For better or worse, Tales of the Walking Dead saved its best episode for last. “La Doña” feels like it sprang from a dashed-off elevator pitch: “What if our horror show had, uh … more horror?”
In this case, the first horror is obviously a zombie apocalypse. But the second horror — the real horror — is a classic bump-in-the-night ghost story, as a vengeful bruja seeks justice from beyond the grave. It’s a more natural fit than the sci-fi time loop of “Blair / Gina,” if only because ghosts and jump scares cross-pollinate with zombies a little more gracefully.
Our “heroes” — or, more accurately, the two not-that-great people at the center of this story — are Eric (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier alum Danny Ramirez) and Idalia (Daniella Pineda, who starred in Netflix’s one-and-down stab at a live-action Cowboy Bebop). As they wander in the night, Idalia suggests they seek shelter with Doña Alma, a local healer whose isolated mansion doubles as a convenient place to hide from bad weather and zombies.
Part of the fun of “La Doña” is seeing how a zombie apocalypse justifies the kind of idiotic decisions that people make in horror movies. Alma’s place is obviously bad news: an imposing front gate, walls of crucifixes, dozens of burning candles. From the moment Idalia arrives, she hears creepy whispers. But while this couple — especially Eric — should probably be a little more unnerved by the fact that they’ve walked through the doors and right into a B-horror movie … where else are they going to go? Back out the gate and into Night of the Living Dead again? Are you really going to avoid sleeping on the plush mattress in the late owner’s bedroom when you’ve been sleeping in the woods for months?
Eric and Idalia’s actual acquaintance with Alma is brief and not that pleasant. When the older woman discovers them in the house, she’s plenty generous, offering bowls of guisado, a bathroom with running water, and even some spare blankets they can take on the road — on the condition they leave by morning. Eric bristles and slams his hand on the table, and Alma is startled enough that she smashes her head on the table and dies. It looks like a freak accident, but you do not get the sense that Eric is particularly remorseful about this tragic turn of events.
With the house’s caretaker dead, Eric pitches that they claim this lavish, spooky fortress for themselves, and Idalia reluctantly agrees. When she frets about the bad energy that might remain in the house, Eric has a quick answer: “It’s only bad if you believe it’s bad.”
Would you believe it’s a little more complicated than that? The remainder of the episode is peppered with hoary old horror tropes that Tales is more than happy to dust off and use again. Eric hears a mysterious voice in the night and discovers it’s a parrot that never stops saying spooky things. Idalia is convinced she’s seeing fleeting glimpses of Alma around the house. In one particularly freaky CGI flourish, Idalia either hallucinates or experiences the little metal Jesus Christs hopping off the crucifixes and crawling all over her body.
“La Doña” is having so much fun with all this nightmare imagery that it doesn’t establish much of a plot, but it also doesn’t need much of a plot. As Eric and Idalia experience separate scares, they turn on each other, increasingly convinced that the other is going mad. (The episode sort of hints at the possibility that they are going mad, but it doesn’t commit enough to make that a truly plausible reading.)
But even if the haunting turns out to be definitively real, Eric and Idalia are carrying plenty of guilt around. We get just enough information to learn that they both likely played a role in the death of Maria, the woman who told Idalia about Alma’s house in the first place, and that Eric swiped guns from her friends. As Eric smugly says earlier in the episode, when Idalia wonders whether they should vacate the house before it’s too late: “Things have changed. People take what’s in front of them. That’s it.”
Life pays you out, don’t you find? Unfortunately for Eric and Idalia, this particular installment of Tales takes place in a rigidly moral universe, where they’ve committed many sins. So when Idalia emerges from the basement covered in blood, saying everyone they’ve killed is down there waiting for them, it’s obvious there’s nowhere they can hide.
The couple descends into the basement, and Deborah Kampmeier’s direction gets wonderfully surreal. It’s not clear whose head we’re in: Just a swirl of zombies led by Alma, as both Idalia and Eric insist that all this madness is in the other one’s head. As their violence against each other turns physical, their victims swarm as well. When the dust clears, Eric and Idalia’s corpses are on the floor of the empty house — which again belongs, as it always did, to Doña Alma, who stares out smugly from a portrait on the wall with her parrot on her shoulder. In pace requiescat.
It’s an admirably grim note for the season to go out on. And maybe even for the show to go out on, as Tales — at least at the time of this writing — hasn’t yet been picked up for season two.
But while, as the record shows, I’ve routinely been underwhelmed by this series, I’m still hopeful it comes back for another run. At a time when The Walking Deadfatigue has set in for many lapsed fans, a TV show of fun, experimental one-off stories still feels like the best possible way to enjoy a gruesome little zombie story every week without needing to catch up on seasons of backstory.
Even when Tales has stumbled hardest, its sheer elasticity has left room for optimism that the next installment might redeem it. That’s the beauty of an anthology series: Every episode is a chance to wipe the slate clean and take another stab at delivering the best story you’ve ever told.
• That’s a wrap on the first season of Tales of the Walking Dead! What was everyone’s favorite installment? What was everyone’s least favorite? What do you hope to see more of (or less of) if the show returns for season two? Leave your thoughts in the comments, below.
• One fun idea I sincerely hope we get to see: A musical Tales of the Walking Dead episode, which has apparently already been written.
• There’s a shot of the bedroom wallpaper “blinking” at Alma that recalls Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which you may remember from high-school English.
• Other memorable scares: Idalia looking at her reflection in the sink and seeing hands strangling her from behind, Idalia imagining Eric kissing her neck as a zombie bite, and Idalia seeing creepy photos of herself and Eric in Alma’s picture frames. It’s a pretty rough time for Idalia in general.
• And one last Tales entry in the never-ending list of Walking Dead names for zombies that aren’t “zombies”: sonámbulos, which means “sleepwalkers” in Spanish.