Huh. That was different. Normally, when The Walking Dead mixes things up stylistically or narratively, it’s still within the traditional parameters of the series. A full-blown horror movie, for example, isn’t exactly outside the realm of a show about the zombie apocalypse. And even when the show—in one of its finest moments, latter season or otherwise—became as much about the internecine political squabbles of the various human factions as it was about the undead, it did so with the premise of scarce resource allocation, a recurring theme in our post-society wasteland.
At least, until now. The Commonwealth seems to have the scarcity problem under control (give or take a shipment of poppies), and the threat of the undead feels minor at best when we’re inside the walls of the territory. So when Stephanie disappears, and Eugene becomes convinced she’s under threat from some “rogue element” within the government, the show seizes the opportunity to do something completely different: It turns itself into an ersatz version of a paranoid conspiracy thriller, complete with a connect-the-threads sinister theory map board, a visual aid that likely won’t be able to be taken seriously again until we’re at least a decade removed from the It’s Always Sunny meme.
Honestly, though? It was kind of fun, cornball style and all. (If you’re going to bring back Michael Cudlitz to direct another episode, you may as well give him one involving the sorts of cheesy aesthetics that are clearly in his wheelhouse.) The setup was simple—Eugene tries to make sense of Stephanie’s disappearance (right after saying “I love you” to him, no less, poor guy) and ends up learning that Lance’s community integration schemes are far more unsettling than it would appear. To wit: “Stephanie” was a plant, a way for the Commonwealth to manipulate Eugene and learn the location of Alexandria, as well as ensure that none of his fellow emigres were troublemakers intent on causing problems in their newly adopted hometown.
It’s the kind of heel turn that’s well within the purview of the Commonwealth, and has been from the start. (Not to beat a dead horse, but the season has done a pretty rotten job from the start in trying to sow any type of ambiguity about whether or not this new haven actually sucks. There may as well be an “Abandon all hope…” sign above the entry gates to the place.) But that doesn’t mean it’s not a bluntly effective reveal; something about Eugene literally getting the wind knocked out of him by the woman who’s been sleeping next to him all this time, luring him into a false sense of happiness, was symbolically potent. And having gone back and watched their earliest exchanges again, just to try and see if there were any odd clues dropped, it doesn’t look like it. If you guessed Stephanie wasn’t on the up and up, congrats: You’re a more suspicious viewer than this critic.
Then again, you may not have immediately made the connection between the end-of-episode appearance of the supposedly “real” Stephanie and the hostage situation from last week, either. Yes, the woman who bonded with Eugene over the radio is none other than Madison, a.k.a. Governor Pamela Milton’s assistant, a.k.a. Mercer’s sister. And going back and re-watching Tyler holding her hostage at the fancy gala from last episode, it’s worth noting what she whispers to him: “I’m like you,” she burbles, looking terrified. “I’m like you.” That’s when he apologizes and runs away. At the time, it felt like a moment of working-stiff solidarity and shared humanity; now, it reads like a subtle way to inform her attacker that she’s part of the resistance, too.
This main plot works despite, or perhaps because of, the more hokey elements. Along with Cudlitz’s hammy staging (that shot of Stephanie wistfully disappearing on the balcony!), poor Eugene has some truly sudsy dramatics both before and after he learns what really happened. Josh McDermitt always lends a really pitiable quality to Eugene’s blubbering, which makes it work better than it would otherwise. This character has gone through the wringer as much as anyone at this point, and Princess’ sympathetic reassurances actually bolster that aspect of his arc. What makes it more intriguingly unpredictable is that we know something Lance doesn’t: Eugene may seem pathetic, but this is the guy who sabotaged the entire Savior arsenal in one stroke. When it comes to revenge, he plays the long game.
Speaking of the long game: Carol’s B-plot continues to unfold with slow, wily pacing. This time around, she accompanies Lance outside the walls, and using only those Carol Powers Of Perception™, figures out that the guy the Commonwealth’s been using to procure Poppies for their opium has been exploiting the people working with him. It’s barely a blip in the overall storyline, but it further solidifies her standing with Lance, putting her in a better position to be of service when shit finally starts to go down.
It’s a smarter play than Connie’s, who is really intent on poking the bear. I’m actually quite enjoying the Connie and Kelly subplot, in part because it’s the first time in god knows how long either of them have gotten to do some actual character work, rather than just reaction shots. Seeing Kelly’s pragmatic urging to her hotheaded sister to just play along and keep her head down helps define both of them in relation to one another, as well as add in some tension to their living situation. It’s “temporary,” Kelly stresses about life in the Commonwealth, when Connie gives her grief about not wanting to get to the bottom of the secrets being hidden by the government and military. It makes me wonder if everyone from Alexandria is in on some fake-it-till-you-make-it strategy here—given the creative team’s obvious joy in diving into the who-can-you-trust mechanics of conspiracy thrills (taken directly from the comic’s final arc), it won’t surprise me if that turns out to be true.
Between Eugene’s discovery, Connie’s digging, and Mercer’s increasing frustration with the authoritarian tendencies of his bosses, there’s likely going to be some movement on the whole “insurrection” thing soon. If the show can continue to lean into this late pivot to other, colorful genres—and thereby make a forté, rather than weakness, of the Commonwealth’s cartoonish class stratification—The Walking Dead’s page-to-screen adaptation of this story promises to end things with a great deal of fun.
- Kill of the week: Mercer splitting open the head of a walker down the middle while we watch it happen from the p.o.v. of the stormtrooper fighting the walker off.
- We know it’s been a month since last episode, since the script rather bluntly puts those words in Cnnie’s mouth.
- Princess’ two pieces of advice to Eugene were both great: “When a woman tells you she loves you, believe her;” quickly followed by “And when a woman quits her job and moves away without telling you, maybe you should believe that, too.”
- Rosita, out here performing wellness checks. Still more screen time than Daryl, Miko, or Magna got this week. [Deliberately leaves Judith off the list.]
- Am I the only one who would’ve liked to hear a snippet of Eugene’s novel?