In this week’s “Self-Help” (written by Heather Bellson and Seth Hoffman), we discover the troubling reasons why Abraham has been so driven by his mission to get Eugene to Washington D.C. Even more unsettling, though, was the major reveal that the whole reason for the trip in the first place was built around Eugene’s colossal, disturbing lie.
The episode opens with Abraham, Rosita, Eugene, Tara, Glenn, and Maggie on the bus, headed North and feeling positive. They’re chatting happily, even making jokes about Eugene’s hair, complete with references to the biblical Samson (whose source of power was his hair). Glenn and Maggie ask what it will be like when they all arrive In Washington, but Eugene is very cagey in providing any answers. To digress momentarily, I have to say one thing that surprised me in this scene, and throughout the whole episode, was Abraham and Rosita’s outward displays of affection (and even Abraham calling Rosita his girl). Maybe I missed something, but I didn’t see them together before now. They may have shown some flirtation between the two, but I didn’t know they were a couple. Of course, the narrative didn’t have any real reason to show them together until now either, so I’ll chalk the lack of previous scenes up to that.
As the group is traveling along, a small explosion is ignited in the bus, causing it to flip over and land on its side. Everyone is ok, but the bus is wrecked, and the engine catches fire, so they all have to make a quick escape – even if it means taking on the walkers outside. This actually brings up a question: Is it me, or do the walkers seem like they’re getting easier to kill? People can just push them out of the way, then go right up to them and stab them in the head. Surely if it was this easy to kill the creatures, the world would not have been overrun, what with all kinds of military weapons and vehicles – like machine guns and tanks! – at our disposal. I know, of course, that the whole narrative is built around the (given) occurrence of a zombie apocalypse and its aftermath on what’s left of humanity, and not on the way in which it happened. It might even be argued that as the walkers decay they have gotten slower, but sometimes the effortless way our group members take down these zombies really stretches the bounds of the willing suspension of disbelief. Ok, moving on.
Woven throughout this episode are various flashbacks of Abraham sometime after the zombie apocalypse. Each one is a little clue into Abraham’s backstory, and the first one shows Abraham in a grocery store, having just massacred a small group of guys, crushing their skulls with canned goods.
Back at the bus, the group finishes off the walkers, and Eugene gets his first kill. Abraham is angry, or as he puts it “stressed and depressed” to see the bus in flames, but he just wants to continue their mission. They make a plan to walk into town to find new supplies, but Eugene takes a moment to make an odd, celebratory, “in your face” gesture by spitting on the walker he took down.
The group finds an abandoned bookstore to use as an overnight base (and we all know that where there’s a temporary base there will be more walkers…). The scene of them prepping the area was understated, yet very well done. Without any dialogue, we see the survivors perform all the necessary tasks they’ve learned how to do when finding a temporary place to lay their weary heads, just in the hope of getting a moment of peace. The quiet shots, accompanied by Abraham’s melancholic humming, were laid out in an unexpectedly poignant way.
At night, Glenn and Abraham keep watch, and Abraham waxes philosophical about either killing or being killed in this violent landscape. For Abraham, though, the killing has gotten way too easy to carry out. This is another well done, quiet scene that provides some much needed insight into his character.
Abraham and Rosita have themselves a little adult fun, which Eugene watches from the “self-help” section of the bookstore. Tara catches him, but he justifies his actions as a victimless crime. This is just one of many justifications for his behavior we’ll see him use throughout the episode.
It’s interesting that Tara seems to take a bit of a liking to Eugene, perhaps identifying with his semi-outcast status. She thanks him for saving her life (though it’s questionable that he did so), but then Eugene reveals he put crushed glass in the fuel line in an attempt to delay their departure for D.C. The whole truth doesn’t come out here, but Eugene does reveal his prime motivations to continue getting protection from the group with his promise of saving the world. He tells Tara he doesn’t believe the others would even keep him around otherwise, though she tries to convince him they would have his back anyway, due to the bond they all share. Her affection for him is obvious, even in her desire to share a fist bump, much like she did with Rick in the season opener. These little relatable moments have succeeded in making Tara a more likable character, especially after her association with The Governor last season.
Maggie hasn’t had much to do lately, but we get a scene with her and Glenn where she confides that although she has guilt about leaving the others, she also feels good to have a mission that focuses on the future. It’s a bit odd that the writers didn’t use this perfect opportunity for her to mention Beth, and their choice not to put any words of concern in Maggie’s mouth regarding her sister make her come across as uncaring, but maybe it’s just something that has slipped through the cracks in the scripts.
As fate would have it, the bookstore is right across from a fire station, and the group heads toward a fire truck (how convenient to find a vehicle and water at the same time) so they can move on. However, they quickly learn the intake for the engine is filled with human remains, but just as they go to fix it, a horde of walkers comes out of the station. As the group begins to take care of the zombies in the usual manner, Eugene finds a most creative way to dispose of them, impressing even Abraham who muses “I’ve been to eight county fairs and one goat rodeo; I never seen anything like that.”
Noticing a horrendous smell nearby, the group follows the stench to a huge farm completely overrun by a massive herd of walkers. Most everyone is in agreement that they find an alternate route – all except Abraham, who wants to go straight through it. It’s clear now that the more obstacles that threaten their trip, the more unhinged he becomes. When Abraham grabs Eugene’s arm to take him to the truck and the others try to stop him, chaos ensues and the situation begins to spiral out of control, until Eugene shouts out the huge reveal – he is not a scientist. He has no idea how to stop the apocalypse; He was just lying so the value of his life would be preserved. Now, I’ve learned that comic fans knew this was coming, but I’m glad I didn’t. Though at times I had my suspicions that Eugene wasn’t who he said he was, the reveal was still surprising enough that it made for a great twist. From what I’ve heard, the show has deviated from the comic storylines in the past, but seems to be following them more closely this season. So, for that reason (though I’ve heard from many people how good the comics are) I’m happy to be completely ignorant of them.
Through the last of the flashbacks, we see Abraham’s family leave him, terrified of the level of brutality he’s resorted to, and so they choose to take their chances with the walkers rather than stay with Abraham in the face of what he’s becoming. It seems to me however, that anyone who can be that forceful and strong in this landscape is somebody you want to be around in the zombie apocalypse, but in any case, Abraham’s family doesn’t make it. When Abraham discovers their bodies and is just about to put a bullet in his mouth, Eugene shows up, stumbling around as walkers chase him. Abraham kills the walkers, and Eugene (after quickly surveying Abraham’s mental state) begins to spin a web of lies that will give Abraham a mission, AKA a reason to go on – all while ensuring Eugene’s safety in the process.
Eugene finally reveals all of the truth, guiltily listing all those that died trying to get him to D.C. – including Bob. Yet he’s still full of justifications – saying he’s smarter than most people; claiming that Washington probably holds the best odds of survival anyway – and continuing on until Abraham just can’t listen to anymore. Abraham attacks Eugene, beating him until he falls to the ground, unconscious – or perhaps even worse. Abraham then drops to his knees, devastated by the instant disintegration of the mission that has kept him going all this time.
This episode was well done, but perhaps its greatest strengths lie in its quiet moments: The gathering scene in the bookstore; Glenn and Abraham’s conversation while keeping watch; Maggie and Glenn’s hopeful discussion about the future. It also moved the story forward (which every episode this season has excelled at doing) and gave us tons of insight into Abraham and Eugene, two characters who have only been bit players up to this point. The episode also (just like all the other ones this season) asked good questions: Is Eugene dead? What will Abraham do now that he no longer has a mission? Will they all head back to the church now? What will Rick’s group do when they find out? What will they do with Eugene now, if he’s still alive?
This review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Michael Cudlitz and Josh McDermitt’s performances this week. Though not previously given much before this season, Cudlitz convincingly portrayed the slow unraveling of a man who is quickly losing his only reason for living, and McDermitt was brilliant showcasing the contradictory sides of Eugene’s nature – from his humorous musings and downhome innocence a la Karl Childers in the movie Sling Blade, to his more cowardly and pathologically selfish motives that betrayed all those around him.
So far, every episode this season has set the stage for subsequent ones, and each ended on a great cliffhanger. I’ve been leery about splitting the group up again, but the stories showcasing specific characters have been well done, consistently doing something that episodes focusing on one or two characters last season failed to do – and that is move the story forward. This year the story has been moving at warp speed, while still slowing down long enough to provide emotional moments and interesting character exploration. Right now, The Walking Dead universe – though Hell for our group of survivors – is a very exciting place to be.