On the surface, life at the Commonwealth seems pretty sweet. Want ice cream? Vinyl records? A birthday cake? A hot shower? A refreshing lack of zombies? This city offers all of that and more. But as is the case with nearly everything post-apocalypse, it’s wise to be skeptical when the going gets a little too easy. Connie, Carol, and Eugene each have an awakening of sorts as they put on their Sherlock Holmes caps and embark on very different but equally revelatory investigations into their new home.
Intrepid local reporter Connie is on the government-corruption beat for the Commonwealth Tribune, which turns out to be a problem for her editor, who’s both no-nonsense and not into the whole “journalistic ethics” thing. Connie’s fixated on uncovering the truth behind Trooper Davis’s party-crashing and his beef with Governor Pamela Milton. But instead of encouraging Connie’s nose for news, the state-run rag she’s working for sends her and Kelly on a ride-along with the po-po, led by Mercer. An encounter with walkers in the woods is little more than propaganda for the Milton regime, but the terror is real when one of Mercer’s soldiers ends up on his back with a hungry dead thing in his face (it’s fair to wonder why the guy is so terrified, given he’s covered head to toe in armor). The walker chatters loudly until thwack — its head splits in half courtesy of Mercer, who’s visible in the gap between the left and right sides of its once-whole noggin.
All of this is only significant in that it’s pointing toward whatever strange conspiracy is swirling through the halls of power here. Connie gets Mercer thinking about those he’s serving, especially when Connie reveals she knows the hostage Trooper Davis threatened at knifepoint is Mercer’s sister. He goes to check on Davis and is punch-a-wall furious to learn that the kid has been transferred without his permission. Any coincidence, then, that Connie later receives an anonymous note with a bunch of names, including Davis’s?
Once again, Carol ends up outside the Commonwealth’s walls, this time joining Lance on a visit to the clandestine poppy farm that supplies the city hospital with opium. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Sadly, this does not turn into a Breaking Bad scenario — Lance meets with a chap who goes by Moto and sports a sort of “Ozark chic” look. The guys go fishing, shoot the breeze, and negotiate drug prices. Meanwhile, Carol gives a suspicious look to one of Moto’s henchwomen, who’s looking rather suspicious herself. In no time, literally, Carol learns Moto is skimming profits and beating his workers into keeping their mouths shut. Moto ends up in cuffs — kudos for his FCC-friendly and innovative “mother pus bucket” epithet as he’s led away — and Carol once again proves her worth. It’s also worth noting Lance’s admission that he’s worked his way up the food chain from the bottom, and his observation that there are two kinds of people in any organization: the mercenaries and the patriots, whom he calls “true believers.” Sure seems like he’s a man with a cause — the question is, where exactly does his loyalty lie?
Eugene, of all people, gets close to an answer. But man, this poor guy can’t catch a break. His day begins with Stephanie by his side in bed, gushing over the manuscript of his sci-fi novel; Eugene gives her a key to his place, and they exchange “I love you”s. It’s all downhill in a shitbasket from there: Eugene gets stood up on their ice-cream date, and back at her apartment, we see Steph frantically packing a suitcase. Nothing in her body language earlier suggested Eugene was moving too fast. What the hell is going on?
Steph’s disappearance leads Eugene into a rabbit hole that’s part CSI procedural and part Homeland paranoid. Princess gets the full debrief on his conspiracy theory: A large bald guy and “Beanie Hat Man” are in cahoots with two other ne’er-do-wells to cover up Steph’s disappearance. Eugene is convinced Steph got too close to some dark secret about the Commonwealth and went on the lam to avoid punishment. (Those watching closely during the scene when Eugene describes the four co-conspirators probably had the surprise ending spoiled a bit — two of those shadowy silhouettes were pretty easy to figure out.)
Eugene ends up infiltrating their hideout, spraying Beanie Hat Man in the face with something that hurts and gets kicked hard in the gut. His attacker is none other than Stephanie, who looks down on him with smoldering scorn — goodbye bookish pixie dream girl, hello ice-veined assassinista. Further blowing his mind is the appearance of Lance. Eugene lays out his belief that everything — from his radio romance to the capture of his people and their recapture (“I fell for that twice!”) — was a setup and that he’s going to expose Lance for the creep he is. After a long, intense pause, Lance replies with a Pete Davidson–esque shrug: “Okay,” he says. Eugene already signed a release admitting he’s suffered a breakdown, so who would believe him? Lance also delivers a cold splash of reality: Sure, Eugene’s heart is broken, but with everything from “concerts to cancer surgery” here, maybe the Commonwealth is the best damn thing that’s ever happened to him and his pals.
There’s a kernel of truth in that — Commonwealth is certainly safer than anywhere else the survivors have hunkered down. As always, though, undead threats may be the ugliest, but it’s the horrors of humanity that are truly scary. Adding insult to injury, Lance drops two final bombs: Steph’s real name is Shira, and she hates Iron Maiden, the band Eugene and his catfish fake-bonded over.
Devastated and now certainly in the midst of a very real breakdown, Eugene burns the “Missing” posters he hung around town along with his book manuscript. Enter the double twist, as Eugene hears his radio handle (“Blue Weevil to Taterbug!”), and a woman steps forward from the shadows — it’s Mercer’s sister/costume-ball hostage/Governor Mercer’s assistant/Meghan Markle lookalike, and she’s the real Stephanie. Was this Steph discovered by the powers-that-be and then replaced by faux Stephanie to draw in Eugene’s people? How is this connected to Lance’s mysterious cabal, and how does it all fit into the uprising that’s afoot? Even if Lance turns out to be leading the rebels toward a coup, the new boss would be the same as the old boss.