‘Fear the Walking Dead’ Tackles Police Brutality, Black Lives Matter Not So Much

The Walking Dead spinoff treated us to an intense second episode filled with anti-cop riots, zombie feeding, and a supposed act of police brutality.

Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

It’s tempting to read political commentary into a scene in Fear the Walking Dead’s second episode, “So Close Yet So Far,” in which anti-police brutality protesters shout down cops and an unarmed black homeless man lays dead on the ground in the middle of downtown Los Angeles.

But dissecting issues as timely and polarizing as institutional racism and police brutality isn’t really Walking Dead house style. The chaotic setting in this case is just that—a tension-filled background for the episode’s A-Plot to unfold. A divorced mom and dad frantically search for their teenage son, then flee the whole scene together—just as shots ring out and officers in riot gear march in.

Still, the scene provides fascinating insight into this brand-new, still-developing show’s worldview—or lack of one, depending on how you take it.

On the surface, the script seems to side with the protesters, giving a black man the opportunity to school a policeman on First Amendment rights after the cop threatens to send Chris to jail for recording the incident. And Chris, our normally quiet and sulky point of entry into the scene, is wildly passionate about his role as documentarian: “The people, we’re taking action! This is important, Dad!” he yells to Travis, who replies exasperatedly, “Yeah, yeah, I get it.”

But the scene also seems to discourage comparisons with real-life activist movements like Black Lives Matter. The camera avoids white officers in direct confrontations with people of color; instead of protest chants like “hands up, don’t shoot,” we hear something more generic: “hell no, we won’t go.”

Most crucially, the audience knows from the get-go that these protesters, for all their righteous, social justice-minded rhetoric, are completely wrong. The dead man under the white sheet wasn’t a victim of police brutality; he was a walking corpse who already dealt one man a death sentence by biting his arm. Protesters condemning police for firing 20 bullets into the zombie end up looking silly at best—and reactionary and oblivious at worst.

(Even if the show had made a stronger connection to Black Lives Matter, there would still be the incongruous little fact that nearly every named black character has, somehow, already been killed off. R.I.P. drug dealer Calvin, high school principal Artie, and Alicia’s love-struck boyfriend, Matt.)

This fixation on staying neutral even while presenting a hyper-political situation is, on one level, probably just safe business sense. This is a Walking Dead property we’re talking about, an automatic records-buster that premiered as the No. 1-rated cable series launch ever last week. More than 10 million viewers tuned in to watch the apocalypse slowly (so slowly) begin to overtake the civilized world—and that’s a lot of people to potentially alienate with pointed takes on police brutality, especially this early in the series.

Still, it feels like a bummer. Fear doesn’t have to have some bigger point to make—it could turn out to be a really fun horror show and that would be enough. But zombies serve such a special role in American pop culture, providing the perfect metaphors for our worst fears about the decline of civilization—from mindless consumerism to reverse colonization to whatever nameless, seemingly inevitable Bad Thing we currently dread. (The same tired joke that makes the rounds every Sunday night on Twitter about the “zombies sitting in Congress” counts too.) While we still have four episodes to go this season, the only fear that Fear has expressed so far is that when the apocalypse comes, we’ll be too busy planning kids’ birthday parties or staging pointless riots to notice until it’s literally biting us in the neck.

Elsewhere in “So Close Yet So Far,” Tobias, the awkward outcast who came to school with a knife in the last episode, continued being the MVP of the L.A. apocalypse. (He did attack Undead Artie with a knife to the chest and almost got himself killed, but that was done out of selfless bravery so I’ll allow it). Tobias had the foresight to raid the school cafeteria’s canned food closet—a free supply of non-perishable food that Madison actually turned down, immediately bringing back memories of a desperately hungry Daryl Dixon eating worms on The Walking Dead.

Tobias knows exactly how this whole mid-apocalypse thing works: “Looters hit the pharmacies first, then the liquor stores. The less you go out, the less chance you get exposed,” he advises Madison. “The desert will be safer because things will fall apart now. No satellites, no Internet, no cellphones. Communications will fail because no one is there to manage the servers. The electrical grid will fail for the same reason. It’s all gonna go to hell and that’s what they don’t get. When civilization ends, it ends fast.” Like I said, MVP.

Madison drops him off at home post-zombie fight and invites him to stay with her family, ostensibly because she realized that kid is their best goddamn hope for survival. (Or because she’s a really nice lady.) The Clark and Manawa family game plan at the moment is to drive into the desert, away from the dense, now-infected population of L.A. and wait. But Tobias turns her down, telling her she needs to take care of her son first. This kid, you guys. He is true blue.

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After the protest, and after riots have broke out all over the city, Travis, Liza, and Chris seek refuge in a barbershop owned by the Salazars, a family of immigrants headed by none other than Rubén Blades, a Latin Grammy-winning Panamanian singer, actor, and Harvard frickin’ graduate. Travis immediately gets his Rick Grimes on once barricaded inside the shop, starts ordering people around and planning an escape route (there is none). The family matriarch, Griselda, lights Catholic candles and starts reciting the Holy Rosary in Spanish—which, if you grew up Catholic, you know means it’s either a holiday or shit just got serious.

The final moments of the episode are damn near stomach-churning: Footage of riots and burning cars, and Madison physically blocking Alicia from helping their birthday party-planning neighbor, Mrs. Dawson, who is being ripped apart by her zombified husband. The last words recited onscreen, by Griselda, are eerily apt: Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros, los pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amen.

In English, that translates to: Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.

Amen, indeed.

Stray observations:

—Another interaction with police in this episode worth noting is when Travis sees a woman ask an officer what the hell is going on. His response to her is something useless, like, “It [the traffic] will clear up past Sherman Oaks.” Travis keeps watching and soon sees why the cop wasn’t interested in helping: He was too busy loading packs of water into his cruiser’s trunk.

—The most subtly harrowing moment of this episode came when Madison sneaked into a locked room to steal contraband meds for Nick, who is in withdrawal. In the last episode, we saw the metal detectors that students pass through every day when entering the school. Tonight, we saw the tape outline of a dead body on the floor, implying that a school shooting once took place there.

—My greatest hope now is that Tobias—who sadly isn’t credited in any more episodes this season on IMDB—will become the Morgan of this show, train as a Zen ninja warrior, and follow Madison and Travis into the desert unseen.