The Walking Dead Raised Its Most Important Question With an Unexpected Twist

Wait, Stormtroopers capturing a Princess (Paola Lázaro) again?!
Wait, Stormtroopers capturing a Princess (Paola Lázaro) again?!
Photo: Josh Stringer/AMC

Finally, The Walking Dead returns to show us what happened after the season 10 semi-finale’s biggest cliffhanger. Heavily armed and armored soldiers (who have a real Stormtrooper aesthetic to them) have surrounded Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura), Eugene (Josh McDermitt), Ezekiel (Khary Payton), and Princess (Paola Lázaro). They could be from the colony Eugene had been searching for. They could be a fascist militia. They could be both. It’s the eternal Walking Dead question: Should our heroes trust them, or not?

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The obvious answer is no because that’s the answer The Walking Dead has given practically every time it’s raised the question. Rick and his crew have been repeatedly betrayed and hoodwinked even after they came to Alexandria. The Whisperers managed to sneak a few undercover agents in town to cause chaos and death. Ezekiel actually sums up the Walking Dead’s usual ethos rather perfectly in this episode: “We can’t trust what we don’t know.”

These walking PlayStation 5s have certainly done nothing to earn the group’s trust, leveling their weapons at them while yelling at the group to drop theirs, which is also how “Splinter” begins. When Princess and the others comply, the soldiers start physically dragging them apart. Princess tries to grab one of the soldier’s knives and gets beat down, but when Yumiko tries to escape her captor to help Princess, a soldier clocks Yumiko on the skull with the butt of his rifle, and she collapses to the ground. Hard.

I’m going to assume that this is another episode made in the early days of the pandemic, because a full 10 minutes is purely Princess, alone, locked in a train car. She’s clearly uncomfortable and upset by being trapped in the dark, but she finds a figurative light when she’s able to talk to a woozy and entirely off-screen Yumiko until the latter finally passes out and is dragged away. For medical attention? For some less helpful reason? Princess has no idea and she’s worried sick because she blames herself for Yumiko getting injured.

The next morning, Princess discovers a (somehow completely unnoticed up to that point) small panel of wood on the wall, which covers a small but highly accessible exit out of the train car. She escapes only to find Eugene in the next car, who begs her to stay put, and trust in these people who could lead them to a giant community where they can get resources to help Alexandria, establish trade, and so much more (all based on his romantic radio communiques with the unseen Stephanie). Just as importantly, if it’s discovered she’s escaped, the soldiers won’t trust them. So Princess heads back to her car just in time to be dragged for her own interrogation. It doesn’t go well.

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How would you describe these guys? It’s like Stormtroopers meet Tron, or if GI Joe’s Cobra worked out of an Apple store.
Photo: Josh Stringer/AMC

The interrogator, presumably the leader of the squad, asks questions about her name, origin, how she got there, and then starts asking about the others, at which point Princess goes from uncooperative to belligerent. Still, that’s no excuse for the guy to call her a bitch and hit her before having his goons take her away. This, obviously, gives Princess even less reason to trust them. But she trusts Eugene, and the jerk interrogator aside, the soldiers may be tending to Yumiko, too. When Princess is returned to her train car, she doesn’t know what to do, and whatever she ends up choosing, she’s worried it’s going to screw things up.

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This is when Ezekiel drops from a hatch in the ceiling and is ready to break out, rescue Yumiko and Eugene, and kick ass. He doesn’t trust these guys, and when Princess tells him Eugene said they should be trusted, Ezekiel explains TWD’s thesis: “You can’t trust what you don’t know.” He’s uncharacteristically angry and spoiling for a fight, and he’s got a wild look in his eyes. And when Princess tells him that the interrogator hit a spot on her head where she once had a fracture, and, tellingly, “It’s healed up every time before,” Ezekiel grabs her by the shoulders, looks directly in her eyes, and says, “No one will hurt you anymore.”

Ezekiel manages to hide just as a guard (Cameron Roberts) comes in the car to give Princess food. Princess is ready to play ball, answer their questions, and she even apologizes, explaining dark, enclosed spaces don’t bring out the best in her. Unfortunately, Ezekiel has other plans; he smashes the guard to the ground to Princess’s horror, but now they have to tie him up. They question him and a furious Ezekiel is itching to hurt him, while Princess just wants information on Yumiko and her other friends, and to figure out a way to defuse the situation. The guard claims he’s on the lowest rung of the ladder in the group and knows practically nothing, and is so convincing regular TWD viewers probably heard alarm bells. The guard does admit locking up people they encounter and interrogating them is standard operating procedure. It’s harsh, but the colony is large enough to have a bureaucracy and an army. The guard even says there’s paperwork that has to be filled out for these things, just before smashing Princess in the face with an elbow in an escape attempt.

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Ezekiel (Khary Payton) wonders, “What would Tyler Durden do?”
Photo: Josh Stringer/AMC

It doesn’t work. Ezekiel throws the guard to the ground and starts choking him to death. Princess can only manage to get him to switch to repeatedly punching the guard, and Ezekiel cries, “No one will hurt me anymore!” Then Ezekiel disappears and...there’s blood on Princess’s fist. Commercial break. When The Walking Dead returns, Princess is walking outside alone, armed with the guard’s rifle, and is about to crawl under a fence to escape when she suddenly changes her mind and starts to go back...until she hears an incredibly genial Ezekiel. He’s palling around shoulder-to-shoulder with two zombies and tells her she should go, they should go. They’re survivors.

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At this point, it should be abundantly obvious that this Ezekiel has been a figment of her imagination, a manifestation of another part of her personality, Tyler Durden-from-Fight-Club-style. She was the one who beat the hell out of the guard and interrogated him, in what was a pretty nifty scene if you rewatch it: Ezekiel and Princess never speak at the same time; he spends most of the time, directly behind her, talking to himself, and emerging to the forefront when its time for violence; and the guard’s eyes stay focused on Princess’s, and only Princess’s. This version of Ezekiel is the side of her that wants to fight, to survive, to run. But Princess is the part of her who wants to stay and help her newfound friends. When Fake Ezekiel tells her she only met them last week, she responds, “That’s a lifetime in apocalypse years.” She’s put her trust in these people and cares for them because they’ve cared for her.

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Let’s talk about Princess for a minute. Her first real episode was “The Tower” (15th of the season, which was merely five episodes ago) and she talked about how she could have been seeing hallucinations, mentioned how she’d been completely alone for a long time, and led Yumiko, Eugene, and Ezekiel through a minefield just to spend more time with them. She was unpredictable and made some bad calls during their initial time together, but Yumiko still asked if she wanted to join the group. Princess was ecstatic.

In “Splinter,” we learn a lot more about Princess’s very traumatic past, which is implied to have spread well beyond her stepfather’s physical abuse and her mother’s knowing indifference to it. She tells the guard, after returning to the train car, her other ailments: “There’s the ADHD, the anxiety, the PTSD, the depression, the crushing loneliness, and the active imagination that helps me cope with all of it.” It’s a very broad explanation for the extreme mental issue of hallucinating other people and forgetting which one is her, but personally, I can forgive it because this far into the post-apocalypse there’s no way Princess has had access to any medication. I know how badly the mind can misperceive reality without the right help, and after hearing about her ailments and her past I find Princess’s issues plausible enough, certainly enough for a show based on an equally broad comic book like TWD.

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Photo: Josh Stringer/AMC

What’s interesting is that the person who wants to stay and help the others, who doesn’t want the guard to get killed, and who doesn’t want to mess things up because she doesn’t know the right thing to do, is always shown as Princess. It’s the non-Princess, represented by Ezekiel, who wants to go on the offensive, nearly kills the guard, and wants to run away. So it’s Princess who unhandcuffs the guard, answers those questions the jerk interrogator asked her earlier, and hands him his gun back. She’s putting her trust in him, and as a result, he says he’ll take her to see her friends. It turns out they’re all right outside, tied up, and with dark bags over their heads.

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Did Princess make a stupid mistake? I don’t think so. While the show frames the reveal of the hooded Yumiko, Eugene, and Ezekiel (and then Princess herself) as a horrifying twist, there are plenty of instances of groups blindfolding or bagging people to take them to their home without revealing its location as a very reasonable precaution. As for the armored goons, their “standard operating procedure” is brusque and draconic and shitty…but I can easily see Rick enacting the same sort of protocol after dealing with the Saviors, if he’d had the resources to send a troop of soldiers to go scout or patrol somewhere. (His guys just wouldn’t dress like Stormtroopers and hit women.) Whatever and wherever this colony is, whether they’re just overly cautious or total fascists, the soldiers’ tactic of dividing, imprisoning, and interrogating unknown people they encounter is a smart and effective, if shitty, way to assess and/or stop threats before they reach their home, at least in the world of The Walking Dead. Still, fuck that interrogator.

My guess is that Princess and the others will be unbagged at that home, and I bet there will be more tests and interrogations, but they won’t be killed. It would be exceedingly dull of TWD to make this place pure evil, so I’m guessing there will be some good that comes out of it, presumably resources to help rebuild Alexandria, even if, narratively, this place will likely end up filling the void left by the Whisperers and the show’s new antagonists. However, if Princess didn’t place her trust in these soldiers, those potential benefits would be completely lost to them; furthermore, things with the soldiers would almost certainly have gone much, much worse than they went. You can’t trust what you don’t know is a pretty good adage in the eminently unsafe world of The Walking Dead. But the problem with it is, if you ever want to find someone you can trust, you’re going to have to get to know them first.

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Eugene’s (Josh McDermitt) expression is the encapsulation of “Welp.”
Photo: Josh Stringer/AMC

Assorted Musings:

  • Princess puts her stolen rifle on her back to crawl under the fence to freedom, but the stock gets caught. It’s a good thing Princess didn’t have the spatial awareness to put her rifle through the hole first or Ezekiel, Yumiko, and Eugene could have been in real trouble.
  • When Princess is having her epiphany that she’s the one punching the guard in the face, she briefly hears the voices of Yumiko and Eugene, echoing lines earlier in the episode that told her to do what the guards say. This begs the question of whether Yumiko and Eugene were both her manifestations, too. Eagle-eyed or -eared viewers could definitely have picked up clues I missed, so please share them in the comments. Right now, I believe the Eugene encounter was real because it was so banal, but Princess’s conversation with Yumiko is so ethereal that, coupled with Yumiko’s stated inability to get in Princess’s line of sight, Yumiko could just be Princess’s guilty conscience. Of course, this can all also be explained by the concussion Yumiko undoubtedly received at the beginning of the episode.
  • The reveal that this community has somehow become so bureaucratized they’ve reinstated paperwork that needs to be filled out when soldiers have encounter new people blew my damn mind. Having that much bureaucracy in the post-apocalypse is just as crazy to me as wearing a mask out of human skin and hanging out with zombies.
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Rob Bricken was the Editor of io9 from 2016-18, the creator of the poorly named but fan-favorite news site Topless Robot, and now writes nerd stuff for many places, because it's all he's good at.

DISCUSSION

sven-t-sexgore
Sven.T.Sexgore

I thought Eugene was probably real if not, poor Princess, what a dull and unhelpful hallucination. But now that I think about it the hole wasn’t really there so he must have been fake. 

Yumiko I think was false and actually thought that even before the big reveal. That it would turn out her guilt had her talking to an empty car (or corpse if they went bleak).

Once Ezekiel suddenly went from behind her to behind the guard I knew for sure what was up.