Your enjoyment of "So Close, Yet So Far" depends largely on your enjoyment of Fear the Walking Dead as an eccentric soap-opera. Melodrama has always been a cornerstone of showrunner/co-creator Robert Kirkman's muddled vision for The Walking Dead. So it's both interesting and frustrating to see that approach used as a way of highlighting the main difference between people pre– and post–zombie crisis.
In "So Close, Yet So Far," Travis and Madison are positioned as two different types of survivors: He optimistically clings to the idea that community and utilitarianism will see people through, while she ends the episode with the pessimistic/pragmatic understanding that you have to be selfish when crisis strikes.
No single conflict really challenges Travis's perspective, making it that much harder to get invested in his rescue/survival subplot. But the narrative that leads Madison to stopping Alicia from helping a neighbor from being attacked is compelling, albeit rocky. It's a step in the right direction for Fear the Walking Dead because here, a female protagonist who's praised in "Pilot" for her intelligence and capability actually gets to be resourceful and complicated.
Case in point: Nick is going through drug withdrawal, and only Alicia and Madison can help Nick, since Travis is off on a quest to recover his biological son, Chris. Nick's recovery is not the focus of "So Close, Yet So Far," which is refreshing unto itself. But more important, Madison's quest to help Nick leads her back to her former job, where she bumps into Tobias while trying to, erm, liberate some drugs from the school's evidence/contraband locker. While there, Madison catches Tobias, a bright, awkward outsider, while he loads up on supplies.
The key difference between Tobias and Madison is that Tobias is one of the first to accept a reality that we enlightened viewers already acknowledge: Now that zombies exist, everything before zombies doesn't matter. Tobias overstates this point when Madison offers him shelter until the crisis stops. "This doesn't end," Tobias replies, baldly underlining the point that Madison will eventually concede. Fear is spreading, and by episode's end, Madison will be its latest victim.
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.
At the same time, Tobias's role in Madison's conversion into a selfish survivor is a bit hard to swallow. Tobias's altruistic actions (i.e., the way he tells Madison to follow his lead, and stock up on canned and nonperishable food) understandably serve as a counterpoint to the actions of the LAPD officer whom Travis sees hoarding bottled water. But do you really believe that a kid who comes to school with a knife just as zombies start descending on Los Angeles is really that nice in a crisis? Capable, maybe, but go-out-of-his-way nice? This, really, is the line that made me skeptical of Tobias: "You gotta take care of your son,” he says to Madison. He could be a sweet kid, but I don't believe he's so saccharinely sweet.
It's similarly frustrating to see the show come so close to giving Tobias's vague parting shot —"That's what they don't get: When civilization ends, it ends fast" — political heft. But that doesn't seem to be the point of Tobias's character in "So Close, Yet So Far." In fact, the decision to show both a male Asian and a female Caucasian LAPD officer during the riot scene is telling: The show's creators don't want to make this look like a race riot, and therefore refuse to politicize any inherently political subject.
The "they" in Tobias’s aforementioned warning also isn't defined. Tobias feels like a projection of Kirkman and episode writer Marco Ramirez's aspirational fantasies of how humans should act, as does Matt's brave but unbelievable decision to say good-bye to Alicia without panicking. Yes, he knows he's done for, and wants to protect his girlfriend. But how could you be that calm? All these narrative decisions make sense in that they help define Travis and his family members' respective character-defining choices. But if Madison is going to become overprotective (as I suspect she soon will), her descent into well-meaning madness could stand to be a little less bumpy.
- Matt's heartfelt good-bye wasn't everything it could have been, but it was kind of sweet.
- Liza, to Travis: "What do you know? What have you seen?" What is this, excised dialogue from Hiroshima, Mon Amour?
- Liza, to Travis: "You can't keep moving the goalposts." This line didn't make sense in context. Travis is just ignoring Liza's request ... how is that "moving the goalposts?"
- Matt, to Alicia: "I love you, too. That's why you need to go." This is a hard line to sell, and I'm not convinced that Maestro Harrell delivered it well enough.