About 20 minutes into “Shadow Puppets,” the sixth episode of The Walking Dead: World Beyond, the group happens upon the truck they’ve decided to try and steal from two men—with the aid of Percy, a guy who supposedly had the vehicle stolen from him in the first place. Felix, our tough, level-headed tactician and former head of security for the entire university compound, says they should get eyes on their two targets before they make a move, at the very least. After maybe five more seconds of debate, Percy ignores the entire chat and just starts jogging straight towards the truck, completely exposed. Staring at him in frustration, Felix then turns and… runs right after Percy, equally vulnerable, while the viewer sits there dumbfounded, wondering why this ostensibly intelligent man would do something so stupid.
Structurally, this is a solid episode, the second one in a row to utilize the “mission-of-the-week” format in a way that effectively moves the larger narrative forward while retaining the strengths of a self-contained story. The sound the kids heard in the woods last week turns out to be Percy, a young guy who recounts his tale of woe—having his belongings stolen along with the ultra-valuable prize of a working automobile—and the group decides to help him get it back in exchange for a lift to New York. An unwise decision, it seems, as it’s eventually revealed that Percy and his older associate Tony have conned at least a dozen others in this same way. But Iris’ earnest belief in the goodness of others pays off: Percy was moved by her trust, and decides to honor the commitment to give them a ride, returning to save everyone just before they get swarmed by empties. Score one for foolish optimism.
Let’s keep the emphasis on “foolish,” however. It’s one thing to have these kids’ green nature and guilelessness lead to poor decision-making; you expect young and inexperienced teens to do dumb things and then pay the price for those actions. Less justifiable is having adults who should know better (and do know better, if past behavior is anything to go by) behaving in equally ill-considered ways. Felix’s choices this episode are completely at odds with his ostensibly sharp and hardened survival instincts. As the one adult in the room (two, by episode’s end—hi, 30 Rock’s Scott Adsit!), the viewer’s expectation is that his decisions and actions will be more considered and mature than his impulsive charges, and for the most part, that’s been true. (It may not have been fun to watch him spend five episodes trying to get everyone to turn around, but it was the recognizably sensible thing to do if you’re trying to keep these kids safe.) Here, every rash and inexplicable act that put himself and the others in needless danger just called out how contradictory Felix’s behavior was to his usual m.o. If the show is going to orchestrate sequences like this, it needs smarter ways to execute them.
Honestly, though, the dumber-than-usual bug seemed to have bitten nearly every character this installment, save for maybe Hope and Elton. Silas leaving his post and allowing Tony to make off with all their gear in the truck is a real “You had one job” situation. And Iris abandoning Silas to go rushing blindly after Percy, offering a half-assed and illogical ramble about how they need to be tougher as a limp justification, was foolhardy even by her own already established lack of common sense. (I get that you’re crushing on Percy, Iris, but damn, was that dumb.) By the time Iris had fallen into a dumpster and Percy and Tony were merrily driving away, my only thought was, “This is a valuable lesson in not being an idiot.” The fact that she managed to give this guy a change of heart seems like the exact wrong lesson to take away from this experience. Any retroactive reasoning that makes their witless behavior in this encounter seem proper is just confusing thoughts (which were well-meaning) with deeds (her forehead-slappingly dumb behavior). Iris’ optimism should be rewarded; but her actions should get her barred from ever making another decision for the group again.
Hope and Elton, by contrast, continue to get closer, her guilt over killing his mother driving her to overcompensate in a variety of ways, whether peppering Elton with heartstring-tugging questions or volunteering to help him with his research. At present, this feels like the most honest relationship on the series; Hope is just a teen, after all, and struggling under the weight of such a crushing secret. It’s understandable she would try and expiate her sense of responsibility by making Elton’s mom live again—as much as anyone can, anyway. Similarly, Silas’ jealousy of Percy is depicted smartly, all hurt feelings and frustrated looks. (Felix drops the truth bomb on him: “We can’t control who we like.”) Talking around subjects feels infinitely more honest for a bunch of hormonal young people than the heart-on-sleeve monologues the show is continually forcing down their throats.
Happily, “Shadow Puppets” advances the overarching story in ways that will have a clear effect. Regardless of whether or not Adsit’s Tony and Ted Sutherland’s Percy stick around for more than one or two more episodes, hitching a ride to New York creates a sense of momentum in the pacing that goes some way in helping keep this season from feeling like an endless walk in the woods. The post-credits scenes inside the Civic Republic outpost are a decent-enough tease of the inevitable conflict to come, but episodes like this—where the side mission generates immediate benefits—are more valuable. If this gets us to New York before the end of the season, hooray: The best thing World Beyond could do at this point is shake things up. Well, that and stop letting its characters be quite so inconsistently dumb.
- This was directed by former The Walking Dead cast member Michael Cudlitz, who seems to have upped his game; whereas his turns behind the camera on that show often felt misjudged, this was crisply and efficiently directed, with nice staging and the heist sequence effectively paced. (Bonus points for the mannequin jump scare.)
- The dialogue continues to veer wildly between natural and painfully forced, sometimes in just two lines: Witness Iris’ clunky, “I wish I knew which part of him was the lie, and which was real” paired with Hope’s much more relatable rejoinder about how we all keep parts of ourselves hidden from others.
- Also, hey Iris: While you’re castigating Percy for being such an asshole, maybe toss in a, “Oh, and thanks for saving all of our lives, by the way, despite our best efforts to get ourselves killed.”
- Man, that shadow puppet story was a downer, huh? The baby stroller was an especially gutting touch. I appreciated the show’s effort to expand its visual palette, but until it brought it back at the end, opening with the shadow effect and voiceover felt as random as a Family Guy throwaway gag.
- Scott Adsit as a traveling magician in the post-zombie apocalypse just feels right.
- Felix smashing a mirror—especially given the empty had to be right there to give off such a close-looking reflection—kind of made me laugh.
- PREDICTION CORNER: Okay, the post-credits scene here definitely conveyed the idea that Hope and Iris’ dad—as well as Felix’s boyfriend—are still alive. So I’m going to bet this is what happened: The Civic Republic uncovered his communication device, and impersonated him to lure Hope and Iris to New York. Well, specifically Hope—combine the “Advanced Immunology” research with their dad’s hint about “something big” involving Hope, and I’m betting her blood contains the antibodies to the zombie virus.