‘The Walking Dead’ Has Nothing to Fear But ‘Fear’ Itself

The Walking Dead” is back in off-season mode, which takes on a slightly different quality this year, as the machinery revs up on “Walking Dead Inc.”

Normally, the season finale would mean a whole lot of reruns and breathless teases to keep fans salivating until the program’s return in October. This summer, however, will mark the debut of what amounts to a second front in the form of the spinoff “Fear the Walking Dead,” seeking to expand upon AMC’s 16 weeks a year of blockbuster ratings.

So while the creative state of the show is significant, what might be more intriguing now are the larger business issues surrounding the franchise.

In some respects, few hit series are better suited to launching self-sustained entities – it’s not like the L.A. prequel is going to board a plane for Alexandria or engage in “NCIS”-like crossover conference calls – although there are always inherent risks with diluting the mother ship. From AMC’s perspective, it’s a reasonable and well-calculated dice roll, given the likelihood that a test pattern with “Walking Dead” on it and Bear McCreary’s theme could likely eclipse the tune-in for “Turn” or “Halt and Catch Fire.”

All that serves as a backdrop to Sunday’s 90-minute finale, during which a tremendous amount happened, while leaving so much unfinished business that the season didn’t end so much as merely take an extended breather, after what might be the most psychologically tortured stint in the show’s run.

Ultimately, the whole season boiled down to questions of humanity and sanity, probing whether either of them could be sustained within the context of this zombie apocalypse. Having seen so much of the evil that people can do under these circumstances – including a brush with cannibalism – the members of the core group found themselves ill at odds in a community shielded from the outside world and largely insulated from its abundant horrors.

How well that tension can be resolved dominated the season’s second half, and while the finale addressed the matter head-on (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched), whether the two constituencies can find a harmonious balance will linger into the coming year. Then again, the notion of Rick (Andrew Lincoln) and his gang attempting to function within the confines of civil society – or if the time spent outside has hardened them beyond repair – is so fundamental to the show it can certainly stand plumbing those themes a while longer.

On the plus side, the closer brought back Lennie James’ Morgan, a link not only to the show’s beginnings but an infusion of grit and class given the casualty count rung up over the course of season five, including two of the show’s “The Wire” transplants, Chad Coleman and Lawrence Gilliard Jr. (Seth Gilliam’s fallen priest lingers, despite going the extra mile in trying to get killed.)

Such deaths, of course, have become a vital part in “The Walking Dead’s” mystique, fostering a sense that nobody (OK, almost nobody) is bulletproof (or barring that, bite-proof). Not only has that helped immeasurably in keeping the series unpredictable, but it has the added bonus of tempering the extent to which cast members can push contract demands. After all, nobody on “Friends” had to worry about getting eaten.

In broader terms, if ever there was a show that didn’t need to fear the Reaper it’s this one, having demonstrated its ability to reinvent itself and weather turnover both in front of and behind the camera. At this point, in fact, it looks like the only thing with the potential to even remotely slow down “The Walking Dead” is greed, and even that’s a long shot.

Put another way, “The Walking Dead” has nothing to fear except, maybe, “Fear” itself.

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