[This is a review of The Walking Dead season 5, episode 5. There will be SPOILERS.]
The Walking Dead has been on a roll lately. Even last week’s somewhat mediocre episode still managed to be an entertaining effort that offered some engaging elements, especially in terms of time split between different individuals and groups. After Daryl emerged from the woods at the end of ‘Four Walls and a Roof’, the show has been visiting the same time period (or earlier, in Beth’s case) and the result is a greater sense of togetherness between the core survivors, even though they’re separated physically. That concept of separation becomes a much bigger deal in ‘Self Help’, which is another look at how a group (other than the one led by Rick) operates and, more importantly, deals with massive setbacks.
The episode revolves around Abraham’s team and his dogged determination to get Eugene and his “Tennessee Top Hat” to Washington, D.C., so he can bring about the end of the apocalypse. That determination, that sense of purpose is what has driven Abraham since he first popped up last season, and his resolve to accomplish the fairly monumental task of transporting and protecting the somewhat ineffectual (when it comes to slaying walkers, anyway) Eugene from Houston to the nation’s capital has given the show a greater sense of purpose as well. That drive and sense of hope is seen all throughout the episode; it permeates almost every conversation in one way or another. Maggie and Glenn’s exchange is a particularly nice moment. So, when it gets ripped from the survivors during Eugene’s fateful confession near the end, the result is actually devastating.
Now, The Walking Dead is a show that takes as much pleasure in disappointing its characters, as it does in killing them. Seeing people like Abraham, Glenn, and Maggie deal with the ramifications of Eugene telling everyone he faked his backstory and the world’s potential salvation, to procure the kind of protection he was unable to provide himself should have come as yet another gut punch and a laugh from a show that likes to bully its characters. But because of the way ‘Self Help’ was structured, and the way Eugene’s story has been built up, it was more than just the routine harassment. This wasn’t The Walking Dead running away with its protagonists’ lunch money; it was taking away the one tangible reason they had to keep pressing on.
Even those who haven’t read the comics (or happened across a Internet comment section in which some poorly socialized individual felt that the truth about Eugene was theirs to share months in advance) probably had their suspicions about the creepy, voyeuristic, so-called last hope of humankind. But, perhaps there was also a glimmer of hope buried deep within that suspicion. And over the course of the episode, that may be what separates the other characters (and the audience) from Abraham: the level of hope they allowed themselves to feel. Which is why Abraham’s arc here, despite its familiarity, is so effective. And it is why Eugene’s reluctance to allow the group to succeed generates so much tension. This isn’t the unnatural betrayal of the Terminans using other humans as food; this is Abraham and Eugene grasping desperately as self-preservation and coming up tragically short.
And the value in that realization takes things back to how well the episode was actually structured. Normally, flashbacks can derail the plot and throw off an episode’s pacing (just look at the final season of Boardwalk Empire for a prime example of this); here, because Abraham’s flashbacks are presented in a way that establishes his fragile state of mind and reveals how, despite his bravado and tough military talk, he’s just hanging on by a thread, they wind up being an incredibly useful tool that frames the character and the narrative in the concept of purpose.
Aside from some smart editing choices, the flashbacks succeed by showing restraint and by not going into unnecessary detail. Abraham’s display of violence in the supermarket is enough to drive away what is presumed to be his wife and kids (Ellen, A.J., and Becca), leaving him suicidal until Eugene and his fictional quest show up. In an instant, each man effectively became the other’s savior, making the betrayal at the end – both Eugene’s confession and Abraham’s savage beating in return – a successful bit of tragedy on a show that, in the past, has been unsuccessful in making such moments stick. Here, it doesn’t have any such problem.
‘Self Help’ reads like the kind of episode this show has wanted to tell for a long time, and its achievement is all the more significant because of it. Spending time away from the core group sometimes feels like a risky proposition, but if The Walking Dead continues to deliver this level of storytelling, it will cease to matter what group the audience is spending their Sunday nights with.
The Walking Dead continues next Sunday with ‘Consumed’ @9pm on AMC. Check out a preview below:
Photos: Gene Page/AMC