The Walking Dead recap: 'Self Help'
The mission to D.C. hits a snag. Well, snags.
We all saw this coming, didn’t we?
I refer, of course, to the Second City-trained Steven Yeun finally showing off his comedic chops. We all knew it was inevitable, right? The guy came from the sketch-comedy scene. Did you see him on Comedy Bang! Bang!? Yes, yes, there was also the revelation that Eugene is a fraud, but did you know Steven Yeun was in Second City’s touring company?
The Walking Dead frequently addresses the theme of identity, of what makes its characters who they are. How much does who they were before—let’s steal from World War Z—”the Great Panic” matter now? And here, in this world where daily survival is an arduous, fraught process, who are they, really?
As I mentioned last week, episodes of The Walking Dead tend to hover around a certain theme, and this week it dives even deeper into identity than usual. Who is Eugene if he isn’t this mulleted messiah? Who is Abraham without his mission to protect the Mullet Messiah? Everyone in the D.C. group should take a second for self-reflection to ponder how they came to fall for a story that was shaky from the start. Even if they bought that Eugene was a scientist on the human genome project, just how exactly he would turn the world around was never fully explained. As that question loomed larger, the more difficult it became to continue the charade, no matter how mighty the mullet.
When the episode opens, the D.C. group is happily motoring along another leaf-strewn two-lane highway. Without knowing it, Maggie turns the screws on Eugene with a question that, itself, should’ve made the rational people within earshot say, “Wait, that sounds highly improbable.” She turns to Eugene and asks how long it will take, “after you get on that terminal and do what you have to do,” for the world to start righting itself. “Terminal”? Does the fate of the world depend on a 1970s computer? Without blinking, Eugene opens the bullshit tap: It “depends on a number of factors, including density of the infected around target sites worldwide” and weather patterns, “which were modeled without the assumption cars, planes, boats, and trains wouldn’t be pouring hydrocarbons into the atmosphere this long. Changes the game quite a bit when it comes to air transmission of pathogens.”
Glenn waits a moment. “Why the hair?”
Good one, Glenn, but about this plan… Even if the van hadn’t lost control—thanks to Eugene’s own sabotage, as we learn later—it’s not as if the group presses him. Even with Glenn pushing back on Eugene’s go-to excuse of “That’s classified,” no one shows interest in getting more of the story.
Maybe it’s denial, and maybe, as I speculated back in the “Strangers” recap, the possibility of a better future is enough, even if it isn’t true. Maggie tells Glenn as much later when the group takes shelter in a bookstore. “It just feels really good having this because it’s not about what was,” she says. “It’s all about what’s gonna be.”
As abrasive as Abraham can be, his resolve is comforting. An obsessive, shark-like devotion to constantly moving keeps his mind off his painful past, which we see in flashbacks throughout the episode. “We will get through this because we have to,” he barks after the wreck. “Every direction is a question. We don’t go back!” The group has managed, even in their post-crash daze, to dispatch the walkers that surrounded their damaged bus (even Eugene, sort of). Everyone except Abraham wants to stop to recuperate, but despite the “hard shot to the sack” he took, Abraham won’t relent. “We’re not stopping. We’re rolling on. We’ll find another vehicle down the road. The mission hasn’t changed.”
A man who clings so maniacally to The Mission is a man who’s barely keeping it together. Just look at the fear and desperation in his eyes as the ever-reasonable Glenn tries to get him to slow down. “Self Help” is a 42-minute portrait of a man unraveling.
Later, as he and Glenn stare out the window of the bookstore at night, Abraham muses that the only people left in the world are the strong ones. Either they’re so strong they can help you (and you them), or you have to kill them because they’re a threat. “I wanna say it’s never easy, but that’s not the truth,” he says. “It’s the easiest thing in the world now.”
“Self Help” presents that state of mind as the logical progression of a man who, near the beginning of the Panic, beat another man to death over a canned good in front of his horrified family. He was a family man, not yet hardened by death and not strong enough to continue when they left him. Meeting Eugene gave him a mission and completed his transition to a new person.
And that guy doesn’t linger anywhere, even when everyone is exhausted. “Maybe we always wind up stopping because we never start at 100 percent,” Rosita says. Maggie notes the town is in good shape, and they could spend a day sweeping for supplies. Chastised by Abraham, Rosita gets back on-message: They’ll sweep as they go. Besides, Abraham points out, the fire truck outside should have plenty of water and get them where they need.
These are people who have spent roughly two years in a zombie apocalypse, where, as Glenn noted a couple episodes back, “There’s nothing left in this world that isn’t hidden.” Yet this group of smart people seemed to think that a blood- and viscera-smeared fire truck is going to start right up? Apparently, as Abraham’s one-for-the-books tirade indicates: “There is no damned corner in this damned Earth that has not been dicked hard beyond all damned recognition!”
Including that fire station, because no one caught the “SICK INSIDE LET THEM DIE” warning written on the sidewalk. The walkers come quickly and start to overwhelm the group, until Eugene surprisingly saves the day. Having shown limited skill with a knife during the walker fight after the bus crash, he unleashes a torrent of water from the truck’s hose, the force from which is enough to take out the rotting undead. Considering clean water is a semi-precious commodity, they’ll probably wish they had it later, but, hey, Eugene can barely do anything—and the truck gives out not long after.
NEXT: A lie of Biblical proportions
Last week’s episode moved slowly until its intense final minutes. “Self Help” has a more even disbursement of action, but again packs the biggest punch at the end. As the group walks down the highway after the fire truck breaks down, they come upon some higher ground that opens to a panorama of thousands of walkers as far as the eye can see. They’re not grouped together enough to be a herd, but they present an insurmountable obstacle all the same. Abraham’s resolve has met its match. He stares out at the walkers, repeating some kind of mantra to keep going. But the group has finally had enough, even Rosita. Glenn can’t reason with him this time, and Abraham resorts to dragging Eugene along with him, even though the group tries to stop him. There’s a scuffle, and Eugene can no longer bear the lie.
He doesn’t reveal his true background, just confesses, “I don’t know how to stop it. I’m not a scientist.” (In the book, he’s a high school science teacher.) He figured D.C. would be the safest place in this situation, so he made up a story to get people to take him there, reasoning he was also doing them a favor by leading them to sanctuary.
People spend a good chunk of “Self Help” trying to tell Eugene who he is. Thanking him for saving her life during the post-crash melee, Tara says, “You have this. Even if you didn’t before, you do.” While Abraham tries to restart the fire truck on the highway, Maggie says to him, “You’re not the person people think you are. You don’t want them to know who you are.” And who is that? “If you didn’t have that mullet, you’d be like everyone else in that lab. But you’re not like everyone else.” He cares. He carried on when other scientists gave up. Because Tara had called Eugene Samson for refusing to trim his mullet, Maggie relates the riddle Samson tells in the Bible: “Out of the eater something to eat, out of the strong something sweet.”
But these were simplistic views of Eugene. Maggie and Tara (and everyone else) were duped by his feigned simplicity—the savant who can save the world but can’t take care of himself. In him they saw a naïf, and he brought out/exploited their caretaker tendencies.
That riddle Maggie mentions, it’s from the book of Judges in a section about Samson’s marriage. Maggie has it right, that Samson encountered and dismembered a lion, then returned to find bees living in the carcass. Samson puts the riddle to the 30 groomsmen in his wedding party, saying that he’ll give them fine garments if they can solve it. But it’s unsolvable, as Maggie notes, because only Samson saw the carcass with bees. The groomsmen threaten Samson’s wife to get the answer, and bad things happen from there. In a sense, Eugene is like Samson in that he has a secret that becomes a problem—and leads to a bunch of death, just like in the Bible.
As world-changing as Eugene’s revelation is, the bigger threat is what it does to Abraham. Rosita aside, all he has is the mission. Naturally, he beats Eugene into unconsciousness and almost certainly would’ve killed him had the group (and Rosita, hand on the gun in her holster) not intervened. He stumbles down the highway, drops to his knees, and cries. He will find no redemption in his mission.
The confused look on his face as Eugene confesses is the same look we see during the episode-closing flashback as Abraham stumbles out of the store where his family abandoned him. He would have ended it all had Eugene not helplessly wandered into his life.
With no mission, there’s only the drudgery of day-to-day survival. Good thing Beth needs rescuing.
• Tonight on Dalton Ross Presents: an interview with Ol’ Bloody Knuckles himself, Michael Cudlitz.
• Now that Eugene has confessed, his story about what started the zombie apocalypse collapses too. Probably. Maybe he’s right, but just by coincidence?
• The walkers approaching the damaged van have surprisingly healthy-looking hands and wrists. Maybe they’re moisturizing?
• Abraham: “I really need some ass first.” Glenn: “Didn’t need to…know that, but cool.” Steven Yeun, ladies and gentlemen.
• Of course Eugene watches Abraham and Rosita have sex. I would’ve been surprised if he didn’t.
• I guess the walker we see roaming into the bookstore just wandered out on his own accord? That did offer some commentary on Maggie’s hopeful cuddling with Glenn: No matter how good you feel, danger is never far away.
• In the book, Abraham does something way scarier than beat a guy to death. “Six men, pulled apart with my bare hands, mostly,” he says. Read What We Become to get the full story.
• That was a lovely scene of the group establishing base in the bookstore, while Eugene hums. They have this down to a science. And Eugene used the same lighter trick we learned on Orange in the New Black.
• “Maybe we can find some bikes. Bikes don’t burn.” +1, Tara.
• In case anyone forgot where Eugene and Abraham met, there’s a “Texas BBQ” sign helpfully placed in the background.