Not since Terminus has one of our heroes spent so much time locked up inside a train car. I’ve made no secret of my disappointment with the show’s seeming decision to squander an opportunity for stepping outside of the usual storytelling expectations with these additional season 10 episodes, instead delivering smaller, uninspired variants of the same old same old, but I’m pleased to report that not only does “Splinter” make for the best of these bonus intallments thus far, but it also genuinely tries to play with the format and structure of a Walking Dead episode in playful and inventive ways, as much a one-act play as it is a bottle episode. And for all intents and purposes, it’s essentially a one-woman show, too. Sure, there’s a couple other characters here, but this is the Princess show—and it’s a good one.
Paola Lázaro makes the most of her chance to shine in this episode, taking all those little elements of pathos buried beneath Princess’ hyper-verbal shell and letting them bubble to the surface. It’s a far better showcase for both actor and character than her clunky introductory episode from last year, taking someone who could’ve just been a minor annoyance to our heroes and reintroducing them in a way that makes them worthy of attention. Lázaro resists the usual lazy actorly tics employed by performers trying to emphasize a character’s descent into mental fragility or paranoia (twitching, mumbling, over-the-top uses of gestus), instead letting her clear-eyed fears and suspicions convey precisely the opposite: Namely, that she believes she’s thinking as clearly as ever, even after it’s revealed that she’s hallucinated Ezekiel and is actually talking to herself this whole time. (Whether or not Eugene and Yumiko were also complete fabrications of her panicked mind is a bit more unclear, though I’m inclined to suspect they were never there, either.) It’s a strong, magnetic performance anchoring an intense character study that could’ve collapsed with a weaker actor; instead, Lázaro makes the case for keeping Princess front and center on this series.
The episode picks up exactly where season 10 originally ended, with Yumiko, Ezekiel, Eugene, and Princess heading to the rendezvous point where Eugene had arranged to meet up with his long-distance radio paramour, Stephanie, only to be captured by some goofy-ass fighters looking like cosplay stormtrooper rejects. After a brief skirmish that sees Yumiko knocked out hard following Princess’ failed attempt to grab one of the other group’s weapons, the purple-haired woman gets thrown into a train car, where the isolation and claustrophobia start to get to her—at least until she hears Yumiko brought next door, and spends the first act recounting a story from her childhood as a means of keeping the other awake (a concussion for Yumiko seems likely). This was a powerful, affecting monologue, nicely shaped by credited episode writers Julia Ruchman and Vivan Tse, but unfortunately dragged down a bit by the overblown and portentous sound cues. Let Lázaro do her thing, show.
From there, we get the next two encounters. First, Princess finds a painfully obvious way out of her makeshift prison (suggesting that either this was a hallucination or her captors just wanted to see what she’d do, given a chance to escape) and chats with Eugene, who advises her to trust this process and wait it out in her train car, please and thank you. (“Sorry, man, but that’s batshit,” is her succinct reply.) Second, she participates—or rather, doesn’t—in an interrogation with our bargain-bin Star Wars soldiers, who understandably aren’t inclined to accede to the demands of their prisoner who refuses to say anything about where her group came from or why they’ve shown up at this place. It doesn’t make these guys not evil (he does deck Princess, after all), but there’s also so little sense of what’s happening, that just having a conversation with the guy might shed at least a little light on her predicament.
But the payoff for Princess’ narrative is clearly meant to be the big reveal that Ezekiel, who drops down into her car and encourages her to start kicking ass now and asking questions later, is a figment of her overactive brain, her fight-or-flight instinct made manifest in human form. (The “flight” half of it comes later, when she attempts to escape and he again appears on the other side of the fence, exhorting Princess to abandon the others and save her own ass.) We’ve done this sort of thing before: Back in season three, the standout episode “Hounded” had Rick spend the entire time talking to people on the other end of a phone, only to realize it’s all been an hallucination. But here, as back then, it works, because the entire sequence plays out through Princess’ eyes, meaning even if you suspected the truth, it doesn’t matter, because the conceit helps to deepen both our understanding of Princess and her traumatic past, and gives us a nifty way to help her move forward and come to terms with her situation. Plus, it’s a new and different way to depict someone processing (or failing to process) grief, which is always welcome on a show that spends so much damn time doing that.
That twist helps add some additional layers to Princess’ showdown with the guard she “captures.” Since it’s subsequently revealed that he was basically a Trojan horse, sent in only to get past her defenses and get her talking, there’s some nice ambiguity that gets added in by making it clear he actually might have gotten in over his head with someone who’s not entirely right in theirs. His line about not being sure who she’s talking to—him, or herself?—keeps some unpredictability in the mix, and makes it less certain that he was just bullshitting all that stuff about his people being protectors, because who knows if he would’ve survived many more punches to the face? But his open-faced posture of guileless trust works exactly as it’s meant to, and soon enough, Princess is spilling all the details of Eugene’s plan to meet up with his beloved Stephanie, and well as just how recently she came into the others’ lives.
If they really turn out to be evil, as the final seconds of the episode desperately want you to assume, it will seem a bit silly the degree to which her guard fabricated his elaborate backstory. And if they just turn out to be really, really cautious and effective, well, then this “dun dun DUNNNNNN” of an ending will scan a little absurd. But the end is relatively innocuous either way; what matters is that we’ve gotten to know Princess, understand her painful past and the need to stave off being left alone with her thoughts for too long. This episode played around with structure and sensibility, pretending to follow a typical path of slow development only to pull the rug out and plunge us straight back into Princess’ mind. It’s a welcome character study from the show, the kind of thing it should really attempt more often, with similar disregard for whether or not it comes across as ludicrous. It’s not some bold experiment, but at least it’s playing to the top of its—and our—intelligence. That’s a welcome change of pace.
- This is the Princess/Not-Ezekiel exchange that will stay with me: “People are assholes—especially family.” “Not all family.” “Most family.”
- Something tells me the little slogan the guard recites is true, even if the actuality behind it isn’t so great: “For the benefit of all, and all who seek solace at our gates.”
- In hindsight, this episode really drives home the fact that Princess’ opening line to Ezekiel, Yumiko, and Eugene five episodes ago wasn’t just a joke: “You guys are real, right?”
- Princess, when the guard asks for the gun back: “I’ma hold on to it a little longer, if it’s all the same to you.”
- Anyone else really dislike close-ups of fingers with splinters in them?
- Congratulations to Princess for learning all the state capitals in alphabetical order.