“When society ends,” pimply-faced high school student Tobias, who seems to be the only person who fully grasps what’s happening, tells his guidance counselor Madison just before she saves him from their shambling, undead principal, “it ends fast.”
This second episode may be disappointing the more bloodthirsty segment of Fear the Walking Dead’s audience, who are eager to get to the free-for-all zombie killing sprees of its parent show, but I found it fascinating in the ways it imagines the beginning of the end in Los Angeles.
In a lot of ways, society is still holding together, as police are still out on the street trying to control the chaos – and in a very clever inversion, incur the wrath of street protesters who don’t understand the nature of the zombie threat and assume that the cops are shooting people because of racial issues even though they’re doing pretty much what you’d hope the cops would do in this situation. People’s phones still work, the radio is still full of chatter about any and everything other than the unfolding undead apocalypse. Is the lack of information a conscious choice by the authorities that Madison still insists will “keep it contained”? Is it a symptom of a breakdown of those systems? Or do they just not know?
It’s unclear at the moment, but society is breaking down in smaller ways even as larger institutions are tenuously holding together: as the public’s misunderstanding of police violence against the infected leads to rioting, Travis herds his son and ex-wife into a barber shop just as its owner is rolling down the steel gate. Under any normal circumstance, Travis (or anyone else) would not ask a stranger for safe harbor in their home, and that stranger would not grant it. But on some level both men understand that what’s happening is far from a normal circumstance, though neither seems ready to admit it to their loved ones.
Likewise, the usual social barriers between people are eroding at Madison’s school, as she and Tobias are suddenly partners and equals with a common goal: get out of the building alive. Like Travis and the barber, Madison and her student both realize that it’s time to forget about social niceties and hold on tight to anyone who you can look in the eye for more than two seconds, because things are starting to get rough.
Nick’s withdrawal from his heroin habit was interesting in a couple of ways, primarily that he looked just as bad as Alicia’s bitten boyfriend and could just as easily have been described as “The Walking Dead” as any zombie, but his condition is apparently familiar enough to his mother and sister that they don’t bat an eye or worry that he’s about to feast on their brains. Ironically, his withdrawal seizures probably saved his sister’s life, because they stopped her from going to see her poor bitten boo. But it also raises the question of why we haven’t seen more drug addicts in this universe; it seems like it would be relatively easy to keep up a junk habit once society collapses, what with all the abandoned pharmacies across America. It’s hard to imagine a bleaker circumstance that someone would want to escape through self-medication than a zombie apocalypse, so why haven’t Rick and Michonne encountered any junkies in their travels? Either way, it will be interesting to see what Nick does, if he cleans up in the desert like his mother wants him to, or if he continues to battle zombies under the influence.
In any case, as things start to get hairy, Darwinism is starting to thin the herd, as the smart people, like Travis and Madison and Tobias and the barber hole up and wait for the chaos to pass while the dummies turn cars over and create danger that will kill some of them before the zombies even get to them.
And as Madison tries to get the blood off of her jacket, shortly after locking her front door rather than intervene in the birthday party across the street that appears to be turning into a zombie massacre, it seems to be dawning on her that it’s probably going to leave a permanent stain. Or that, as Tobias tells her, “this doesn’t end.”
The A.V. Club’s Josh Modell catches a glimpse of the series to come in one telling detail:
The single most chilling scene for me didn’t actually have anything to do with the various zombie attacks, though I’ll get to those. For me, it was the cop stocking up his cruiser with water as Travis tries to navigate traffic. It tells us a lot of things, most importantly that the authorities know more than the average person does—and that they’re going to be looking out for themselves when the real shit goes down. Sure, we’re bound to see stories about heroes, but it’s the stories about the selfish and cowardly that are going to help create the meat of the conflict in FTWD. Just like its parent show, the uninfected fighting the uninfected will be scarier than brainless hordes, especially during panic time. At least with the walkers, you pretty much know what you’re up against. What makes this show potentially more frightening than The Walking Dead is that we actually get to see that panicked loss from the start. The resignation and hardness hasn’t set in yet. What used to be these characters’ streets or businesses or homes—where they felt safe—will now be populated by violent, man-eating walkers and/or violent people scared to death and out to do anything to protect themselves and their families. We’re going to learn about what nice, normal people are willing to do to survive, and whether it will drive them completely insane. The second-most chilling scene, and it was a close second, was when Alicia looked out the window to see her zombified neighbor murdering his family, shot from an extra-scary wide angle, so we can’t quite tell what’s going on.
Vulture’s Simon Abrams likes the way the show is clearly drawing its characters within the chaos:
That tantalizing focus on the emotional fragility of the show’s characters is the main reason why Fear the Walking Dead shouldn’t be dismissed for its sluggish pacing and its dearth of flesh-eaters. The show seems to be about a plague, but not the kind of viral outbreak you might expect based on the show’s zombie subgenre. So the scene where Madison saves Tobias by dispatching Principal Artie (Scott Lawrence) with a fire extinguisher is refreshing because it helps us to see why Madison is, at episode’s end, so quick to focus on helping her family, and only her family. That’s not a bad decision, and she’s not a bad person for making it. But the paranoia she feels later on is real, as we see in the earlier scene where she cautiously pulls Alicia away from Matt, a newly infected pre-zombie. It would have been nice to see how Matt feels once Alicia leaves him all alone with a deadly infection. But that’s not the point of this interaction. Here Madison is shown to be as casually cruel to Matt as she is kind to Tobias. Matt is outside of Madison’s sphere of comfort, as is the neighbor who gets attacked later in “So Close, Yet So Far.” The latter betrayal would have stung a little more if we had seen Madison bonding with her neighbor at some point. But still, it’s nice to see Madison’s decisions make sense within the context of the episode. There are many more people who can’t be saved, and Matt, Artie, and Madison’s neighbor are on that ever-growing list.
Entertainment Weekly’s Jonathon Dornbush focuses on the riot scenes:
Chris winds up at a protest that quickly forms around a murdered homeless man. The police have shot him in the street, and the crowds (buoyed by the traffic that has grinded to a halt) have amassed to show their anger. Now, the easy presumption is that the man in question had already transformed into a walker and the police, who seem to have some knowledge of the citywide problem, shot him before he could attack. But it’s also entirely plausible that the man was merely agitated or perhaps just stumbling down the block, and a cop (either trigger-happy or precautious depending on your view) shot him assuming he was something more. Another girl is shot by the cops as she shambles toward them, presumably a walker — but again, because Fear has so played with our expectations, she could very well have still been human. Whatever the real situation is, it’s difficult to explain to a crowd of people while the government seems content to keep the truth a secret to the masses. It’s Fear dipping its toe into an area that The Walking Dead can’t exactly approach — social commentary of a society akin to our own. As riots break out, protestors shout, Chris videotapes the cops, and the LAPD approaches the masses in full riot gear, the imagery is not unlike video and images that have become increasingly common in our news. Because cities, neighborhoods, and even families are still whole at the start of Fear, there’s an opportunity to examine how those structures collapse, using the behavior of government, law enforcement and more magnified through the zombie apocalypse. But is “So Close, Yet So Far” successful at doing so? For now, it feels like the start of something, rather than a plotline that has much to say. The imagery is certainly evocative, but are the Fear writers critiquing the establishment at this point? Perhaps, saying that obfuscation of the truth by those who have power and believe they know what’s best can lead to the very problems they try to hide or ignore.
And Rolling Stone’s Noel Murray likes the contrast between the noise and the quiet in two late scenes:
Besides introducing Rubén Blades to the cast, the scenes at the storefront are a terrific example of how to do a lot with a little. Just by filling the soundtrack with the overhead whizzing of helicopters, shouting passerbys, breaking glass, squealing tires, and metal banging against metal, the show creates a sense of the world beginning to slide into chaos, letting our imagination fill in the details. Contrast that with the noise — or lack thereof — back at the Clark house. When Madison returns from her expedition to the school, everything’s quiet, which may be the show’s subtle way of suggesting that her cozy suburban life is going to insulate her from the downtown mayhem. But then the hush is shattered by a scream, from the Dawson house across the street. At the start of the episode, the Clarks' neighbors are setting up a bouncy castle for a child’s birthday party (“She’s nine! It’s so scary!”), while Madison, Travis, and Nick debate whether they should warn them about what they know. They decide not to — and at the end of “So Close, Yet So Far,” when Alicia sees and hears Mrs. Dawson being dragged down by her zombified husband, Madison tells her to ignore the ruckus across the street. It seems our heroine has learned something from Tobias…and that the newly undead aren’t the only ones who are changing.