We’re still getting to know The Walking Dead: World Beyond’s band of teenagers — but despite Iris’s general warmth and grace, Hope’s rebel-without-a-cause act, and Silas’s tendency to snap and beat the shit out of random zombies and/or people, Elton is quickly emerging as my personal favorite of the four. Nicolas Cantu is a confident and idiosyncratic actor, and he manages to tackle Elton’s cartoonier aspects — his science-nerd monologues, his obsession with his mom’s book, his mustard-colored corduroy suit — and make it feel plausible and real.
So it’s a welcome treat that “Madman Across the Water” takes a deep dive into Elton’s backstory, giving us a glimpse at the events that shaped the brain of this very singular teenager. Unfortunately, these compelling flashbacks are offset by the present-day story, which is built around a thin internecine conflict that World Beyond doesn’t manage to sell.
Let’s start with the bad. Even Cantu can’t do much with this episode’s incredibly contrived central argument, which begins when Hope overhears Felix telling Huck that he still intends to drag the teens back to the Campus Colony. When Felix mentions that Elton is on his side, Hope freaks out and starts yelling at everybody.
This isn’t exactly true, of course; Elton’s big “betrayal” is basically just sitting on the fence and listening as Felix makes his case for returning home, which seems like a fairly reasonable thing to do. And there’s a fair amount of hypocrisy that goes weirdly unmentioned here; none of the other teens know it, but it wasn’t all that long ago that Hope was secretly leaving clues to their path for Felix and Huck to find. (And given how much Felix wants the group to head back to the Campus Colony, it is extremely weird that he doesn’t bring this up.)
Fortunately for everyone, including the audience, this easily resolvable conflict is easily resolved. Hope gets mad at Felix for messing with Elton’s head, Huck admits that the teens might be right about pressing forward after all, and Hope and Felix have a belated heart-to-heart that ends with Felix becoming vulnerable enough to admit it might be a good idea to track down Leo and Will after all. (Meanwhile, Silas silently stares down Elton like a serial killer, but makes up with him by the episode’s end.)
I’ve complained that this group needs some actual discord to spice things up, and this is a step in the right direction — but I’m not convinced the answer is an argument in which no one is wrong and everything can be settled in a clear-headed, two-minute conversation. Fortunately, the episode’s actual action is a little more fun. Apart from the arguing, much of “Madman Across the Water” centers on building a boat, which the gang needs to cross the Mississippi.
Even for The Walking Dead, this whole plan requires some suspension of disbelief. (Seriously, they build a boat that’s sturdy enough to cross the Mississippi River in a single day? And it runs on nail polish?) But there’s an enjoyably practical montage of the little tasks everyone needs to do to make the boat seaworthy, and it’s a reminder that Walking Dead stories tend to thrive when an episode is centered on a clear, tangible goal.
All the while, the flashbacks delve into Elton’s past, which is more or less what you’d expect. He’s a charming, precocious little kid who is eagerly awaiting the birth of his little sister. On the night of the zombie apocalypse, his parents hide him in a box in the back room of a Natural History Museum.This keeps Elton safe from the zombies, but gives him severe claustrophobia, which is why he got so freaked out about the lockers in last week’s episode.
The climax of the episode requires Elton to face his fear, as the inevitable zombie attack arrives just when the boat needs a crucial repair. After initially freezing up, Elton pulls it together long enough to get the boat running, and the gang escapes across the Mississippi, leaving a horde of moaning zombies on the opposite shore.
At camp that night, Hope takes the opportunity to patch things up with Elton, and it looks like World Beyond will be tying another tidy bow around a potential problem. And then Hope notices Elton’s photo of his mother — who is, of course, the pregnant woman she shot on the night of the apocalypse. Between her guilt and her impulsive nature, it’s hard to imagine Hope will keep this particularly dark secret bottled up for long. And something tells me this conflict won’t be resolved quite so cleanly.
• Given that so much of the tensions in the first half of the season has been built around whether or not the gang will go back to the Campus Colony, I wonder if World Beyond might have been better off saving the premiere’s reveal that the CRM had wiped out the whole colony. This whole conflict would have a little more juice if returning home seemed like a plausible option. As it is, the worst-case scenario is that they’d show up, realize everyone else was dead, and get back on the road again.
• The math is imprecise, and who knows what kind of detours they’re taking — but for the record: The distance from Lincoln, Nebraska to the Mississippi River is around 450 miles, which means they’ve got about 700 miles to go before they hit the New York state border.
• This episode’s title is kind of confounding, right? Who is the madman across the water, anyway? I can only assume it applies to the mysterious figure we see in the woods in literally the final seconds of the episode, but I guess we won’t find out for sure until next week.
• Huck doesn’t get the full flashback treatment, but we do get the broad sketch of her story: She was discovered injured and confused, floating on a raft down the river, which is how she ended up with the nickname Huck. And then, as the episode ends, she decides to strike off on her own, for … a scouting mission? I’m guessing there’s a real reason, and I’m guessing we’ll find out what it is next week.
• Early in the episode, Huck pitches Felix on a hybrid version of his plan: She goes forward with Iris and Hope, and he turns back with Elton and Silas. This seems like a lot of detail for a story World Beyond doesn’t intend to follow through with — but given that everybody is on the same page about moving forward as the episode ends, it’s hard to figure when or how it would come back into play.
• We also get the full origin story for the triceratops horn, which Isaac gave Lil’ Elton just before he left, promising it would always keep him safe. This adds a retroactive sweetness to the premiere, since Elton gave Iris a totem that was originally supposed to protect him.
• Sign me up for a trip to Daiquiritown, the off-brand Margaritaville knockoff of my dreams.
• It’s pretty hilarious that a lightning strike frees the zombies just as Hope and Felix arrive at Daiquiritown, which feels less like a bad omen and more like a flashing neon sign telling them the universe hates them and wants them dead.
• In the middle of the boat launch sequence, there’s a weird moment where Hope cuts her palm, which doesn’t pay off in any tangible way in this episode. It’s probably nothing, but stay tuned in case she gets gangrene or something.
• Lil’ Elton tells his parents he’s decided to name his unborn sister Esmerelda. So precocious!
• First we had “The Night the Sky Fell,” and now we have the return of “the wind always wins.” World Beyond: Stop trying to make “fetch” happen.
• This episode was directed by Dan Liu, a longtime Walking Dead creative who started as an editor on the original show back in 2014, and has also directed episodes of both The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead.