Congratulations, Tobias: For the second week in a row, Fear the Walking Dead‘s pimple-faced prophet of doom is the show’s MVP, the one who sees opportunity in the apocalypse where others see…well, nothing really, as of yet. In the best sequence of this week’s episode — “So Close, Yet So Far” — Madison Clark heads back to her school to pick up supplies for her detoxing son Nick, and finds her student in scavenger mode. Given that a lot of the fun (so to speak) of The Walking Dead and its ilk comes from seeing how people thrive in extreme circumstances, it’s encouraging to find someone here who’s already on the ball. We all want to be the guy or gal who’s the first to discover the non-ghoul-infested pantry.
But what really makes the moment so effective is that the episode’s writer Marco Ramirez uses them to help define who Madison is — and who she’s going to have to become. Minutes after she stumbles across Tobias, both of them run into Principal Art Costa, who doesn’t look so good. Last week’s “Pilot” included a little audience-teasing moment where Madison approached a slumped-over, zombie-esque Art from behind, before he swiveled around to show that he was completely normal. This week she sees him shambling down the hall — and is almost eaten to death. Lesson learned: Never try to help.
This is what’s going to set Fear the Walking Dead apart from its parent show: scenes of naive, inexperienced, dangerously civilized humans figuring out in the heat of the moment that nothing’s ever going to be the same again. Done right — and the Madison/Art standoff was very right — these set-pieces can be both suspenseful and poignant. That’s not to say that the show’s writers are still struggling to figure out what to do with Madison’s daughter Alicia, who has one powerful scene here (when she discovers that her boyfriend is about to “turn,” and worries aloud, “If he has it, I have it”), but is otherwise a fairly negligible presence.
But the episode’s biggest whiffs though involve Travis Manawa‘s son Christopher, whose whininess over his dad’s relationship with Madison made him an immediately unappealing character from the get-go. He’s no more likable when he shows up this week, by getting petulant over Pop’s efforts to pull him away from an anti-police protest. Sometimes a show’s creative types get so preoccupied with making sure that every character “has a motivation” that they forget to make them into people that the audience will want to hang around with. So far, Chris is a total drag.
Also, while FTWD seems to have an interesting plot-thread planned involving the LAPD (who apparently have been semi-aware of the zombie outbreak for a while, and are stealthily trying to eradicate it), setting so much of this week’s chapter at a “Black Lives Matter”-style street-rally is a ham-fisted way to add contemporary resonance to the show. Not to mention way too glib, given that the ultimate point of those scenes is that all the cartoonishly angry activists — shouting things like, “I’m gonna give Jackboot over here a civics lesson!” — are missing the bigger picture. They come across as a band of Christophers: unreasonable, pigheaded, and possibly about to become zombie-chow.
At least the Travis/Chris storyline does at leads somewhere fruitful. When the demonstration turns into a full-on clash, the Manawa family duck into a barbershop run by Daniel Salazar and his family. 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.
Previously: Welcome to Hell-Ay