'Fear the Walking Dead' Boss on Midseason Finale Deaths, Major Casualties to Come

Dave Erickson tells THR how the latest casualty will impact the survivors when season three resumes.
Richard Foreman Jr/AMC

[Warning: the following story contains spoilers through the season three midseason finale of Fear the Walking Dead, "Children of Wrath."]

Over the course of its third season, Fear the Walking Dead has served as a Deadwood reunion of sorts, thanks to the combined screen presence of Kim Dickens and Dayton Callie, the erstwhile Joanie Stubbs and Charlie Utter of HBO's beloved Western drama. Sadly, the reunion was short-lived, given the events of the AMC zombie drama's latest midseason finale.

The feud between racist rancher Jeremiah Otto (Callie) and vengeful warrior Qaletqa Walker (Michael Greyeyes) reached a violent end in Sunday's midseason finale, thanks to the Clarke family. After confessing to her children that she killed her own abusive father when she was a young child, Madison (Dickens) decided that the only way to prevent Walker's forces from destroying the ranchers was to offer up Jeremiah's head on a silver platter. As it turned out, a bag would do just fine in place of the platter, and Madison wasn't even the one who pulled the trigger: it was her son, Nick (Frank Dillane), freshly shorn after chopping off his long hair as part of joining Troy Otto's (Daniel Sharman) militia, who gunned down Jeremiah Otto in cold blood. 

Nick's choice to kill Otto was fueled by fury as well as a need to prevent his mother from accruing more blood on her hands, but it's one that's sure to haunt him for the rest of his life — potentially a short period of time, given what Fear the Walking Dead showrunner Dave Erickson promises about major casualties coming in the back half of the season. Considering Travis Manawa's (Cliff Curtis) death in the season premiere and now Jeremiah's death in the midseason finale, it's worth getting worried when Erickson starts issuing warnings about main character collateral.

Here's what else Erickson told The Hollywood Reporter about the Fear the Walking Dead season 3A finale, including Victor Strand (Colman Domingo) making the acquaintance of a space-dwelling comrade, how Ramon Salazar (Ruben Blades) and the dam will factor into the back half of the season, the controversial nature of Madison spending much of the season aligned with an outright racist and more. But first, we have to take on the most pressing headline of the evening...

Let's start by talking about the big casualty of the episode. How did you arrive at the decision to finally cut Nick's hair?

We've been talking about that for a long time. (Laughs.) It was tricky, because we've seen the hero moments where someone shaves their head and it's part of a transformative process. We didn't want to do that. It's been done and it's something of a trope. His willingness to join the militia and get close to Troy operates on two levels: as he said to Madison, he was doing it to keep their enemies as close as possible, and the other side is he sees a darkness and self-destructive quality that he and Troy share, in the vein that we've seen from Nick in the last couple seasons. It's something that draws him. The decision to cut his hair was part of his decision to connect with this vaguely new persona that he's putting on with a purpose. We wanted to see some reflection of that moment, which is why Madison is in the scene and she sees how he looks after. For Madison, she's a little bit worried. She sees his relationship with Troy... there are definitely benefits, but she also knows who her son is and how vulnerable he can be. And I think she's a little bit worried about the transformation. So we wanted to make sure Madison [witnessed] to that, and she's going to be watching carefully how close her son gets to Troy, which will carry on into the back half of this season.

It also must partly boil down to the fact that it's hot on location. Can't image Frank Dillane was complaining too much about losing some hair.

No, Frank wanted to cut his hair. (Laughs.) He just didn't want to go with a buzzcut. And there will be continued adjustments to his hair as we move into the back half of the season.

Let's move onto what the people came here for: Nick killing Jeremiah Otto. How did you arrive at this decision to cut Dayton Callie's character out of the picture midway into the season?

That was a conversation I had with Dayton when I first called him about the role, that there's a strong likelihood that he would go away. We wanted to bring Madison's backstory to the fore. We wanted to get insight into who she is and why she behaves the way she does and why she's as adaptable to this world as she's been. We wanted to make sure that in telling that story, we were conflating it with something in the present. The thing that's interesting about Dayton is that even when he's being a complete bastard, there's a quality about him where you still like him. The balance for us was to introduce a character we knew would have some issues and a degree of malevolence. We see that as we go through the first few episodes. It was then about trying to develop him and get him to a place where he's (A) a surrogate father figure for Madison, and if she had pulled the trigger she would have been repeating history, and also (B) someone who we realize is a greater evil. The level of malevolence and ego in this man is compromising not just Madison and her kids, but also the entire ranch and his own sons. To some degree, he's a personification of violence, and that's a larger theme we wanted to explore this season. 

There was always a plan for Jeremiah to go away, and what it does for us is it redefines Nick and scrambles his psyche. We know Nick is sensitive. He has something of a poet's soul. He [kills Jeremiah] in the moment because he's trying to prevent his mother from having to do it. There's also a certain degree of anger and rage he has towards Otto, because he's far more inclined to empathize with the people Otto has killed and the families of those people than he is with Otto. So those are the twin motivations. Nick is not someone who can say, "I put down an evil man for the greater good." He feels things far more deeply than that. It's going to get challenging for him, dealing with the murder. It'll lead to a new definition in his relationship with Madison.

How did you resist the urge to kill Otto in such a way that we would see a zombified Dayton Callie?

Well, we had to see his head at the end. We had to deal with that. The reality is, whatever the circumstances were in putting him down, they would have dispatched him in a way to avoid the turn. But I don't know. I never talked to Dayton about that. I don't know how he would have felt about playing a zombie...

In your experience working with him, how do you think he would have handled the makeup chair?

I think he would have grumbled and would have been annoyed by it! (Laughs.) But the thing with Dayton is that he doesn't suffer fools and doesn't hide his emotions, which is one of the reasons why he's a really good person and such a great actor. He would have suffered through it for the sake of the show.

Is there an added weight to the final scene between Kim Dickens and Dayton Callie, given their famous chemistry from the Deadwood days?

Well, Jami O'Brien wrote the finale, and did such a wonderful job. But throughout the season, Dayton was just fun to write for. I personally have enjoyed writing for him as much or even more than anybody I have ever written for, because he has... I don't know if it's a Dayton thing, but he has this quality that's a musicality with how he delivers lines. He understands the rhythms and pauses. If you repeat a word, there's a reason for it. There's this very beautiful rhythm to his interpretation of the text. Ruben Blades is very much the same way. He's obviously a musician; so is Dayton, who plays sax. That might be part of it, that beautiful and naturalistic quality that's so fun to write for. Watching Dayton interpret this character, it's almost the same as watching Kim, to a degree, because they're very, very naturalistic and subtle. They pick up these interesting nuances. Whenever I sit down and watch a cut, it's so much fun to see what they've done. The cast as a whole, but the two of them especially have a connection and shorthand. They're obviously good friends from the time that they spent together [on Deadwood], so there's that as well, and that's just exciting to me. It was never daunting. It was always a lovely opportunity to be able to write for two incredibly strong actors, both of whom know each other's affectations. They understand each other, which makes it more fun.

Now that Jeremiah's dead, what does the future look like for Walker moving forward?

By the end of the midseason, Walker has the upper hand. His ploy with Ofelia (Mercedes Mason) has worked. The ranch has been devastated, or at least the militia, so their fighting power is reduced. Had Madison not negotiated this deal, they would have taken over. Going into the back half, you now have a character in a position of power. We'll really get into that in the midseason premiere, exactly what that means and how this peace has been negotiated, and who ultimately has control over the ranch and the Otto Empire. He's an important figure throughout the rest of this season.

It cannot be a coincidence that you named this character Walker, given the word's most common association with The Walking Dead...

It's totally a coincidence. (Laughs.) Someone else asked me about that. In retrospect, I've thought about it. There's nothing really about him that bears any real connection to the dead. When he talks about living and his narrative as a character, and he says it to Ofelia: "If you want to continue this journey and if you want to walk with me..." It's more about his understanding of his place in the world and his relationship with others. Anyone he lives with and aligns himself with, they walk together. It's almost the inverse of the dead and infected. It's really more about someone who has an understanding of the world. He speaks to this in episode seven, this idea that [the apocalypse] is "the unveiling," and it's something of a purge. It was not unexpected by him. He's able to interpret the apocalypse in a way he doesn't see as the end times. He sees it as an evolution. That's my retroactive answer to that question.

For most of the season, the Clarkes were positioned against Walker and his people, instead choosing to align with an admitted racist and xenophobe in Jeremiah Otto. It was tough at times to sympathize with Madison, given who she was choosing to join with in this fight, and the measures she was willing to take, including covering up a murder and blaming it on Walker's people. What's your take on positioning the protagonist of this show on Otto's side of a very charged conversation?

It was intentional. From a narrative and character perspective, it's Madison being willing to do whatever is necessary in order to protect her kids. I think it puts her in a very interesting and complicated position. It makes me think about when we were writing and breaking the season, which was before the election. There was always going to be a certain topicality with the border and elements that go with that. We introduced a militia idea at the end of last season and introduced Dayton's character in the penultimate episode. What interested me is the question: "Who are you willing to align with? Who will you count as a partner, a friend, an ally?" For Madison, she understands that there are very dark elements to Otto, and yes, he is a racist and a xenophobe. He's jingoistic. All of these things. For Madison, it's corrupting. She'll have to come to terms with that when we reach the back half of the season. 

It begs an interesting question for me. Madison looks at the ranch as a Xanadu, a beautiful and self-sustaining place. But the dark side of that place and those characters, she can't reject or ignore that that's there. In an effort to do so, putting the blinders on and doing what must be done to save the family, she does compromise herself. That's an interesting place to put the character, for me. It's definitely anti-heroic, as opposed to heroic. There ultimately have to be repercussions for that. That's part of the line we're playing in the back half of the season. For me, that puts her in as realistic a position as we possibly can. 

There's a level of desperation to her, in a couple of scenes where she demands answers about what's poisoning Nick, and the aftermath of recovering Alicia from the nation. You see her as close to unhinged as you ever have before. In this cathartic process of revealing to her kids what happened to her as a child, I think she starts to understand a little bit more about her own psyche and the reason why she holds on so tightly and can be so controlling. There's an ugliness to what she does and the people she has to deal with. Ultimately, there has to be repercussions for that. 

The death of Otto will be challenging for her, but really even more so for Nick moving forward. The sins of the mother have been visited upon the children, and part of the back half of the season will be seeing how Nick and Alicia react to that.

Ofelia is back in the mix. Her father is also back in the picture as well, of course. It feels like it's only a matter of time before they meet again. Following that thread, Salazar and the others at the dam have something both Walker's people and Madison's people desperately need: water. How much will the dam provide the connective tissue between the other storylines established in the first half of season three?

The dam is going to be very important. There's a slight hint of it in the first half of this season, a scene with Jake (Sam Underwood) and Otto where Jake wants to give the bottled water reserves to the Nation as a peace offering, and Otto suggests that that's a bad idea; we allude to the fact that it hasn't rained in a while, even though it rained a lot [on set], which was always a challenge for us! We kept trying to sell Southern California as being in a drought, and then it kept raining in Baja, which was a pain in the ass. (Laughs.) But the idea of water and water as the true currency will be very important in the back half of the season. The goal has always been to take these two narratives — one north of the border and one south — and ultimately conflate them. We wanted, in a slow burn way, to blend our characters back together, so hopefully there will be some episodes of reuniting when we get to the back half.

Where did the idea come from for Strand to have a conversation with a Russian astronaut trapped in space, and will we ever see or hear from that astronaut again?

We will not hear from that astronaut again, because I think shortly after he signed off, he died. I'm trying to remember whose pitch that was. It might have been Jami's. She wrote it brilliantly. We never really had our CDC episode, and we wanted to have a moment where one of our characters came to understand that the world was truly dead — that this is global. It's not like there was a pocket some place in the world where there are survivors coming up with a cure. We wanted to put Strand in a place where his destruction of the Abigail is understanding that the world has truly ended, and civilization is dead. It's forced him into a decision for how to move forward. The strange irony with the cosmonaut is there's still a hopeful element to him. The world is still turning. There's still the possibility of survival. For Strand, I think it was burying Thomas (Dougray Scott). It's the end of any mourning and grief he has. It was a catharsis, a goodbye to the past and anything that connected him to the old world. It was a far-out pitch, and I really think Jami wrote the hell out of it.

If someone authorized you, Dave Erickson, to create yet another Walking Dead series, this time set in space, would you do it? Would that stop you from leaving the Walking Dead universe?

I would say... no. (Laughs.) There's something incredibly intriguing about it as a feature. Something that I can't imagine a series in space dealing with zombies, but there are some interesting elements and thematics you could explore in a feature version. But no, in terms of the zombie world, I have had my fill for the time being. Whatever I do next won't have anything to do with the undead.

You launched this season with the death of Travis. You closed the midseason with the death of Jeremiah. Safe to say we'll see more major character casualties in what's already been a very violent season three?

I would say this. One of the things we like to do on the show is when a crime is committed or a murder is committed or somebody dies, there are repercussions. We don't just bury it and move on. The death of Otto, and that secret, because at the end of the day, there's something of a Clarke family conspiracy; they murdered this man, rightly or wrongly, and they've kept that from the sons and from the ranch. The notion as we move into the back half of the season is that there's a party line, that Otto took his life because he knew it would ensure the Nation would not invade and destroy everything. To a certain degree, he's seen as a hero. That's a burden Nick is going to suffer. One of the big thematics of the season is violence, when is it used, and how do you justify using it. I think we'll see Nick especially in relationship to Madison draw that into very sharp relief as we move forward. The short answer is, yes, there will be deaths. I obviously won't say who, but the track that we've laid in the first half of the season will carry out through the back half. The folks that do die, ultimately it'll be because of the story we've already started.

AMC has not yet announced a premiere date for Season 3B. Keep checking for news on that front and everything else you need to know about the Walking Dead's west coast companion series.