Spoiler alert: This recap contains plot details from the latest episode of “Fear the Walking Dead.”
After a slow-burn premiere that spent more time on the humdrum problems of an unremarkable L.A. family than it did on the looming apocalypse, Sunday’s second episode of “Fear the Walking Dead” turned up the heat considerably. The result was a tension-filled hour of television that improved on last week’s debut in every way.
Following a brief pre-credit sequence, the episode – titled “So Close, Yet So Far” – begins with Maddie, Travis and Nick fleeing the scene of Calvin’s gory resurrection. Fearing for the safety of their kids, the two parents frantically call Alicia and Chris, while Nick searches the radio for news about the horrific outbreak.
A plan to escape to the desert is quickly hatched, though why Travis instantly decides they’ll be better off running away from the reassurances of civilization is barely addressed. The best he can offer is that there will be fewer people around. The protagonist in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” the short story that Travis taught last week, might disagree with him on the benefits of going it alone.
Maddie finally reaches Alicia, who says that she’s at her boyfriend Matt’s house. In the middle of their conversation, the phones suddenly die. Later on, the lights and power will go out as well. In the world of “The Walking Dead,” this is how society ends: not with a bang, but with a gradual loss of electricity.
In a seemingly throwaway moment, Nick glances up at a jet flying slowly across the sky. On reflection, it’s an ominous image that raises a number of questions. Could something equally nightmarish be happening up there at that very moment? Is the virus spreading to other cities or countries? And how soon before those jets start falling from the skies?
This type of potent imagery is scattered throughout the episode. Take, for example, the sight of a cheerful bounce-house in a suburban neighborhood that’s about to become a zombie feeding ground. It’s a darkly comic visual — part Raymond Carver, part George A. Romero.
Elsewhere, Chris gets an emergency call from Travis, but he ignores it. Here’s a friendly note to all the moody teens watching this series. When your well-intentioned parents try repeatedly calling you during the apocalypse… answer the phone! Clearly the show’s writers are trying to make Chris and Alicia into realistically flawed young people, but did they have to be so utterly annoying? Who are these two unlikable characters supposed to appeal to, anyway?
While Chris is stubbornly screening his calls, Maddie, Travis and Nick practically have to drag Alicia away from her boyfriend’s sickbed. A gory bite on his shoulder reveals the cause of his illness. For a brief moment, Alicia drops her guard and tells Matt that she loves him. It’s a rare sympathetic gesture, offering hope that perhaps there’s more to her than we’ve seen so far.
It’s interesting that Travis and the others abandon Matt, leaving him to surely die alone. That’s not the type of heroic act we expect from the leads on a TV series. Quite the opposite, in fact. And yet that tough decision hints that Travis and Maddie might have what it takes to survive in this kill-or-be-killed world.
At this point, the episode becomes a chaotic game of musical chairs as the main characters split up and race around the city trying to gather family members and supplies. These frantically-edited scenes increase the tension to a near-fever pitch.
While Alicia nurses Nick’s heroin withdrawal, Travis drives to his ex-wife Liza’s house in search of Chris, who’s gotten himself involved in a downtown police protest. Before long, the first wave of walkers makes their lumbering appearance and all hell breaks loose. Fleeing the violence, Travis, Liza and Chris take shelter in a barbershop run by Daniel Salazar (Ruben Blades).
If this plot development reminds you of Rick Grimes taking shelter with Morgan and his son in the pilot episode of “The Walking Dead,” or of Brad Pitt taking shelter with a Hispanic family at the start of “World War Z,” you’re not alone.
Meanwhile, Maddie searches the deserted high school for drugs that might help ease Nick’s pain. And here’s where this episode truly comes to life… so to speak.
From the second that she accidentally sets off the school’s metal detector, to the moment when she bashes in the skull of a freshly-zombified Principal Artie, this entire sequence is a well-crafted exercise in mounting dread. Perhaps the most chilling scene of all occurs when Maddie eavesdrops on a moaning walker through the school’s intercom system. It’s a skin-crawling detail.
Unfortunately, the return of last week’s pimple-faced student Tobias adds an unintentional laugh to the otherwise stellar sequence. “Can I have my knife back?” he asks almost immediately. Now, let’s consider his weapon of choice for a moment, shall we? The tiny blade is barely two inches long. Surely he could find something with a three-inch blade at home? Or, better yet, a jumbo kitchen knife! Maybe a hammer or a lethal garden tool? Anything other than this rinky-dink toothpick that he’s weirdly attached to for some reason.
But we digress.
The episode ends with Maddie, Nick and Alicia locking themselves in for the night, while bloodcurdling screams echo through their once-peaceful neighborhood. A few miles away, Travis and his estranged family listen to the sounds of police sirens and car explosions from the dubious safety of Daniel’s barbershop.
Though it featured fewer walkers than the low-key premiere, this second helping of “Fear the Walking Dead” was far more intense, suggesting that series creators Robert Kirkman and Dave Erickson might be able to take their spin-off in some enjoyably dark directions over the next four weeks.