Fear The Walking Dead: 102 “So Close, Yet So Far” Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz.
‘When society ends, it ends fast.’
After a methodical, perhaps overly lethargic pilot episode of Fear the Walking Dead, that line of dialogue seemed to be Fear’s mantra for its second episode. Mostly without losing its focus on character, So Close, Yet So Far was a far faster-paced and more eventful instalment as society’s decline began to rapidly speed up.
So Close, Yet So Far displayed that Fear still has a long way to go until it reaches greatness, but it was an undoubtedly improved episode nonetheless – and part of the way it achieved that was using a hugely relevant backdrop of riots and police vs citizen conflicts to make this fictional apocalypse suddenly seem a lot easier to engage in. The idea that police killing walkers could be construed as wanton police brutality was the most inspired concept Fear’s served up so far, using the audience’s knowledge of similar real-life events recently to augment the effectiveness of a powerful scene that managed to say a lot more about how society could easily crumble due to walkers than last week’s pilot achieved. Impressively, Fear manages to combine this relevancy with an underlying idea of moral complexity – the protestors are clearly, from their perspective, fighting against unnecessary brutality against innocents. Normally, the audience would root for these justice-seekers – but knowing how their aggression is actually impeding police efforts to take down walkers, these protestors suddenly seem shortsighted and naïve thanks to the vastly greater knowledge the viewers have. It’s a thought-provoking, exciting scene, and one that manages to provide an effective answer as to why police or military couldn’t simply curb the tide of walkers by taking out the walkers with their superior firepower.
Unfortunately, So Close has to undo some of its good work very soon after, with a stumble that negates the impact of a set of scenes that could have built upon the groundwork laid in the initial protest scene. The ensuing all-out riot is only glimpsed through shutters and briefly as Travis and his family duck for cover, leaving most of the riot to the audience’s imagination. Often, leaving things for viewers to imagine is more effective than actually showing it entirely – but in this case, it feels like a missed opportunity on Fear’s part. Showing the riot in depth would have underlined the rapid, unprecedented social collapse that would set in at the beginning of an apocalypse and therefore increased the tension by showing viewers just how far society had fallen in the short time the show has spent with these characters – and the brief glimpses don’t really manage to achieve that effect. This may have been a budget issue, and as such it’s perhaps not the fault of Fear’s crew, but if so, then it’s surprising and disappointing that a spin-off of the most watched show on US cable TV (Fear’s record ratings have only underlined the fact that this show was always going to be successful) didn’t have the budget to portray the riot in more depth.
I criticised the characters of Madison, Alicia and Travis last week for being poorly developed, but So Close does manage to make some improvements in that department. Madison, in particular, felt like a more complex and compelling character this week, with a handful of brief moments that served to flesh out her character a little more. Her killing of the zombified principal with a fire extinguisher was not only an effectively visceral (despite, surprisingly, showing very little blood in comparison to the frequently gory The Walking Dead) moment – it also displayed a previously unseen streak of brutality within the character. Is there more to Madison that meets the eye? So Close certainly hints at a history of violence for Madison, and it’s a smart idea that promises some unexpected backstory for the character in the future.
To complement this display of brutality, So Close also managed to introduce a sliver of vulnerability into Madison’s character as she breaks down back at her house – The Walking Dead has been guilty of making some of its characters, both male and female, remorseless walker killing machines with hardly any vulnerability, so the powerfully acted emotional moment towards the end of the episode is an encouraging sign that Fear will show the emotional cost of killing something that used to be human in more depth than TWD has done lately. In addition, Fear manages to say an awful lot about her character with one, simple line: as she says goodbye to paranoid pupil Tobias, Madison asks him if he wants to stay with her until ‘this is over’. Madison may have seen the merciless power of walkers on two occasions, but as this line shows, there’s still an almost-naïve faith that the attacks will simply blow over. As Tobias aptly implies in his reply, she’s more than a little wrong there.
Travis, too, got some stronger material this episode, spending most of the episode with his own, estranged family. Travis’ ex-wife and indifferent son aren’t particularly interesting characters at this point, but So Close manages to overcome those problems by juxtaposing the two families Travis is trying to bring together as they struggle with the issues the walker uprising is causing in different locations – Travis’ family might not be vintage creations, but they’re at least distinctive from Madison, Alicia and Nick, which means Fear is able to explore very different conflicts and issues with both families. Travis’ casting as a dedicated family man trying to reconcile two different eras of his life registers a lot more this episode when his family is on screen for a significant amount of time, and it’s easy to root for him when Cliff Curtis’ performance is so likeable in a simple, plainly decent way. Unfortunately, it does look as it Fear is about to overegg the family drama a little – the introduction of a third family into the equation (the Hispanic family in the barber shop Travis and co hide in) seems a little excessive. Fear has more than enough main characters to explore at this point, so to introduce another relatively similar handful of characters into the equations seems like a few characters too far for this fledging show, which could lead to Fear being spread too thin in the near future as it tries to service an increasingly bloated main cast.
Another flaw that wasn’t particularly apparent in the pilot is also beginning to rear its head – the use of strange and inexplicable character decisions to manufacture drama. From Alicia’s impulsive decision to leave the house to Madison refusing to tell Alicia about the walkers she’s seen, there’s an emerging streak of weird and inconsistent behaviour when the show needs to whip up a conflict. You’d think that the crumbling of civilisation itself would provide an ample amount of drama, so to see Fear resort to these artificial and frustrating methods is slightly perplexing, especially when the show is able to come up with compelling sources of conflict such as the intriguing story thread of Nick’s heroin withdrawals this week (which may cause a bit of a problem when he inevitably runs out of meds) , which allows for far deeper and more engaging drama than simple bad decision-making could create.
So Close, Yet So Far is undoubtedly a step up for Fear the Walking Dead – it’s tenser, more entertaining, and delivers an awful lot more on the promises made during pre-publicity about the show. Despite this promise, though, this episode makes it clear that Fear could still do better in certain aspects, and that there’s some nasty habits the writers are already falling into, some of which are familiar from The Walking Dead. Fear’s off on a two-week break thanks to Labor Day now – and thanks to this episode, that extended break feels pretty long right now…