TV Review: The Walking Dead – Self Help (S5, E5)

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Director: Ernest Dickerson
Screenwriter: Heather Bellson
Cast: Steven Yeun, Lauren Cohan, Michael Cudlitz, Josh McDermitt, Christian Serratos & Alanna Masterson

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUmR7c0FgOk]

If the last two episodes of The Walking Dead have proved one thing, it’s that the character development for those characters who aren’t a part of the “main group” (Rick, Carol, Daryl et al) has, at least up to now, been rather lacklustre. Last week’s offering saw Emily Kinney (who plays Beth) attempt to carry an entire episode on her shoulders for the first time, with mixed results; this week it’s the turn of Abraham (Cudlitz) and Eugene (McDermitt), two characters who we still know very little about, despite them being with the group for quite some time now.

This week’s episode follows Abraham’s group – which now includes old-school regulars Maggie (Cohan) and Glenn (Yeun) – just a few hours after they’ve left Gabriel’s church in the search of a cure. Abraham is adamant that the group must make their way to Washington DC as quickly as possible so that Eugene can get to work on solving the small but persistent problem of the undead roaming the Earth, though the others aren’t in anywhere near as much of a rush; not least Eugene, whose reluctance to fight and general apathy towards even getting to DC at all sets him apart from the others. When their bus crashes unexpectedly, the gang are forced to hole up in a nearby town until they can find alternative transportation, leading to a blistering showdown between Abraham and the others, in which Eugene reveals a terrible truth about both his past and his so-called solution to the apocalypse.

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Like last week’s offering, “Self Help” engages in some welcome character development but succumbs to both predictability and a lack of imagination. Abraham, who was slowly being built up as a rival to Rick’s dominance and authority before he embarked on his own journey, is presented to us as a man haunted by past mistakes and failures, much like Rick is. He is brutish and sometimes standoffish, though his heart is ultimately in the right place. When Abraham gets angry, he takes it out on the people closest to him and retreats into himself. While these are all perfectly respectable and understandable qualities, he seems – at least at the moment – like a poor man’s version of Rick, albeit with a little more of the dry humour of Daryl. He isn’t unique and despite the change in focus the tone of the episode is almost identical to the ones in which Rick is the primary protagonist. We already have one Rick; we don’t need (or indeed want…) another

Eugene, by contrast, is a far richer and more intriguing character, though he too is written rather one-dimensionally. He’s reclusive and a bit of an outcast, ergo he spends his spare time watching Abraham and Rosita (Serratos) having sex. It’s all a bit too obvious, particularly when we discover the truth about his character’s motivations in the final few minutes of the episode. Nonetheless, the revelation about Eugene’s past does add a new dynamic to a season that, after three excellent episodes in a row, was beginning to lag just a tad. With DC still a fair distance away, with Abraham’s group in disarray and with no possible route back to the church (not to mention a lack of desire on Abraham’s part to go back), the future for this breakaway group is suitably uncertain, and that’s always good.

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Furthermore, though the episode is a little mundane and repetitive, Abraham’s backstory is really quite harrowing. There’s no denying that the near-nightmarish flashbacks are some of the best the show has done in quite some time, and the episode’s final scene, in which Abraham meets Eugene for the very first time, thus giving them both something to live for, is highly evocative. Alas, what happens in the present day – at least during the first 35 minutes or so – does absolutely nothing to advance the plot in any meaningful direction. It’s just the same old stuff; people fight zombies, crush a few heads and then move on. When the main group do this it’s a bit more exciting, as there’s a genuine sense of peril, but I know so little about these people – and care so little about Maggie and Glenn, who seem to wandering around aimlessly with nothing to do these days – that it’s hard to really get excited about what might or might not happen to them.

On a technical level, “Self Help” is a fine episode. The direction is solid, the writing is acceptable, and the performances are strong, as they always are in this show. Alas, on a dramatic level, it leaves a lot to be desired. Like Beth, Abraham isn’t fleshed-out enough to carry an episode on his own. The character development is welcome, naturally, and I appreciate that it’s necessary, but both this episode and the one before it have been bogged down in the details at the expense of the overarching story. It’s still a huge step-up from Season 2, when everything ground to an interminable halt for about eight episodes, but on the whole the show has definitely slowed down again, and not for the better.

Let’s hope things pick back up again next week eh…?

★★½

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