SPOILER WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for “No One's Gone,” the latest episode of Fear The Walking Dead.
Fear the Walking Dead spent the first half of its fourth season threatening to evolve into a much different show than the one we’d been watching for the first three seasons. The addition of four new series regulars and Frank Dillane’s exit shifted the show’s dynamic permanently. But it turns out those changes were leading up to the real game-changer -- Madison’s (Kim Dickens) death.
In this week’s mid-season finale, we finally learn Madison’s fate after a seven episodes of build-up. As the conflict with the Vultures reaches a tipping point and walkers swarm the stadium, the community opens the doors to escape and gets swarmed by the horde. Madison realizes the only way to save her family is to lead the walkers inside the stadium and lock the door, knowing the walls will keep them inside and her family out of danger. When she realizes there’s no escape, she sacrifices herself by lighting the oil-soaked horde on fire with the flare she used to lure them inside, presumably killing herself in the process. Or did she…
As with any major and unexpected death in genre entertainment (especially in The Walking Dead franchise), disbelief and disappointment give way to doubt and wishful thinking among fans, and this case was no different. Plenty of people remain unconvinced that Madison is 100 percent dead, and unlike Carl’s death in The Walking Dead's Season 8 midseason finale, there’s room for actual doubt, depending on how you look at it. Then again, there’s also a depressingly good case to be made for her demise, and that leaves us feeling pretty confounded about how to interpret the first half of this season, and what to expect from the last.
The points in favor of Madison’s survival might seem all-too-familiar, but that doesn’t make them any less valid. To start with a very old chestnut, we didn’t see a body. Yes, it’s the first thing out of any fan’s mouth when a beloved character dies off-screen, and it’s a pretty blunt critical response to such a well-drawn episode, but the fact is it would be the first time on Fear that any major character died off-screen. There’s actually more precedent for Madison surviving the blaze, considering Daniel Salazar did the same thing at the end of Season 2. The response to this theory is that Fear has arguably changed its direction so drastically in Season 4 that Madison dying off-screen could be chalked up to a difference in style, and nothing else.
And despite what great strides Fear has taken in reinventing itself this season, Madison’s absence feels like a step way too far. Her story has been the driving force of the spinoff since the beginning, and has often been the only thing that helped the show hold its center. With the ironic exception of Nick, every other character’s at their best when working off of Kim Dickens’ fearless, determined and ultimately human matriarch. Also, while Fear was certainly a problematic show with struggling ratings, we’re not sure it needed to be so completely redrawn -- especially at the expense of one of the few female leads in genre television. As it stands, the Manawa family, the Oritz family and 90 percent of the Clark family are gone. That leaves Strand, Alicia and Lucia and as much as we love June, Al and John Dorie, even with Morgan they aren’t enough to fill the void Madison will leave behind.
That said, the counterpoints to the above are pretty convincing as well. Outside of Madison’s arc, the rest of the season looks a lot like an extended pilot for the new-and-improved Fear. Looking back, it did seem a little odd that Al, June and John Dorie would get as much attention as they did this season, but it makes a lot of sense in the face of last night’s episode. The way things stand now, it almost feels like there isn’t room for Madison to reappear.
We also can’t ignore the fact that Season 4 deftly wrapped up Madison’s story and a lot of her relationships. We got to fully explore her friendship with Strand, watch her successfully coax Naomi/June out of her self-imposed exile from humanity and finally die in a way that will serve as an inspiration to those left behind. Even if it feels premature and winds up irrevocably changing the show in ways we don’t want, it remains a worthy send-off to a groundbreaking character. As much as we don’t want to admit it, from a structural standpoint, it looks like we’ve seen the last of Madison Clark.
But honestly, the more convincing her death is, the more our minds will be blown if she reappears. We’re crossing our fingers that’s the way this all shakes out come August -- we’ll just have to wait and see.
Fear the Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC. Fear stars Kim Dickens as Madison Clark, Frank Dillane as Nick Clark, Alycia Debnam Carey as Alicia, Coleman Domingo as Victor Strand, Danay Garcia as Luciana, Jenna Elfman as Naomi, Maggie Grace as Althea, Garret Dillahunt as John Dorie, Evan Gamble as Ennis, Alexa Nisenson as Charlie and Lennie James as Morgan Jones.