1. The Rick Grimes character is a woman
The hero of The Walking Dead is Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), a former sheriff who takes a leadership role in the communities that repeatedly come together and dissolve in post-apocalyptic Georgia. He’s adjusted well to the new order of things, evolving into a tough, ruthless leader who still retains a moral compass despite all the brutality in his life. He will do anything to protect his family, biological and surrogate. That leader/protector role on Fear is Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), who was a high school guidance counselor before the zombie apocalypse. Her journey has mirrored Rick’s in many ways, especially in her increasing willingness to commit harsh acts for the good of her tribe. She differs from Rick by retaining a tenderness to her personality — at least for now. The Walking Dead franchise has always been low-key progressive in its depiction of racial and gender equality (everyone is the same when literally the only thing you care about is staying alive), but it’s never really had a major female leader, good or bad, before Madison.
2. Rubén Blades’ performance
One thing Fear has that The Walking Dead does not is the presence of a genuine international icon in Rubén Blades. The singer and actor, who is such an important person in his native Panama that he ran for president in 1994, has done more in his 68 years than most could do in two lifetimes. He carries the weight of his experience in his portrayal of Daniel Salazar, a barber who came to America from El Salvador to escape his past as a soldier in the Salvadoran Civil War and make a better life for his family. His performance is — for the most part — restrained and dignified and abnormally complex for the franchise. His closest contemporary in terms of skill is Melissa McBride as Carol on The Walking Dead. Daniel Salazar ended the first half of the season on a bit of a cliffhanger and his fate is still unconfirmed, but hopefully he’s around for awhile in the second half.
3. The ensemble as a whole
The quality of the acting is slightly higher than it is on The Walking Dead across the board. Alycia Debnam-Carey is the best young actor on either of the shows. Her character, Alicia Clark, is believable both as an angsty teen and a crafty survivor who still sometimes lets her emotions get in the way of her judgment. And Frank Dillane‘s young James Franco thing as heroin-addicted problem child Nick Clark is unique on either show. He moves at a different pace in a way that’s a refreshing change from the dialed-up anxiety around him. The other members of the ensemble — especially Cliff Curtis and Colman Domingo — do solid work as well.
4. Making the most out of a single contained location
Much of the first half of Season 2 is confined to Victor Strand’s yacht, Abigail. Although it’s a big boat, it’s still cramped. But the show never ran out of stuff to do on Abigail, having the boat pick up floating refugees, get attacked by pirates, have really disgusting pump problems and more. Now, as 2B picks up, Strand, Madison, Alicia and Ofelia (Mercedes Masohn) are heading for the yacht, just like they were in Season 1 (hopefully they abandon that quest though. Fear the Walking Dead got a lot of use out of the boat, but no need to tug it).
5. More real-world resonance
Neither Walking Dead show traffics in zombie-based social commentary, a la George Romero‘s Living Dead series, but Fear feels closer to mirroring society. Perhaps this is due to its immediate post-apocalyptic setting, but more likely it’s due to its family dynamics. Showrunner Dave Erickson has described the show as a family drama with zombies, and the Clarks and Manawas deal with problems a lot of families face: addiction, incompatible parenting styles, teens with bad attitudes. The late post-apocalyptic world of The Walking Dead is so far from modern society that there’s almost no room for meaningful human connection. But on Fear, they’re still working on it. It’s more relatable.
6. A moodier, artier tone
This is a difficult point to put into words, since so much of the tone is conveyed visually, but Fear just feels more artistic. Erickson is fond of landscape shots and vibrant colors and painterly framing (he did come to Fear from Breaking Bad, after all, another show set in a desert). It feels more akin to AMC’s more prestigious fare than The Walking Dead does. It’s easier to imagine someone liking both Fear and Better Call Saul than The Walking Dead and Better Call Saul.
7. Zombies, of course!
One of the main criticisms of Season 1 was that there just weren’t enough zombies. Well, Season 2 fixed that, and went so far as to add one of the most memorable zombies on either show, the truly disgusting “crab zombie.”
Fear The Walking Dead returns Sunday at 9/8c on AMC. If you want to catch up on Season 2A, those seven easily binge-able episodes are available on Amazon.