'Fear the Walking Dead' Boss Defends Polarizing Character Deaths

Showrunner Dave Erickson talks with THR about episode two and the early body count, as well as why it was important to show police-involved shootings.
Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from Fear the Walking Dead's second episode, "So Close, Yet So Far."]

AMC's Fear the Walking Dead may only be two episodes into its run, but the body count is already starting to add up.

The Walking Dead companion series killed off the school's principal, Artie, as the outbreak continued to spread and the undead became more violent. The death of the school's principal marked the third African-American character to be killed off, and joined Alicia's boyfriend Matt as well as Nick's drug-dealer friend, Calvin.

Artie's death came after Madison (Kim Dickens) returned to the school to find medication to help son Nick (Frank Dillane) cope with his withdrawals and was forced to put down her former boss, who had turned after being stabbed.

Elsewhere, the episode also featured a rise in police-involved shootings — which well-informed viewers recognize as being futile, as people aren't staying dead following the mysterious outbreak.

That leads to a protest and subsequent riot as civilization quickly begins to unravel. Travis (Cliff Curtis) goes above and beyond to find his ex-wife, Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez), and son Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie) and bring them to safety amid the coming apocalypse.

While he is able to reunite with them, he's unable to escape the mayhem, and the trio take refuge in a barbershop owned by Daniel Salazar (Ruben Blades) and his family. Together, the two families look to wait out the madness — though a fire next door will likely push everyone out of the building.

Of the core group of characters, it seems only Alicia is left out of the loop with what's really going on in the world.

Here, showrunner Dave Erickson talks with The Hollywood Reporter about the polarizing character deaths, what secret Madison is hiding from her past and why nobody wants to tell Alicia what's going on.

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Why was it important to illustrate the officer-involved shootings here after events like Ferguson?

Ultimately, we're not trying to polemicize; the show isn't polemic. What we tried to think of is how it would manifest. If people were turning, if they were attacking people in the streets, what would the response to that be? If the police and then the military were to come out to deal with an issue, what would their response be when they're dealing with a walker who is obviously not going to back down. There's something about the perception of that as people are trying to wrap their brains around what's going on. It was us trying to figure out what the logical progression would be, centering on this time when Rick was in his coma. What were the steps that led to the cops coming out? What were the steps that led to the SWAT teams coming, the National Guard coming — which is something we explore — and what would be the larger police and then military response as things start to unravel.

Counting Artie, Alicia's boyfriend, Matt, and Calvin, the three central deaths on the show so far have been African-American. Was that something you were cognizant of during production? Considering the flagship series has come under fire for similar issues, why did you opt to make those decisions?

When we were writing the pilot, it wasn't something that came up in conversations in the room or with the network. Ultimately, it came down to when we were casting those parts, we didn't know who was going to live, who would die or how those stories would arc out or not arc out. For us, it was about casting that felt reflective of the community and getting the best actor and that was the final determining factor.

When you decided to kill all three characters, did you think about tweaking that at all? That's a lot in two episodes.

Once the story was set, it was the story. Once the story is playing out in a specific way, that's the line that you want to follow. It wasn't as though we were writing those characters and then casting those characters with an intention of, "This is going to be the death scene for this episode." For that episode, it was about how it would reflect on the characters themselves and how things would play out over the course of the season. I realize it's clearly become an issue and it's something we are mindful of. But ultimately it's trying to tell the story the best way we can and cast the best people we can. I wouldn't want to go back and recast a character just to avoid … if it doesn't feel true to the character or the relationship — the relationship with Alicia and Matt or Calvin and Nick — it's really about the reality of the world that we're trying to inhabit and trying to have the best actors portray those parts. When you're dealing with a show where you have a cast that is as diverse as ours is, it's inevitable that characters of color are going to get bit and are going to turn or die. If you look at the larger scope of this season, what people will see is that there is parity. We want to tell the story in the best way we can and want the best actors to play those parts. It would have been a mistake to go with Anglo actors for those particular roles because I don't think that's honest to the world of the show.

We're starting to see Madison and Travis piece everything together — a bite, a stab wound — people aren't dying. And word is spreading as both Liza and Chris learn of what's really happening. How will the responses to this outbreak vary as more people outside this core group learn of what's happening?

The way people are going to react is essentially a fight-or-flight mentality. For Travis and Madison going into episode two, they want to flee the city. They realize that something really awful is happening and people are becoming violent and they need to escape that. If they were able to gather everybody within the first act, they would have headed out to the desert and waited it out. You see different versions of that. The [next door neighbor] character who we see in episode two is packing and getting ready to go and we have interesting things happening with him down the road. The neighbors across the street know something is going around but they are where Madison and Travis were in the pilot — they know something is off but they don't quite understand what it is. Episode two, to a certain degree, is about everyone getting on the same page and reaching a place where they recognize that things are falling apart and not going to get better anytime soon. People are trying to get out; the freeways are jammed and there are some, by the time they realize what's happening, it's too late for them to get anywhere. 

Travis sees police officers and neighbors stocking up on water. Why doesn't he?

For Travis, when he sees the cop loading up his car with water, he realizes, "OK, the first responders now know a little more than we do. This is more serious than I expected." But to see a person of authority who is getting ready to abandon ship and head back to take care of his own family, that's discomforting to say least. It makes it that much more real. There's evidence of that in the pilot as well. The doctor who comes in to treat the older gentleman next to Nick and the nurse, something has happened and both of those characters realize that some people who have coded and died at the hospital have turned and have been taken down to the morgue and they've come back. They're at a point where anyone who codes, they're trying to get them downstairs immediately and keep them from the rest of the patients in the hospital. There's a nod to it there and this is the next moment of somebody reflective of one of our institutions who is responding to this in a very serious way. The fact that this guy is clearly not planning on staying, it amps it up more for Travis and adds some urgency to him finding Chris. Because if the cops are starting to leave, it's only a matter of time before things start to fall apart, so he has to get Chris, Liza and get to the rest of the family and get to the desert where it will be safer.

The search for his family and trying to reunite with everyone reminded me a bit of the search for Sophia on The Walking Dead. How long will Madison and Travis be separated?

Not terribly long. You start with a couple in the pilot who love each other and after he's had one failed relationship and she lost her husband, this is the first real relationship either has had and they value it. The fact that he just moved in says a lot about their relationship. By the end of episode two, the audience wants these two to get back together and have their whole blended family together and I don't want to delay that reunion. It's definitely not a season-long arc or a half-season arc where these two are desperately trying to find each other; it'll be a bit shorter than that.

Nick started seizing when Alicia was about to leave. Was that real or was he faking it to protect Alicia?

When you're going through withdrawal, it's something that can happen. Nick, when he tells Madison later that Alicia tried to leave and he stopped her, you have to keep in mind that he's an addict and tries to manipulate people. And that's what he may be trying to do in that moment: convince his mother that he's done the right thing and it's an effort after causing so much grief to reconnect with her and try to use his sister in a way to get a little closer to Madison. But I think he's full of shit. The seizure was real. He saw her leaving and realized, based on what he's seen, that as selfish has he is, he does love his sister, and that brought him to such an emotional level that it triggered something.

Madison comes home with Artie's blood on her jacket and very much isn't OK. Why doesn't Madison tell Alicia what's happening? This seems like another clue to what Madison may be hiding from her own past.

It is a clue. Madison alludes to a darker history in the pilot and it's a violent history. She has gone to a place in the episode that she's horrified, mortified and broken by what she has done. It echoes something from long before — something she doesn't want her daughter to be aware of. What Madison does as we build to end of this episode, isn't your typical hero gesture. She realizes that her neighbor and her family across the street are in jeopardy and the neighbor next door has turned. Alicia's first instinct is to go outside and try to help because she doesn't know what's on the other side of that door since she hasn't encountered it. It's same thing that Nick was trying to protect her from earlier in the episode. Rather than go across the yard and try to do something, Madison is so traumatized by what she's had to do already in the episode — and she's so desperate to protect her daughter from it because Alicia hasn't seen this yet — that she slams the door against the apocalypse and tries to keep everybody inside. This is something we explore in episode three: If you've got a child, somebody whom you're protecting, and they haven't witnessed this unnatural thing yet — and Alicia hasn't seen what these people are yet — Madison's instinct is to shut it out and hope it gets better before Alicia has to encounter. Which ultimately is misguided.

We've met the Salazar family. In addition to providing shelter for Travis, Chris and Liza, what role will they play going forward?

The Salazars will become hugely important. They're El Salvadorian and came to the U.S. in the '80s following the civil war in El Salvador and there's an interesting story that will accompany that. Ofelia (Mercedes Mason) grew up here and when we first meet them, she's the caretaker of her parents. She sees them as being a bit backwards and of the old country; they haven't assimilated; her mother really speaks no English at all. Ofelia prides herself as being their guide and defender and as things turn, she will realize that her parents are far more reliant and stronger than she ever knew. They'll learn some things about each other over the course of the season.  

Why was it important to see Daniel's wife Griselda (Patricia Reyes Spindola) pray amid the chaos?

She is a devout Catholic and she's finding some degree of solace and peace in that moment and it's important to note that behind her, Daniel (Ruben Blades) her husband is not. They're very different. He had religion at one point and lost it and in that scene, Ruben had a note because things were falling apart outside, he said Daniel should be looking at his insurance policy so props had to generate something. He's taking the practical route and looking for and trying to figure out what's going to happen if his business is damaged. He's looking to a legal remedy and she's looking to religion.

Looking to episode three, the power is starting to flicker and cell service is cutting in and out. There's a fire next door and they're being forced into this insanity. Where does the next episode pick up?

When we end episode two, Travis has found Chris and Liza and is holed up with Salazars. Across town, Madison is home and has secured Nick's medicine. Alicia is worried about Matt and has no idea what's happening and hasn't reached his parents. Going into episode three, it's a question of can Madison and Travis be brought together and reunite the family? One of the ironies of the show is two people trying to form this blended family and the only reason it happens is because the world falls apart. We'll continue to see the unraveling as Tobias says, when civilization ends, it ends fast and we'll see more elements of that. We'll see more elements of the fall and we will hopefully see Madison and Travis find each other. The circumstances will be very horrific, if not apocalyptic.

Fear the Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC. What did you think of episode two? Sound off in the comments, below.

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