. "Troy and Jake and me [sic] are all we have. So like they have, we have each other. So as screwed up as Nick is and Troy is, they're still our family and we gotta deal with it."
"Like Madison. There are some sinister moments for her. Well, not sinister, but vicious. That's a character that will or appears to do whatever it takes. There are some vicious qualities in there, a ferocity that could be interpreted as evil by some people, but it's nice that it's all blurry, I think," Debnam-Carey shared.
"And that's what's interesting about this. The character of Madison is number one on the call sheet, and she is, as people would say, the Rick Grimes of this show. It's rare to see the woman's story provided. She's the one who is keeping the family alive, especially now that Travis is gone. She's going to have to earn that and maintain it," Hurd suggested.
Seeing Alicia at the Bible class react to a zombie's head in a bird cage was both shocking and comedic, and Debnam-Carey shared her thoughts on the scene. "What I think is nice about that story arc is it's the first time we get to see Alicia react around peers her own age and have experiences that she missed out on so there's a moment of relief and release that she's allowed.
"I don't think she's ever been able to or afforded before. Paired with that [Callie said, 'the weed,' and she laughed], in such darkness the only thing that keeps you going is humor and hope and that element of being able to laugh in the face of pain or that there's always an absurdity that comes with such...[looked directly at Callie who kept making others laugh] How about you just answer this one?"
Hurd asked, "Well, how about what [Alicia] said when asked what it was like to kill someone? [Alicia] said, 'easy,' and that speaks volumes."
"Yeah, you're right," Debnam-Carey continued, "You're right that it's become sort of desensitized, and it's also nice, as an actor, finally not having to express every single kill. You can relax and not have to think, 'What did this mean, and what did it do to me, and who am I now?' A lot of Season 2 was like that for us.
"And when she says, 'I killed a man, it was easy,' I think that's a big release for her to just be able to say it, and it's absurd to her that it was easy, the act of it was easy, but the consequences of it are hard, and the time thinking of it or the burden of it is something else entirely. But I love that we got to explore that a little bit with her."
When Kim Dickens, Colman Domingo, and EP Dave Erickson sat down, Erickson first began by speaking to Travis' storyline and whether or not it was a fully realized arc. "What was important about Travis' story," Erickson began, "is that once he was able to save Nick and reunite Nick with Maddie, his story was done, in a strange way.
"That was the last service, the last gesture he could make. I hoped the viewers could see in the scene when he saw the family uniting and he realized a strange sense of closure with him, and even in the next scene when you guys [Madison and Travis] are talking and you [Madison] say you're sorry for Chris, and he's there, but he's not really there.
"He's kind of going through the motions in some strange sense. I think what he realized in saving Nick and having that moment was that he was not going to bring Chris back, and the promise he makes Liza back in Season 1 was effectively broken."
"I don't think there's a lot of time in the apocalypse," Dickens replied when asked about Madison showing her grief for Travis or getting over it quickly. "You've gotta keep moving. You know, she suppresses it in the beginning. I don't know. In some ways, it was kind of like the honorable thing to do.
"Everyone is suffering, everyone is dying and I think she can't let herself seem weak. That's the obvious, practical reason, but there are so many layers to it, you know, needing it to be private, and then she does let it out and then somehow, it's shared by that one [points to Callie], who comes over and bothers her."
Erickson loved how Dickens played both moments and thought it was really strange when Otto confronted Madison under the tree. Colman Domingo agreed, laughing, "I was wondering if you were going to commit suicide?"
Dickens chuckled, "I think it's too soon to tell..."
Erickson went on to suggest it would haunt the core family and the extended family, as well, as the season expands. After losing Thomas, Strand started becoming a part of the family, and "there was always a kind of sympatico" between Strand and Madison, so hopefully, that will start anew.
"It's always about family dysfunction on some level," Erickson revealed, "and when we meet Otto and his family, it's the story of, well, compared to yours, the story of a very dysfunctional family on some levels and watching the two families gravitate toward each other and become one, in a weird way. There is an adoptive quality between [Madison] and Troy as things progress."
How does the series make Madison the Rick without becoming a duplicate of Rick Grimes?
"I'm more gangsta than Rick," Dickens offered.
Domingo supported that in his smooth voice, "You really are. You're scrappy as hell!"
Erickson believed Madison has always been in charge, even from the pilot when Nick was in the hospital and she and Travis went to his side. A cop asked Travis if she always did all the talking and his reply that, "she's much more elegant," was meant to set the tone. That's never really changed.
It's Erickson's belief that Travis was comfortable in that relationship and knowing Madison was as strong as she was.
"Rick was a cop, and Maddie was a guidance counselor, so there was an assurance that she would get up to the place where she could lead on all levels. And I think there mistakes that all of our characters made last season. You know, they got flack for lighting up the RBH when she tried to find...she don't do that no more," Erickson teased.
"She learns her lessons," Dickens said wisely.
What's interesting to Erickson is when you talk about this season and the loss of the moral compass of the show. "There's going to be a strain between Madison and her kids and the choices she's making and their willingness to go along and their starting to question, 'Yeah, we're all here and we're alive, but at what cost? And who are we breaking bread with, and can we abide by that?"
"The irony is that the choices you make to protect the kids are going to be some of the things that tend to create a fracture between the whole family."
Strand is on his own track at this point mainly because he was just shot and didn't particularly enjoy all of the "Travis, Travis, Travis," behavior he was living with before leaving the group.
He also realized the importance of controlling the water and wants to get in on that action with Dante. "Eventually, everyone will come together again," Erickson assured, "But it won't be him with a flashlight trying to track everyone down."
"The way they've been writing him," Domingo agreed, "is he's been trying to get his footing again. I think it's been really difficult for him. Now he's out there relying on himself, which is the one bet he will always take. He'll bet on himself more than anyone else."
"It was very pragmatic in the moment to let them go, and now, let me find my own way. Hopefully, we come back together in some way because he does have a sweet spot in his heart for Madison, I think."
"I'm the Carol?" Domingo asked when someone suggested Strand might not want to be attached to people like Carol on The Walking Dead. "I think honestly Victor Strand would prefer it that way."
"Is that a reality that he could stand now that we've sort of deconstructed him to see what he's made of and what's actually important to him and that he cares very deeply for people? I think that challenges him a lot, constantly. I think he'd like to be alone, but in this universe, it's better to be in numbers."
He had a good thing going here, you know. Until Travis came back." Domingo laughs loudly at his sentiment.
"Travis is gone now," Dickens said.
"I got room now," Domingo countered, laughing more.
Dickens and Domingo agreed that it's nice not worrying when their characters might be smashed in the head with a baseball bat like their counterparts on The Walking Dead. "I hope they make the comic book now," Dickens said excitedly.
Neither Dickens nor Domingo watches The Walking Dead because to do could nullify what they shouldn't know about the world they haven't yet stepped into. In other words, if you know the future, would you act differently in the present? They've decided not to chance it (and were asked not to binge The Walking Dead prior to beginning their roles, if you wondered).
"I feel great that I get to play this really great, incredibly fascinating, multi-dimensional, flawed, badass, female character. In fact, I feel so honored and blessed to play it." Dickens laughs as she continues, "It makes so much sense that a female would the lead in the apocalypse. They're tough. Women are tough, and I'm so glad you [Erickson] wrote it, that you took that leap and the tide is turning and that there are so many great roles for women than before, but this one is exceptional."
Television is finally realizing women have the ability to lead not only as the main character on the show, but to lead within the show, as well. Dickens had the opportunity to kick ass as the lead, something few women used to get to do.
"It's funny, even on our show, typically the women, even the way they're costumed, they're tougher than the guys. If you ever look at any fight scene, Kim Dickens is beating up some 6'4" guy with a chair, and I'm picking up a stick trying to hit this little girl," Domingo breaks out into laughter and appreciation.
"I usually say, hey, this is weird. And yet, it makes sense to me, as well."
"Travis only came into his own right before he died," I said. "I was wondering, if he wouldn't have died to bring the family together again, would he have even been able to survive knowing he was capable of doing those things? I don't think he would have."
"That's a really good question," Erickson said, "because I think there was a version of the story where we would have seen more of that apocalyptic Travis, and you're right. I hadn't considered it, but he might have gotten to a place where he would have said, 'I don't know who I am anymore,' and that would have led in a different direction."
"Strand mentioned it to Madison in Season 2 when he said if Travis was as Chris, he's not going to be able to come back from that. He won't be able to deal with it like you would," another reporter said. "So there is that aspect about Travis. When he jumped off the helicopter, he was already at peace with what was happening."
Erickson agreed, "I think you're right. He felt that before he'd even been in the helicopter. I think there was an element of him where he was ready to go. It's interesting because what we talk about in the writers' room are the Ripley moments or the Sarah Connor moments, which kind of goes back to that one."
"I think about those characters a lot when I think about Aliens or Terminator because it's something you see a lot if something else that was done. It's kind of infused into this, as well. It's not that it's not special, it just is what it is.
"When we first meet Madison, she's incredibly commanding, even when dealing with Tobias and things at school. There's a level of strength and confidence to her. It's always this sort of struggle because it doesn't mean you're any less maternal, but it does get to a place this season where the question of what you want to sacrifice the greater good, and that greater good starts to become displaced, as well and will lead to conflict with your kids, etc.
"It will be good to delve into Madison's past a little bit because the questions we have as an audience are questions that both Nick and Alicia have, as well.
There is always an interesting thing for any kid in a family drama is the learning of the parents. When you grow up, they're playing that role and mom and dad do what they do, and it's usually later in life you start to understand them as humans, and we'll see some of that."
That should be quite a lot of material for you to think about while you're watching the rest of the season and tune into Fear the Walking Dead Season 3 Episode 4 on AMC before heading back here for a full review.
If you've been lax in your viewing and your interest is now piqued, you can always watch Fear the Walking Dead online to catch up with all things zombie apocalypse.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.