The Walking Dead Recap: Stressed and Depressed

Photo: Gene Page/AMC

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The Walking Dead
Episode Title
Self Help
Editor’s Rating

I was not looking forward to this episode. Last week’s detour with Beth was a bit of a snoozer, low on both character development and flesh-munching zombie mayhem — the two pillars of the show. My hope for this episode was that Carol would help Beth escape, reunite with Rick’s crew, and get back to the tightrope-tense feel of the rest of this season. Instead, we join the short-bus posse on their road trip to Washington. It seemed like another slow-burn, momentum-killing chapter was in store. But thanks to the ever-quotable Sarge, library sex, fire-hose fun, and Eugene’s big reveal, it was another top-notch hour in what’s shaping up to be the best season yet.

The Sarge and Eugene turn this episode into a buddy flick gone horribly wrong. Eugene steals the show, but Sergeant Abraham — and his backstory, revealed in tantalizingly short flashes — carries the story line. The Sarge proves he’s the most quotable survivor, possibly from years of whipping recruits into shape, like R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. (To wit: “I took a pretty hard shot to the sack with that crash. I’m stressed and depressed.”) Fittingly, he’s in the driver’s seat as the church bus heads north to the capital. The convo turns to men’s grooming, and the Sarge sweet-talks Rosita, a.k.a. the poor man’s Lara Croft: “Maybe I’ll let you shave me down all over,” he tells her. “Dolphin smooth.” (Funny and gross; mostly the latter.) Tara observes that Eugene’s sweet apocalypse mullet could use a trim — “Party’s a little long in the back” — but Eugene, sounding more Sling Blade with every episode, ain’t hearing the haters. (This leads to a lot more talk about his hair, the biblical strongman Samson, and riddles that mostly goes nowhere.) Maggie holds Glenn and smiles, once again showing zero concern for her missing sister. (If she doesn’t care about Beth, why should we?)

Then, boom — it appears the bus blows a tire, swerves across the road, and flips over, not far from a pack of walkers. Strangely, there’s not much discussion afterward about what caused the wreck. In the ensuing chaos, Tara convinces Eugene to take a knife and get to zombie-slaying; considering his usual role in combat situations is to cower or run like a nervous goat, this is a big step for him. Eugene helps Tara with an awkward backstab (it’s all about the head shots, dude!), and the two form a bond. That moment ends up being important for two reasons: Eugene later confesses to Tara that he sabotaged the bus, and he smartly uses the fire-engine cannon to turn a zombie herd into a very soggy pile of rotten flesh. (Just when you think they’ve run out of ways to exterminate the undead …)

With no wheels and the Sarge still determined to press on (“We don’t go back!”), the group finds shelter in a bookstore, where my high-school English teacher would be very disappointed that they burn books for warmth. Here, the Sarge waxes philosophic to Glenn about the state of the world, positing that everyone who’s still alive is strong. That divides folks into two camps — strong people who can help you survive, and strong people you have to kill because they want to kill you. It’s a grim philosophy: Killing, he says, is “the easiest thing in the world now.” Glenn, who’s still disturbed by the carnage he witnessed at the church, doesn’t seem to agree.

There’s a similar universal truth that Father Gabe proved — everyone who’s still alive has done something that haunts them. The Sarge’s flashback proves he’s no different. It begins as he’s beating a man — not a walker — to death with a can of food in a grocery aisle. Behind him, more bodies, likely dead by his hand. As this scene plays out slowly over the hour, he finds the woman he’s been crying out to — Ellen, who’s with two children. When the Sarge starts up the fire truck, his wedding ring is still on his finger, so it’s safe to say Ellen and the kids are his family. But when he finds them, they’re horrified after witnessing his violence. He likely saw those men as a threat to his family’s safety — the strong who must be killed — and took them out, perhaps a bit prematurely. Ellen leaves a note for him (“Don’t try to find us”) and flees. When the Sarge eventually reunites his wife and kids, they’re corpses. His reaction: to cock the hammer on his pistol and stuff the barrel in his mouth.

Then Eugene appears, in peril. Maybe the Sarge’s bond with Eugene is strong because they met at his lowest moment. Or because he had a chance to protect this helpless man in a way he couldn’t do for his own family. Or simply that Eugene’s tale of a “very important mission” was the only thing that gave the Sarge a reason to live. Whatever the reason, the Sarge is tight enough with his oddball sidekick that he doesn’t mind letting Gene watch as he “gets some ass” in the library. (Not even the collapse of civilization can weaken the libido of this sexual tyrannosaurus.) It’s an especially odd time for Eugene to tell Tara — undisputed queen of the awkward fist-bump — that he wrecked the bus. (His Peeping Tom defense: “I consider this a victimless crime that causes both comfort and distraction.” Hard to argue that.)

That’s not the biggest secret Eugene has been keeping. They leave the library, find a fire truck, and get back one the road. (But not before Rosita points out the Sarge was wrong about the air intake on the engine. Was that a clue that the Sarge isn’t exactly who he appears to be?) Up ahead, a crapload of zombies. As the Sarge insists they can plow ahead, even Rosita won’t take his side. Screaming ensues, Glenn and the Sarge nearly come to blows, and then Eugene drops the bomb (one that I assume a lot of us anticipated): “I’m not a scientist! I lied. I don’t know how to stop it.”

Wherever Eugene falls on the autism spectrum, he knows the Sarge is wrong about this world of strong folks. He’s the third kind of survivor — physically and emotionally fragile but smart enough to use the strong to stay alive. When his usefulness expires, Eugene figures, so will he. All his talk of the Human Genome and T. Brooks Ellis and airborne pathogens was nothing more than self-preservation.

That comes at a cost. I felt for Eugene, even as he ticks off the names of all those who died in service of his ruse. The Sarge snaps, hitting Eugene hard enough to knock him out; his skull makes a sickening sound as it hits the pavement. Rosita steps in, hand on her gun, ready to defend Eugene — there’s a look in her eye that harkens back to the Sarge’s wife, frightened by his violent streak. Eugene is in bad shape, but I’d bet he’ll live. The question now is, with no real promise of salvation in D.C., do they press on? Considering the state of affairs in Georgia and their luck in the Peach State so far, it’s worth a shot. One thing is clear: Every time the Sarge insisted that “we don’t go back,” he wasn’t just pressing ahead for D.C. He was running from something scarier than any zombie.

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