“When civilization ends, it ends fast.”
These six simple words, delivered in a cold, matter-of-fact manner succinctly summarize the underlying theme of Fear The Walking Dead. It’s a more eloquent version of Ron Burgundy’s inimitable “Well, that escalated quickly.” We have seen the end of civilization and watched ravenously over the last five years as Rick Grimes, Daryl Dixon, and the rest of the survivors try to survive hell on earth on The Walking Dead. But with Fear, we are seeing the fabric of society start to come apart at its very seams — and that is what makes it so exciting. Last week, the spinoff series shattered records with the biggest cable premiere ever. This week, though, was something of a proving grounds for the companion series. Can it maintain audience interest after what many saw as an excruciatingly slow pilot? Based on tonight’s episode, the answer should be a resounding “yes.”
In “So Close, Yet So Far”, the fuse on the powder keg that is Los Angeles is slowly burning away. There is an explosion imminent in the city’s future and it is one for which it is thoroughly unprepared. Unlike the series premiere, the action moves at a steadier clip this time around, steadily advancing the plot and scattering our tight-knit family unit to the wind. However, much like the pilot, the second episode maintained the same sense of creeping dread and uncomfortable anticipation that made its debut such a pleasant surprise. As the series progresses and takes us ever closer to the main series’ timeline, this will be an increasingly difficult narrative tightrope act to pull off, so it’s a smart move to play around with the whole “calm before the storm” conceit while they still can.
We pick up with the Clark family right where we left them — in a blood-stained pickup truck down by the L.A. River, where Nick was forced to both shoot and run over his former friend-turned-drug dealer-turned-undead abomination. Except now they are reversing like there’s no tomorrow, shooting backward into traffic. Because there honestly might not be a tomorrow. After all, a reanimated corpse did just try to kill them. “This is a catastrophe of Biblical proportions,” a panicked voice on the radio crackles — but it isn’t talking about the plague of undead erupting in the city, a fact that rankles Nick. And rightly so. If you just survived a zombie attack and everyone else seemed to be going about their day, just whistling a happy tune, it would probably drive you crazy too.
Speaking of being completely in the dark, Alicia is busy nursing her boyfriend Matt (Randy Wagstaff) back to health. How did she know Matt was sick? She walked into his house after finding the door ajar. A shattered vase wasn’t enough to deter this teen, oh no. Will she pay attention to the helicopters circling overhead? Probably not. It happens by my apartment all the damn time and I barely notice them anymore. But why oh why would you walk into someone’s house when the door is creepily ajar? Come on! Use your damn head. You’re too smart for your own good, right? Then use some common sense. To be fair, she isn’t the casual viewer well versed in horror movie tropes, but good lord was it frustrating to watch. Of all the characters so far, Alicia feels the most underwritten, having but a handful of character moments compared to Travis, Madison, and Nick. Hopefully they’ll address this in the weeks ahead.
When the rest of her family finally arrives, Alicia is nursing Matt, who is convalescing in his bedroom, glistening with sweat and shivering in the throes of a fever. He is clearly in a bad way, and they are familiar symptoms to anyone who has seen The Walking Dead before. After sending Alicia to fetch a fresh glass of water for Matt, Travis discovers the worst — a massive bite mark on Matt’s shoulder. They try to convince Alicia to leave, but she insists on staying by her boyfriend’s side, telling Matt that she loves him. It’s a tender moment, and Matt reciprocates Alicia’s words before telling her in no uncertain terms that she has to leave. He may not know what exactly is going on, but he knows it can’t be good, especially if Alicia’s family showed up to his house.
This is but the first in a series of chilling scenes that “So Close, Yet So Far” drops on us. Traffic clogs city streets. Ambulances rush against traffic to some unknown emergency. Police are shooting people with seemingly reckless abandon. Mercury isn’t in retrograde, but one gets the sense that something is decidedly wrong in Los Angeles. In what might be the most unsettling moment of the entire episode, a police officer tells a bystander that everything is going to be okay, all while loading up the back of his cruiser with bottled water. It is a quiet but powerful image, one that gives the sense that some people–especially those in power–seem to know more than they’re letting on. It also raises a question with which Travis and Madison struggle, namely that of, “How much do we tell people about what’s really going on?” For our heroes, the answer is “not much,” which threatens to blow up in their face.
That growing sense of civil unrest reaches a boiling point when a police officer unloads a clip into a homeless man. An incensed crowd gathers around the police officers surrounding the body, demanding answers and justice for the unarmed man who now lies dead in the street. Of course, Chris (Lorenzo James Henrie), Travis’ son from a previous marriage, winds up in the growing crowd, camcorder in hand. In his eyes, he is doing something important by being present and documenting perceived police brutality–something that touches on a raw nerve in modern American culture. In his father’s eyes, however, he is placing himself directly in harm’s way, prompting Travis and his ex-wife Liza (Elizabeth Rodriguez) to race downtown in order to get their son to safety.
They get there in the nick of time too because, shortly after their arrival, all hell breaks loose as a cop guns down another civilian shambling towards him (hint: it’s a walker). In a matter of moments, the scene turns violent with rowdy youths kicking over barriers, flipping over cars, and generally running amok. As the violence on the street intensifies, Travis, Liza, and Chris take refuge in a local barbershop where the owner, a reluctant Ruben Blades, grants the family sanctuary. Like many stores in Los Angeles, the barbershop is reinforced with a sheet metal wall and a strong steel door. That kind of security may seem disheartening and unwarranted in the real world, but in this rough-and-tumble neighborhood, it is a source of comfort — especially during the full-fledged riot now raging on the city streets. Unfortunately for Travis, this also means that he and his family are trapped downtown, leaving him separated from Madison and the kids.
Back at the Clark family home, things aren’t going well for Nick, who is entering into the beginning stages of withdrawal. “I’m about to step into a world of shit,” Nick tells his mom. “You know that, right?” Sadly, Madison knows this all too well and, after failing to get Nick’s doctors on the line, makes a beeline for the high school to find the painkillers in the school nurse’s office. Here again, Fear the Walking Dead smartly plays with viewer expectation, using what we know to put us through an emotional wringer. Seeing Madison enter the high school by herself creates an immediate sense of dread, perhaps moreso than seeing Rick Grimes walk into the ruins of a grocery store looking for food. This is a fresh peril, one which is still unfolding at an exponential rate rather than one lying in wait.
The way in which the starkly empty high school is shot is scary enough, but the fact that there is a taped outline of a human body on the floor in the darkened office Madison walks into is equally terrifying. Of course, someone does show up behind her, scaring the living daylights out of her — but it’s only Tobias, the nervous kid who brought a knife to school in the first episode. Like Madison, Tobias is also stocking up on supplies. He is nobody’s fool and talks candidly about the ways in which society breaks down, noting the need to be prepared as he piles cans of cafeteria chili on to a shopping cart. He also wants his knife back, which Madison reluctantly gives him. Whereas the pilot episode would have us sweat it out, here is where the other shoe drops.
When the school’s alarm is triggered, Madison and Tobias realize they aren’t alone after all. Also in the building is Artie, the school principal, who has suffered a nasty bite on the back of his neck. Though Madison doesn’t seem to realize it, he is fully turned and has designs on turning his former colleague into an all-you-can-eat buffet. Fortunately, Tobias understands what needs to be done and leaps to action with his measly pen knife. Though he gets in a few good slashes, Tobias is overpowered by the fully grown walker, and the two tumble down the stairs, locked in a life-or-death struggle. As Tobias desperately tries to fend off the zombified version of his principal, Madison grabs a fire extinguisher and repeatedly bashes Artie’s head in with it. It is a harrowing moment in what could have otherwise been a by the books scene. This is the first “life” she’ll take, but definitely not the last.
Leaving with their lives intact, Madison and Tobias drive away from the high school in stunned silence. “You can stay with us, Tobias, until this is over,” Madison tells him as she drops him off. “This doesn’t end,” he says plainly. That Tobias is weirdly calm about the whole zombie apocalypse scenario is mildly terrifying. How anyone can inure oneself to such a reality-altering catastrophe is beyond me, but that’s probably why I would die immediately were something like this to actually take place. The words echo throughout the rest of the episode, reverberating through the scenes of increasing terror that unfold.
Backed by the strains of Moby’s “Wait For Me”, we see the principal lying bloody and dead in the high school stairwell; flaming cars illuminate the streets of downtown Los Angeles as looters run riot; and most upsettingly, we see the Clark family’s neighbors attack one another as a walker assaults a woman cleaning up after a child’s birthday. Alicia watches the horror from her living room window and scrambles to go intervene, but Madison stops her as she is about to run out the door. The look on her face tells us that she realizes that she cannot keep the truth or the gravity of the situation from her daughter any longer. This won’t end. Rather, it’s just beginning.
Rating: 4 out 5 burritos
What did you think of the second episode? Share your thoughts and your theories in the comments below.
Dan Casey is the senior editor of Nerdist and the author of 100 Things Avengers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die. You can follow him on Twitter (@Osteoferocious).