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‘Fear the Walking Dead’ Review: Final Season Sets the Stage for Epic Conclusion

“Fear the Walking Dead” begins its eighth and final season Sunday, bringing the curtain down on an impressive eight-year run and more than 100 episodes produced. This installment begins with a compelling hook, boo-hiss baddies lined up and the stage set for a suitably epic showdown with some degree of finality to it. Then again, maybe not.

As the first “Walking Dead” spin-off begins its last descent, it’s worth reflecting on the world it debuted in back in fall 2015. At the time, “The Walking Dead” was not only a ratings behemoth but a genuine pop culture phenomenon, commanding both heated watercooler discourse and high-minded thinkpieces.

The temperature has come down substantially in the years since, but that does nothing to diminish what the franchise achieved at its peak, and by extension how “Fear the Walking Dead” rode the tide to some surprising artistic highs. The show could be uneven at times — often struggling to find its identity away from its better known older sibling (which concluded its own run last fall) — but the spin-off nonetheless managed to blaze a path all to itself, taking big narrative and tonal swings that one can appreciate more in hindsight.

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While starting out as a prequel that chronicled the origins of the encroaching zombie plague as it spread, various time jumps have caught “Fear” up to roughly where the flagship series left off, presumably allowing for some synchronicity and character-swapping now that the franchise has entered its “series-of-miniseries” phase (seriously, I think AMC will have announced yet another new spin-off miniseries by the time you finish reading this article).

At this point (and maybe this isn’t something AMC wants to hear), the “Walking Dead” universe is far from the cultural force it once was. With more than a decade of mythology accrued over the various shows, it’s a lot of homework for even die-hards to keep up with; as newer zombie (or zombie-adjacent) offerings like “The Last of Us” compete for attention from general audiences. Nonetheless, If you’ve stuck around this long, you’re probably here to stay, and the first three episodes of the final season of “Fear the Walking Dead” are tailored for the faithful.

Yes, things are exactly as grim and dystopian as we’ve come to expect, but it also feels like a homecoming of sorts because of the welcome return of original lead character Madison Clark (Kim Dickens). Madison, you may recall, was the high school guidance counselor whose family was at the center of the show’s early seasons. It’s an indicator of how much terrain this show has traversed that you have to strain your brain to remember that Cliff Curtis’ Travis Manawa used to be the co-lead so, so many seasons ago.

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A still from “Fear the Walking Dead.” (Lauren ‘Lo’ Smith/AMC)

Presumed dead following a heroic sacrifice halfway through Season 4, Madison made a surprise appearance in last season’s finale, and has taken on a whole lot of heavy backstory in the interim. Her return feels like a belated acknowledgment by the producers that they made a mistake in taking her off the board. Sure, “Fear” plugged along in her absence and added other compelling characters, but something ineffable was lost without her.

Indeed, Madison’s return offers the opportunity to see her play off of Lennie James’ Morgan Jones, whose own addition to the cast in the fourth season — one of those aforementioned big swings — was one of the best things to happen to this show. James had already built up good will with fans stretching back to his appearance in the “Walking Dead” pilot in 2010, and like Michael Dorn’s arrival as “Star Trek: The Next Generation” character Worf in season 4 of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” Morgan’s ascension to “Fear the Walking Dead” wasn’t so much a reinvention of the series as it was a refocusing and doubling down on what already worked.

As this final season begins, Morgan and Madison, along with June (Jenna Elfman), find themselves at odds with a mysterious personality (or organization?) called “Padre,” who is intent on stealing children from survivors for reasons yet unknown. Is it possible there’s a cure for the zombie plague on the horizon? Don’t worry, in the midst of the usual existential zombie apocalypse questions, there are still plenty of squishy walker kills spaced out throughout (not to mention some genuinely heart wrenching moments as well).

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Lennie James as Morgan Jones in “Fear the Walking Dead.” (Lauren “Lo” Smith/AMC)

There’s a potent mix of ingredients at play as the show winds down, and one hopes the conclusion will be emotionally substantive. Of course, the inherent problem when toiling within a mega-franchise like “The Walking Dead” is that the very title demands that the dead, you know, keep walking. There can’t be any real conclusion.

So, just like the mothership’s swansong last fall tied off a few threads while leaving plenty more open, “Fear the Walking Dead” could find itself in a similar spot. We’ll know before long if that fear is warranted.

“Fear the Walking Dead” Season 8 premieres at 6 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.