The Walking Dead: Back to Bleak

Dissecting "Self Help," the fifth episode of the fifth season

Gene Page/AMC

David Sims and Lenika Cruz discuss the latest episode of The Walking Dead.

Sims: This episode was called “Self Help,” but it should have been titled “The Ballad of Eugene Porter.” Things always seemed a little too good to be true for our mulleted pal, and this episode did a lot to clear up the backstory of him and his muscle-bound partner Abraham. Sadly, that came with the revelation that many might have already guessed at—Eugene is no scientist, and he doesn’t really have a secret plan to destroy all the zombies from some secret base in Washington D.C. I suppose that makes sense, since the one thing The Walking Dead would really not want to introduce is a way to kill all the zombies, not while this show is still getting 20 million viewers a week for AMC. Eugene had drawn my suspicion this season with his generally cagey attitude, and that was fleshed out here. To him, lying about this secret plan was the best way to ensure his survival; if he had the key to humankind’s salvation locked in his brain, others might help protect him.

The best thing about this generally well-done episode, I thought, was its whole thesis that as awful and ridiculous as Eugene’s behavior was, it actually did save lives, or at least one life—Abraham's. I was a little thrown by the flashbacks to Abraham’s survival story through the episode, partly because everything else seemed so concentrated on Eugene. It’s also tough to give us a new spin on a Walking Dead origin story, so instead we got the greatest hits of one—apocalypse drives man to terrifying violence, eventually he loses his family, yadda yadda. Not to dismiss Abraham’s feelings, but one hardly needs any context to know why someone might want to kill themselves amidst all this horror. Near the end of the episode, we see Abraham was getting ready to put a gun in his mouth when Eugene stumbled upon him and sought his help, giving him a new mission to devote himself to (just what an Army man needs).

Lenika, what did you make of this one? We’re definitely back to the classic Walking Dead approach of devoting one episode to one story strand and eschewing the other characters, which does tend to slow the story down. And we’re now down one crucial mission—I don't how much I care about these guys getting to Washington D.C. anymore, and the characterization in both Abraham’s and Eugene’s case (the latter as a Peeping Tom) was a little blunt. But overall the ending struck me enough to keep me pretty happy.

Cruz: David, I may actually prefer this one-arc-per-episode approach. Yes, sometimes that can yield back-to-back, one-on-one conversations that drag, and the show takes longer to pick up where the action left off. But some of the best episodes in recent seasons opted for a single, ambitious bound instead of a series of little steps—the brilliant “Clear” from Season 3 and “The Grove” from Season 4 come to mind. Sometimes these are bottle episodes, but this narrative minimalism places a greater emphasis on the negative space surrounding the action—breathing room where some really artful cinematic touches and character development can take place. These moments more than make up for the show’s other shortcomings, of which there are admittedly few in season 5 so far.

Despite picking up a new storyline, this episode shared some similarities with “Slabtown,” including the pitfalls of an ultra-utilitarian approach to life after the End of the World. Abraham tells Glenn that everyone who has survived until now is strong, and that strength can be used to help other strong people who are in danger or to fight off others who are a threat (or something to that effect). Eugene figures that as the herd thins—due to walkers, sacrifices, disease, accidents—he needs an unusually compelling justification for others to help keep him alive. “I’m smart,” he tells the group, after confessing he’s not a scientist, and he’s right. He’s manipulated the others into keeping him alive at all costs (even getting people to martyr themselves for him) not with muscle or superior killing skills, but with his words.

But as you noted, this episode killed off what was ostensibly The Big Goal of the fifth season: getting to Washington D.C. to find a cure. Which leaves us where? Maybe the hospital will end up being more important than we previously believed. And also: How will Abraham’s group meet up with Rick’s group if they don’t keep going to D.C.? How on earth are they supposed to inform the others about the absurdly crushing reversal of plans?

Sims: I am worried about the lack of a goal so early on in the season. For too long The Walking Dead has seen its heroes shamble from one safe structure (CDC, farm, prison, town) to another and, sometimes through no fault of their own, bring about its destruction. Since I’m never going to feel sold on the fact that they can find a place to live permanently, any time our heroes settle down I start to get antsy. So hopefully Eugene can explain just what he means by Washington D.C. being some kind of promised land for his group, or, as you say, there can be some incredible contrivance to link them back together with Rick and maybe point them toward the hospital. I also get nervous knowing everyone’s heading in separate directions without any real way of communicating (In general I get nervous watching this show; I suppose that’s not too unusual).

With D.C. possibly taken off the board as an important location, I find myself much more interested in the hospital as a focal point, at least for the next few episodes. Like you said, it serves as a terrific crystallization of just what Eugene feared—that the zombie apocalypse strips people like him of their value. Of course, what his group has on the hospital group is that they didn’t just kill him or leave him to die once they realized he’d been lying. Eugene’s friend Rosita played a particularly important role clarifying that difference in “Self Help.” She’s another Season 4 character I liked pretty much from the start, and another example of how good this show has gotten at casting—Christian Serratos was a hell of a find.

But without Eugene’s plan in play, I think I want to see everyone link back up with Rick and company relatively quickly. There’s much more drama to be wrung from that group clashing than there is from all this splintering, unless the writers have some new arc on the horizon we don’t know about yet, though I doubt it. The full-circle story this episode told, linking back to the beginning of Eugene’s journey with Abraham, suggested that this thread was a detour more than anything else. Is this group narratively compelling enough on their own to sustain a long-running story?

Cruz: I didn't love the abrupt and overly cryptic Abraham flashbacks, but they were a clear attempt to get viewers more invested in him (and Eugene and Rosita). In other words, the show didn't do what I feared it would and rely on Glen and Maggie to make viewers care about the D.C. group's success. Even Tara has come a long way from feeling like a whiny and insufferable afterthought in Season 4; she's proven herself a smart, loyal member of the team and more than worthy of viewers' affections.

I'm hoping that next week will bring us back to Slabtown (which is what I'll forever call the hospital forever, because that name is just too perfect and sinister). Ideally, the show will unite at least two of the three story lines with relative haste, lest it gets bogged down too much in the details of each and takes advantage of the audience's patience. If the show leaves the D.C. group on its own for the foreseeable future, it will need to quickly introduce some kind of new mission or obstacle. I'm fine with "all this splintering," as you called it, but that splintering needs to be purposeful (I think it is).

I suspect that the levity we felt at the beginning of "Self Help," when everyone was joking in the van about Eugene's hair, won't resurface anytime soon. Terminus may be gone, but things are looking bleak as ever. And while "grim" may describe life for Rick, Abraham, Beth, et. al, right now, it certainly doesn't apply the show so far this season, which has been anything but zombie-like.