‘Fear the Walking Dead’ Postmortem: Showrunner Dave Erickson on Madison’s Secret and Nick Becoming a Killer

Warning: This interview contains spoilers for the Fear the Walking Dead episodes “The Unveiling” and “Children of the Wrath.”

So much happened in the two-part Fear the Walking Dead midseason finale: Jeremiah Otto died (not by his own hand, despite what Madison and Nick will try to keep everyone believing). We finally got backstory on both Madison’s childhood (she killed her abusive alcoholic father) and how Ofelia ended up with the Nation (Jeremiah was a big ol’ baddie). And Strand learned the apocalypse is global and then decided to blow up Abigail.

All in all, a fine way to wrap up the first half of what has been the series’ best season yet. Yahoo TV talked to FTWD showrunner Dave Erickson about why Madison is fighting so hard to stay on the Otto ranch, why she chose this time to shock her children with the confession about her past, why Strand abandoning (and destroying) Abigail is a positive step for him, and what violent clashes we can expect in the second half of Season 3.

It was clear from the beginning that when Madison got to the ranch, she was completely capable of taking it over at some point this season. But I didn’t think it would happen so quickly. She didn’t get there until Episode 2, Episode 4 was that amazing Daniel story. So she really worked her magic in six episodes.
Her hand was really forced ultimately by circumstances that were created by Jeremiah. In all likelihood, had the confrontation not come to a head, had the Nation not reached the borders of the ranch with an intention of taking over, I think she probably would have coasted for a while. I think [Jeremiah] seemed to trust her. She’s clearly worked this very strange surrogate son-mother relationship with Troy, and he’s somebody that would support her and somebody who is going to listen to what she says and does. They do in Episode 7. She definitely has him under her thumb to a certain degree. And I think that this relationship that’s developing between Alicia and Jake is somewhat more benign — I don’t think Alicia is as Machiavellian as her mother can be. But by the time we get to [Episodes 7 and 8], they definitely have their hooks buried in this place and in this Otto family. I think Madison wouldn’t have staged a coup, but she would have continued to sort of manipulate things. Unfortunately, the sins of Otto’s past come back to haunt all of them, and I think her hand’s really forced.

What is it about the ranch that made it a place Madison is so willing and so committed to fighting for?
It’s actually something we articulate in the back half [of the season]. It’s what they’ve lost by the time they arrive at the ranch, and what she realizes she’s lost at the end of Episode 2. I think it’s a combination of, yes, this place seems to be well insulated, it’s well protected, there’s no infected as far as the eye can see. I think there’s [also] a quality there of something that we’ll come to that speaks to Madison’s own upbringing. Madison is country; she was not born and raised a city kid. And I think the fact that they lost Travis has forced her into a place where she does not want to budge anymore. You know what I mean? I think that for them to have gone through all they went through, all they suffered in the premiere and in Episode 2, and then in previous seasons — she wants to find a hold here and just protect this place. And I think she’s also fearful because whenever you’re in transit, every time you’re moving from Point A to Point B, there’s an inherent danger in that. So she’s looking at the greater good for herself and for her kids.

This is also the place that finally reunited her family, minus Travis, of course. We’ve seen time and time again on Fear and on The Walking Dead, any time people separate from each other, even for a few minutes, they risk never seeing each other again.
Yeah, I think that in a world that is so impermanent, the ranch represents something that is permanent. And [Madison] discovers the pantry; she sees a home that was planned for. She sees a home that, in the chaos of this world, was actually ready for [the chaos]. And that’s something she really hasn’t seen. That’s something she didn’t see when they went to Thomas’s compound last season. It’s something she didn’t see when they were under lockdown in Season 1. It’s not something she experienced at the [Rosarito Beach Hotel]. And I think that that definitely changes the complexion of this place. It makes her feel that if anywhere is going to be safe or can continue to remain safe, it’s the ranch. We’ll see when we get to the back half of the season, there’s going to be reasons to travel. There will be some upset, and there’ll be some curve balls that are thrown at her. But it’s a combination of the ranch being a place that was prepared for an apocalypse, and also the place where she’s finally reunited with both of her children.

She quickly learns the ranch has its dangers, too, which played out in such a major way in the midseason finale.
Yes, I think in [Episodes] 5, 6, 7, and 8 is when she realizes that there’s a criminal past to this place, and there are sins and crimes that [Jeremiah] has committed. And if he’s not going to atone for those of his own accord, she’s going to have to force him to do so.

But by the time we get to that moment, I think, for all intents and purposes, she’s all in. One of the things that’s interesting about Madison for me is you have a woman, you have a mother, who is functioning under this code, which is, “I will do whatever I have to do for my children.” I think at a certain point, it gets a little bit perverted. I mean, the things that she’s willing to do, they start to be more about the person that she is, and less about her needs, her maternal drive. And I think as the season develops, as we get to the back half, that’s really going to be something that creates a bit of conflict, some dissension between herself and her kids. Because I think that this idea that all she does, “I do for you, Nick. All I do, I do for you, Alicia” — we will get to a point where both of them are going to call bullsh*t on that to a certain degree. It doesn’t happen now, because I think they’re really kind of gobsmacked and overwhelmed with the news of what she did when she was a child.

I think the fact that she drops that bomb on them is a bit staggering. And it does a couple of things: One, I think it really drives Nick to protect her. I do think, to a large degree, the reason he puts [Jeremiah] down is because he doesn’t want his mother to have to do that again. And of course, consequently, he’s going to have to live with the repercussions of that, because as we’ve pointed out, Nick really isn’t a killer. … The interesting thing about Otto is, as the season has developed we all need to land on him as our villain; sort of a full-on “he’s the one obstacle, he’s the one thing that has to be removed,” until we get to the end of the midseason. And that was by design, and it’s part of the reason we delayed the reveal of Ofelia and what she did in her intersection with Otto and with the Nation. It’s really the thing that, for me anyway, defined Otto as the greater evil. All the things we alluded to, all the things that we began to understand of him, I think that’s when it really became somewhat cemented.

You know how much viewers have wanted to know Madison’s backstory. Why did you decide to reveal it now? And why did she relay the story about killing her father to her kids in the third person?
There’s trauma that she suffered as a child, and she’s carried that. And I think in telling the story, there was a safety in the third person. There was a safety in telling it as though she was reading them a bedtime story — a very strange, violent, macabre bedtime story. I think there was something in the objectivity of that. But I mean, look, Madison is very guarded. Madison does not trust easily. And I think that Travis and her first husband were really exceptions to that. So I think in the telling of it and how she told it, there is a little bit of remove and safety in that.

And the timing? We wanted to conflate the two stories, because we didn’t want to tell that story unless it was informing the present-day action. She’s had a conversation with Walker, and part of what we didn’t hear clearly was there’s really only one obstacle. If [Jeremiah] is removed — he’s the person with whom [Walker has] an issue. “He’s the person that deserves my vengeance” —  this is Walker speaking. “And if he’s removed, there’s no need for war. If he’s removed, I’m sure that there’s a way we can do this without further bloodshed.”

So, Madison has that knowledge. And I think it’s interesting, because what you could do as we go into the back half of the season in questioning the timing of her telling that story, is, was she trying to motivate Nick to do what he did? Was it, “I’m going to tell you the horror that I suffered when I was a child, and I’m going to essentially tee up the fact that I’m about to repeat history”? Because in going and confronting a violent alcoholic, she’s essentially confronting her father to some degree. So I think there was something cathartic for her in telling that story. I also think that if [Jeremiah] refused to shoot himself, as he does, Madison probably would have been forced to do it. And I think that’s the subtle machinations in that last scene. It’s really a question of, had Nick not shown up, had Nick not raised his own gun, which she had put a bullet in — I think the answer is yes, she would have taken that on, she would have recognized the need, much in the same way that she took out Celia last season.

I think Otto needed to go in a much, much more profound way, for the crimes that he had committed, for the larger crime that he was willing to embrace, which is the decimation of his people and his own sons. So it was very much time for him to go. And I think that the complication of Nick not knowing what [his mom] comes from and knowing what she did, and the question of whether the timing of that story was Madison trying to justify what she was about to do so her children understood it, or was it her trying to prompt her children to come to her defense, it’s really not something we have to answer explicitly, but I do think it’s part of the subtext and the emotionality that we have moving forward. And what it does do is, again, we try not to have the murders on our show happen and then fall away. There should be repercussions and people should suffer for them, and Nick will. I mean, the fact that Nick has done this, he’s not able to look at it and say, “Okay, I took out an evil dude who was going to get us all killed.” He’s going to look at it as, “I just took Troy’s father from him, and I took Jake’s father from him.” I think that we’re going to see him really put through the wringer as we move forward, and Madison has to own that. So it’s going to sort of deepen and complicate her own relationship with her kids. And ultimately, in the back half of the season, what it does is it really helps define one of our larger themes, which is violence and when is it okay to resort to it, and how do you manage it once it’s happened? That’s really one of the driving ideas that will take us all the way to the end of the season.

Strand is so happy to reunite with Abigail, but ends up setting her on fire. Was that his way of choosing to remain part of whatever society is now, and to continue to be with people instead of holing up on the yacht? As the astronaut says, “The world turns,” so Strand decides he’s going to continue to be a part of it?
Yes. And I think Strand has been going through a process of grieving the loss of Thomas. I don’t think he’s fully found himself again, and even when he attempted to, even when he went to the dam, thought that he was going to find a like-minded soul in Dante, he really got knocked back on his a*s again. And then when he found Salazar, he tried to work Salazar; he tried to find some connection and some salvation there, and that ended up biting him on the a*s. So he’s really fast approaching rock bottom. It was important because we wanted to give a proper sendoff to the Abigail, because the boat was such a huge part of the story, and we sort of abandoned her. She disappeared last season. I think Strand’s really burying Thomas finally, completely, and I think the boat represents that. It represents his old life. It represents everything that he once knew.

Jami O’Brien wrote that theme, he wrote the finale and I think did a wonderful job. There’s something about that scene, it does a couple of things: One, it’s the first time anyone on our show has articulated the fact that this is global, that the entire world has gone dark. And that’s information, I think, that shifts Strand and makes him not nihilistic, but I think it puts him in a place where he’s going to become more driven to find his purpose and to control the currency of the world. Also, by walking away from the boat, I think he’s walking away from the ghost of Thomas. It puts Strand in a place in the back half where there’s really only one person left on the planet whom he cares about, and that’s Madison. … I think that was putting the past to bed as best he could, and also, as he leaves, it’s embracing the fact that the goal posts have shifted, because now he understands: it’s not as though there’s somebody on another continent who’s actually working on a cure. It’s not as though someone is going to rise up and fix this. It really puts him in a position where, “Okay, I need to decide if I’m going to keep going or if I’m going to die.” And that’s really what the cosmonaut does suggest to him. The world keeps turning, and as long as it does, he needs to keep moving with it.

Hopefully, as we move into the back half, we’ll slowly bring all those threads back together and sort of get the band back together as the season progresses.

It’s good to have Ofelia in the mix again, too. Even though they’re not all together, we know where most of the original survivors are now. If or when she and Daniel are reunited in the second half, what is he going to think about her? Will he be surprised at how capable his daughter has turned out to be?
If and when that happens, I think he’d actually be upset. I think that the person Ofelia has become, and it’s out of necessity, obviously, whether she knew the full scope of what she was doing or not — and I would argue she didn’t — she was responsible for the death of a lot of people at the ranch. And I think her father, who really went to great lengths to shelter her throughout her life and went to great lengths to protect her from his story and his violence, would be devastated. I think there’s a certain quality in which Ofelia, especially in this role, is slated to repeat the sins of her father. And I think he’d be crushed by that, to find out that he was not able to prevent her from becoming him, because that’s the last thing that he wanted for her.

Dayton Callie as Jeremiah Otto in ‘Fear the Walking Dead’ (Credit: AMC)

And the Otto brothers. They’re without Jeremiah now, which could be freeing for both Troy and Jake in a lot of ways. This is maybe now Jake’s chance to run things the way he sees fit, and he definitely had some very different ideas than Jeremiah. But there were also some hints, a couple of things he said to Madison, that suggest he could be just as stubborn about his beliefs as his father was. Is a Jake-Madison clash inevitable? And especially given Alicia’s relationship with Jake, will there be a big battle for control of the ranch?
I think all of those questions will be answered in the midseason premiere. Look, there’s a reality here. One of the things that echoes through the beginning of the back half is the fact that Madison and Nick have conspired to murder Jeremiah. They have sold that as a suicide, and they’re going to sell this idea that Jeremiah did the right thing, that he realized when push came to shove, if he removed himself, it would protect his children, it would protect his ranch, it would protect his legacy. And people have accepted that. In doing so, Madison has sort of worked this back channel truce with the Nation, and war has been averted. That doesn’t mean that the Nation, that Walker doesn’t still want that land. So, there’s going to be an interesting piece that follows that will involve both the ranch and the Nation. The truth is, in that dynamic, the ranch and Ottos have become weaker than the Nation and weaker than Walker; it’s really going to be Walker who has the greater degree of influence.

The real question is, how overt will Madison be in wielding her power? Because I think the more she does and the more it looks like she’s benefitted from the death of Otto, the greater the likelihood that someone is going to suspect that she had something to do with his death, and that’s something she has to avoid. And I think for Jake, yes, there is a drive in him for peace, despite what happened to him [at the Nation’s compound] in Episode 7, despite the fact that all of his efforts were really thwarted in the last two episodes. I still think he’s someone who is more inclusive in his thinking and more open-minded, and he’d like to find a way for them all to live together and to move forward and to build together.

I think the problem for him is, ultimately he’s going to watch a lot of the elements of this place and a lot of the things he hoped for [be] chipped away. I think Jake is going to be put into a very precarious position, as is Troy, because unlike his brother, Troy is not terribly open-minded or inclusive. And so this peace that Madison has worked is not something that he will abide by. The repercussions [of Jeremiah’s death] are going to have impacts on both sons, obviously, but also on their relationships with Alicia and with Nick and with Madison. And the closer we get to the truth of what happened to Jeremiah, I think the greater the fractures are going to be and the greater the violence becomes.

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