A review of tonight's “The Walking Dead” coming up just as soon as I rub some dirt on it and walk it off…
Though “Slabtown” ended with the cliffhanger of Carol being wheeled into the hospital, “Self Help” has nothing to do with what Beth, Carol, Daryl and Noah are up to over in Atlanta. Instead, the show seems to be toggling between its three groups of the moment – a denser and more action-packed take on the structure from the back half of season 4 – this week checking in on Abraham and Glenn's team, whom I'm guessing may not appear at all next week in favor of either more hospital drama, or a catch-up with the people at the church.
Earlier this week, Andy Greenwald at Grantland wrote this piece about the many reasons why season 5 has been so strong so far. One he left out: those episodes from last spring, while at times frustrating and/or dull individually, did the necessary (and long-overdue, going back several showrunning administrations) work of turning the supporting characters into actual characters. Beth wouldn't have been able to carry an episode by herself if not for her travels with Daryl, and Bob's death wouldn't have hit nearly as hard without the spotlight moments he and Sasha got in that period. It was a storytelling decision I understood at the time and hoped would pay dividends down the road, and so far it has.
That approach continues here, as we get a bit of backstory on Abraham, an actual personality for Rosita, and the much-assumed revelation that Eugene is not, in fact, a scientist who's going to save the world, but just a smarter-than-average guy who understood exactly what to say to get people like Abraham and Rosita to keep him alive.
Eugene has been so clearly presented as a con man to this point – I'm not sure I've encountered a single fan who actually believes his story – that “Self Help” has to put in some work to make his confession at the end as effective as it is. Even if the other characters have bought into his spiel, he seems such an obvious fake that the episode cleverly plays with our expectations by devoting a good deal of time to analyzing why a world-saving scientist would have a mullet. At first, it's just comic relief, as part of a light moment before the bus crash, but then the more it's discussed – particularly when Maggie comes up with what a plausible-sounding explanation that fits what little we know of this guy – the more it begins to feel like maybe the show's been teasing us all along. We know Eugene isn't going to cure the zombie plague, because that's the end of the series, but for a few minutes, it seems vaguely possible that he is what he claims to be, and that circumstances – Eugene's premature death, or the infrastructure in D.C. being too damaged to make the cure work – will prevent his success.
And as Eugene was confessing his fears to Tara, and discussing the legend of Samson with Maggie, we were also getting some insight into the big, strong, very dangerous man whom he conned into playing bodyguard for him for so long.
Though “The Walking Dead” has many elements in common with “Lost,” it's only occasionally given us flashbacks to what the supporting characters' lives were like before they crossed paths with Rick. Abraham doesn't necessarily seem like the type in need of that treatment, because Michael Cudlitz is so instantly convincing and memorable in the role that backstory's less essential for him than for someone like Michonne (whose flashbacks felt very necessary by the time we got them) or Bob. But with Abraham, it turns out to be useful because he, like his mulleted sidekick, isn't exactly what he appears to be. Yes, he's a badass military man, but he's not also the calm and collected sort he's come across as to this point. The flashbacks to his life in the early days of the apocalypse are fragmented, and don't provide full context of what was happening, but we get what's most important to him: he had such an erratic, overwhelming temper and propensity for violence that his wife felt she and the kids were better off out among the zombies than they were with him. Finding Eugene gave him focus and a reason to go on living, but the various roadblocks and delays are eating at him: those cuts on his hand won't heal because he keeps running into trouble, but also because he keeps choosing to run into trouble, forever marching forward even when it's absolutely the dumbest idea possible.
Eugene confesses his true identity only when it seems like the only way to prevent Abraham from dragging him on a suicide mission through a ranch overrun by zombies, and in the process triggers such a brutal – and possibly fatal (or maybe just brain-damaging) – beating from Abraham that one can understand why his family would have run from him even under such awful circumstances.
A couple of episodes ago, Eugene seemed like he was probably a charlatan, but maybe not, while Abraham seemed like a superhero type who was at the least going to do all he could to keep Glenn, Maggie and the others around him safe. Now? Now Eugene's been exposed for who he really is, which in turn takes away whatever hope our heroes could muster in recent weeks. And Abraham has been revealed as someone who can be just as hazardous to the health of his friends as his enemies.
A bad combination, but another good episode in what's shaping up to be the best and most consistent “TWD” season so far.
Some other thoughts:
* Rosita doesn't get quite as much characterization work as her longtime companions, but at least now she feels like someone with a personality, rather than just Abraham's Army Barbie sidekick/girlfriend.
* I liked the glimpses of post-apocalyptic MacGyvering these people have learned, like how to make potable water using a toilet, a tin can, wire hangers and a trash can fire.
* Speaking of water, Eugene using the fire hose on the walkers seemed an effective, if wasteful, way to knock them down, but the scene suggested he had somehow killed them, which doesn't track with what we know about zombie biology.
* Given how long Abraham, Eugene and Rosita were traveling together before they met Glenn, it's a smart idea to acknowledge, and even name, the many friends they had and lost along the way. It's a little thing that goes a long way towards suggesting these characters had lives beyond the scope of the TV show.
* Desert island book time: if you were in the middle of a zombie apocalypse and happened to spend a night in an undamaged bookstore, what 1 or 2 authors would you try stuffing in your pack for leisure reading? Eugene's choice: H.G. Wells' “The Shape of Things to Come.”
Before we go to the comments, it's time once again to explain how this blog's No Spoiler rule applies to this show:
1. No talking about the previews for the next episode.
2. No talking about anything else you know about upcoming episodes from other sources – and, yes, that includes anything Gimple and Kirkman have said in interviews.
3. No talking about anything that's happened in the comic that hasn't happened in the TV show yet. (Or anything that's been revealed, like character backstory and motivation.) As with “Game of Thrones,” the goal is to treat “The Walking Dead” TV show as exactly that, and not as an excuse for endless comparisons with the comics. If you want to talk about the comics, feel free to start up a discussion thread on our message boards.
With that in mind, what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org