The Walking Dead: Season 5, Episode 5–Self Help

“We don’t stop, we don’t go back. We’re at war, and if we stop, we lose.”

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Another week, another group of survivors in The Walking Dead. Having sensibly split up the ever-growing gang of main characters, it looks like showrunner Scott Gimple’s approach for this year is to jump between numerous storylines involving each group. If nothing else, it presumably means that some of the gang will get a bit more time off; after all, we haven’t seen Andrew Lincoln for two episodes now.

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After last week’s glimpse into the current whereabouts of Beth Greene, this week it was the turn of Abraham’s Washington DC-bound party to be the focus. It was another fairly low-key ep from an action perspective, but gave us some long-overdue insight into these characters, especially Eugene Porter and Abraham himself. Since their introduction in the latter half of the previous season, we haven’t really learned a lot about them; they were introduced as a military team escorting a scientist on a vital mission to stop the Walker plague, and apart from a few hints, that was their entire character description.

This week filled out their characters with actual pasts, finally giving them more than two dimensions. Scriptwriters Heather Bellson and Seth Hoffman drew heavily on what was established in the comics, which seems to be more common this season than in previous years. So for comics readers (like me) there was little of any surprise about the revelations contained here, though, as in the source material, they do make dramatic sense. And given the show’s previous tendency to start with a comic-based premise then subvert it by taking it somewhere new, even I hadn’t taken it as a given that this would be where the characters were going.

As the pre-credits flashback established, the main focus of this ep was Abraham, though as the story progressed, Eugene got an equal share of the limelight. Michael Cudlitz has always looked the part as the grizzled soldier, but here he finally got a chance to do more actual acting than just ‘tough focused soldier’, and carried it off well. As the flashbacks to Abraham’s earlier life unfolded throughout the ep, it explained much about his motivations, and revealed that, under that grizzled military exterior, there’s a world of hurt.

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The reveal of his family’s fate made perfect sense of the character. In trying to protect them using violence, he terrified them away, straight into the jaws of some nearby Walkers. No wonder he tries to mask his feelings, and no wonder he was prepared to end it all until Eugene gave him a new purpose in life. Cudlitz did well at playing all that, making his toughness apparent as a façade he uses to stop feeling pain – the never-healing cut on his hand presumably served as a metaphor for that, if a little obvious. Plus, in a show like this, it also left you with the nagging suspicion that he’d somehow been infected (well, more than everyone already is), which I’m guessing wasn’t the intention.

Since Eugene’s ‘mission’ had become Abraham’s raison d’etre, we also necessarily got a lot of focus on his character for the first time too. As played by actor/comedian Josh McDermitt, Eugene has until now been a bit of a comic book cypher – cowardly scientist with a deliberately exaggerated Southern accent (McDermitt is from Arizona), and a bizarrely eccentric mullet.

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The mullet was high on the list of topics discussed this week, as a major element by which the other characters had formed their opinions of him. Since it’s usually the haircut of choice for rednecks and poor white trash, Tara at least had judged it as a defiant gesture of eccentricity against a more respectable scientific community. The irony was that the haircut and the accent were far from an eccentricity, and it was the scientific background that was Eugene’s real bit of fakery.

Again, as a comics reader I’d guessed that was coming, but steered clear of mentioning it in earlier reviews, if for no other reason than the show might have played it out differently. But it’s perfectly in keeping with the show’s bleak outlook that the first glimmer of real hope in the post-apocalypse world has turned out to be a lie. Though to be honest, even if Eugene had been telling the truth, I hadn’t expected the rosy return to normality that Abraham had seemed to be optimistically expecting.

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As the flashbacks scattered throughout the ep gradually revealed Abraham’s motivations, events in the present led you ever closer to the truth about Eugene; you could see the whole script as an exercise in slowly revealing the truth about both. Consequently, few of the others in their party got much of a look in for screen time. Tara, by dint of her inquisitiveness about him, got a few scenes with Eugene, but was mainly there to (metaphorically) poke and prod him until he admitted the truth. Rosita got a sex scene but not much else; and Glenn and Maggie barely had more than a handful of lines each.

Well, we already know Glenn and Maggie pretty well, and Tara’s had a fair bit of attention in earlier eps, so the focus on Abraham and Eugene didn’t take too much away from them. It does seem rather a shame for poor old Christian Serratos, though, as currently Rosita seems to be little more than little more than an inflatable sex appendage for Abraham to shag and Eugene to drool over.

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Thankfully, The Walking Dead has never been a show to dwell excessively on the characters’ sex lives. When it does, there’s usually a good plot reason for doing so, as we got here with Eugene’s rather creepy spying on Abraham and Rosita mid-coitus from behind a handy bookshelf. It was revealing for all involved – Rosita a bit uncomfortable knowing, Abraham not caring and being, frankly, rather smug about his ‘conquest’, and Tara, understandably, slightly creeped out by Eugene’s lack of shame over his peeping. She’s just lucky his hands weren’t actually in his pants when she found him.

By the end, though, you came away with a surprisingly generous impression of Eugene. For all that his ‘mission’ was based on a lie, and that it got people killed, his eventual frankness about his cowardice was sympathetic. And by the end, it was clear that not only had he got over that, his undoubtedly high intelligence is a real asset to the gang (as we saw with his inventive use of a high pressure fire hose for Walker dismemberment). Still, even though the others may be happy to accept him as a friend, I think it’s going to take Abraham a bit longer to get over Eugene’s deception.

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Gore of the week

In a fairly talky, character-based episode, there wasn’t much in the way of gore this week, even though the show never forgets to throw some Walker-killing into the mix even in eps as thoughtful as this one. So it’s a hands down gore of the week winner from a limited choice, of Eugene’s ingenious water massacre, in which a high pressure fire hose was enough to make the increasingly fragile Walkers just go to pieces:

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But an honourable second place must go to the unfortunate Walker who tried to get into the crashed bus through a broken window, ignoring his inconvenient impalement on the remnants of the glass:

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And Abraham did some impressive head squishing with a rifle butt:

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This was, if anything, a more sedately paced ep than even last week. Still, it never reached the sedentary levels of the interminable arguing at Hershel’s farm, remembering to chuck in a bit of action (the bus crash, the fire truck), and some Walker jeopardy (that distant but huge herd). Most importantly, though, it finally gave Abraham and Eugene real personalities from which future plots can stem. I’m betting we’ll come back to them, but not necessarily next week; it’s looking like this season’s format is to vary the mix of which plot strands they follow. That’s a good approach, and hopefully the relatively slow pace this early in the season is an indicator that things will pick up at the mid-season finale, rather than last season’s frenetic non-stop action/endless soul searching in the forest mix.