I’ve noticed a similarity between the two basic types of Walking Dead fans and gamers. In both camps, you have your hack-and-slash types who crave action, with little to no interest in complex plots (or any plot at all). Then there are the hardcore devotees who can recall obscure storyline details from years ago — perhaps they attend cons, or enjoy cosplay, or write fan fiction (or even read recaps). If you’re among the former and it’s undead slaughter you crave, this chapter was probably a big letdown; there were more zombies in the opening credits than anywhere else, and the two useless fleshbags we saw were stuck on a fence. But this intimate Princess close-up was moving enough to perhaps even win over zombie-splatter purists and those who find her quirks more annoying than endearing. Add a tantalizing morsel of insight into the military outfit that’s holding her and her new pals captive and you’ve got a fairly satisfying episode.
The scene picks up where the season finale left off as the foursome — Princess, Zeke, Eugene, and Yumiko — is rounded up and separated by low-rent stormtroopers in red-striped white armor. Princess makes a move for one of their weapons and Yumiko takes a rifle stock to the head when she tries to help. Being isolated in separate, dark train cars does not work well for Miss P, who counts steps in Spanish and recites city names to ward off a panic attack. As she tries to talk to Yumiko in the neighboring boxcar, she tugs on a wood plank and gets a splinter. That sliver is a metaphor for a nagging pain that’s not life-threatening, but hard to get rid of. Princess, as we learn, is carrying some deeply embedded emotional splinters, too.
From the start, Princess seems more concerned about her new friends than for herself. She tries to keep a concussed Yumiko awake by chatting (a lot), and when her buddy is dragged away by the troopers, she tries to convince Eugene to launch a rescue mission. Both of her friends express some concern that Princess is more trouble than help — Yumiko implores her to do as she’s told, and Eugene goes even further by saying she’s going “make things worse.” These (probably accurate) comments really sting, as Princess is touched by the idea that these people are truly friends, the first she’s had in a long time.
Eugene, of course, is still holding out hope that this army is tied to his dream-girl radio-pal Stephanie, because — well, let’s be honest, what else does Eugene have going for him? But his argument that the troopers are not necessarily bad people kinda crumbles when Princess is interrogated. Her very creepy naked examination is explained as a zombie bite check, so as not to suggest any awful connotations otherwise. But when it ends with a backhand that sends Princess flying and the reason is “because you’re being a bitch,” even Eugene would have to agree these guys — and the few we meet are all men — ain’t good folks. At least ol’ Rick kept his housing-application questionnaire short. This one is a real grill session: Where were you during “the fall”? How old are you? What was your SAT score? Social security numbers and net income for each of your friends?
The slap that Princess suffered evokes memories of a sad tale at the root of her trauma. She recalls being in a “similar spot” as a kid: locked away as a punishment, she caught a splinter from scratching at a door jamb. Her stepdad smacked her in the mouth like that trooper did; she fights back tears while admitting her jaw’s been fractured a few times. Perhaps worse than her father’s physical abuse was the emotional damage from her cold, cruel mom.
The twist comes when Zeke rather magically appears through a hatch in the roof and then cold-cocks a trooper who came to deliver food. Now it’s their turn to do the interrogating, and the very young soldier looks like he could be in some sort of end-of-the-world ROTC program. He knows very little, but talks a good game: We’ve got valuable stuff (“Medicine? Ponies?” Princess asks), and we’re “for the benefit of all … who seek solace at our gates.” Well you sure have a funny way of saving people, pal. While Princess sees this kid as one of the “scary action figures [who] came to life,” the kid is more concerned about the paperwork he still has to fill out. Three hots and a cot is all I got, lady. No quality intel.
Boy Solider is also worried about what his bros will think about “getting snatched up by some chick,” and that little misogynist line is also a clue as to what’s really going on. When he tries to steal his rifle back, Zeke pummels him within a few inches of his life. But it’s not really Zeke — Princess has been alone all along, talking to herself and also kicking this guy’s ass quite handily. (When the soldier later asks who she’s talking to, Princess delivers a classic and honest self-diagnosis: “I’m not crazy, if that’s what you’re thinking. I mean there’s the ADHD, the anxiety, the PTSD, the depression, the crushing loneliness, and the active imagination that helps me cope with all of that but, like, maybe that’s the only sane response to an insane world, you know what I’m saying?” We hear ya, sister.)
Miss P considers ditching her new friends, but another weird conversation with Imaginary Zeke and two train-enthusiast zombies changes her mind. Running would make her like her mom — just another monster in a world with too many of them already. These new friends are some of the real ones. So Princess listens to her better angels and returns to negotiate with Boy Soldier. But why why why does she uncuff him? Somehow that doesn’t backfire, but Princess still gives up her remaining leverage by answering all the interview questions, and worse, handing over the rifle.
Maybe Eugene was right — if Princess didn’t make things worse in the end, she sure didn’t make it much better. Or did she? Boy Soldier yells “I got her!” and the doors open to reveal her three pals, all wearing ominous black hoods and surrounded by more armed troopers. We’re left to think this could be a prelude to an execution. But maybe it’s simply the preferred method of moving them from one location to the next without revealing anything about the camp. What if, by prying loose those splinters, Princess actually saved the day?