This The Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 11 Episode 19
The opening montage of this week’s The Walking Dead asks an important question of both its survivors and the audience: does it take more courage to live than to die in this environment? It’s underscored by a montage of Eugene (Josh McDermitt) and his lower moments, from begging Abraham (Michael Cudlitz in flashback form) to save his life to joining up with Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) during the Savior days. Eugene has never had the courage to die, but he’s always been able to find a way to live, thanks in no small part to his talent in prevarication (AKA lying) when needs must. Now, Eugene faces his hardest challenge to date. Will he flee to safety with Daryl (Norman Reedus), Rosita (Christian Serratos), and the rest of his friends, or will he stay behind in The Commonwealth and lie his ass off for the woman he loves?
Of all the characters on The Walking Dead, no one has had quite as long and difficult a journey as Eugene Porter, and it’s to Josh McDermitt’s credit that he’s able to make the character still sympathetic after all these years, considering some of the terrible things he’s been a part of and done out of cowardice. Sure, he’s had a lot of moments of surprising bravery, too, but Eugene is the sort of character who won’t remember all the times he stood up to the threat of walkers (or bit a guy’s penis during a Mexican stand-off in “Twice as Far”), he’s the kind who focuses on what he’s failed to do and let that weigh heavily on his mind.
At several moments during “Variant,” McDermitt has allowed Eugene to face down those moments from his past, while arguing with himself on whether to take the coward’s way out and escape with his friends or be bold and stay behind in The Commonwealth to see if he can lie his way out of trouble. There are a few scenes of Eugene, torn between his desire to do the brave thing and his innate desire not to be killed for someone else’s crimes, having it out with Daryl to the point where at one moment Eugene threatens to make it physical.
To his credit, Daryl doesn’t laugh, and Reedus plays it perfectly in opposition to McDermitt. Daryl knows Eugene is smart enough not to go out and risk his friends when there’s still a chance to rescue Max, and it’s not until he finds out Max (Margot Bingham) has been captured by Mercer (Michael James Shaw) and the clamshells that he’s willing to find his bravery, override his intelligence, and walk into the arms of the beast after a second lovely scene with Rosita that feels very much like Eugene saying goodbye forever.
There’s a lot of that ‘do the safe thing or do the right thing’ built into Vivian Tse’s script. Throughout “Variant,” various characters, in particular Eugene, Max, and Princess (Paola Lazaro), have to face the consequences of their actions, and accept that they’re going to hurt other people in the process by making their choices. Max and Mercer have a good scene in the interrogation room, in which Max says that she’s not willing to make the best of a bad situation anymore, which echoes Princess telling Mercer later in the episode that she deserves better than the best of a bad situation.
Lazaro hasn’t had a lot to do in the latter portion of season 11, but she makes the most out of this opportunity and plays her role to perfection, emotional and yet not overcome by her emotions, taking a pretty standard ‘damaged’ character reveal and giving it proper weight thanks to some very well-done face and voice work. Mercer is getting his actions questioned by both of the important people in his life, and it’s clear in Shaw’s face in those scenes that the second thoughts he’s always kind of had are starting to resurface.
The Commonwealth has always been something of an unsustainable vision of the future, in that it’s basically a recreation of the past. There are haves and have-nots, and the rich support themselves through the labor of the poor and the blood and sweat of people like Mercer. There’s not an equitable use of resources, or even an equitable division of labor. Some people have it easy, wearing suits and working in offices, while other people clean up garbage or kill rotters to make sure the wealthy are never bothered and the status quo is never overturned. Walkers might have killed Sebastian Milton, but Max Mercer’s cassette tape stunt is going to be the true death of the Milton dynasty. Max tore the blinders off, and what people are really seeing in the world around them can’t be covered up with ice cream and pro wrestling.
“Variant” opens in screaming and chaos; there are rotters in the walls killing people, and the clamshells seem more interested in stamping out protests and knocking the population around rather than stopping the zombies before they kill anyone else. That’s compounded by the all-hands search of the community undertaken by Pamela Milton in her search for Eugene Porter; it’s not said directly, but it’s implied that it’s more than just the outsiders from Virginia who find themselves getting rousted from their apartments during the door-to-door search for Eugene. That won’t make the unhappy elements in The Commonwealth happier. The dissent in the people has been apparent since the beginning of The Commonwealth’s arc, and director Karen Gaviola doesn’t have to hang a big neon sign up on set to remind us that Max’s reveal struck more than a few chords with the rank-and-file while Pamela distracts herself with Lance (Josh Hamilton) and zombie Sebastian (Teo Rapp-Olsson).
Of course, it could all be for naught given what Aaron (Ross Marquand) discovers while hiding out with an injured Jerry (Cooper Andrews), Lydia (Cassady McClinchy), and Elijah (Okea Eme-Akwari) on the set of an old Renaissance Faire Jerry’s taken to calling The Kingdom 2.0. Walls and doors are no longer as safe as they used to be, as Aaron finds out the hard way. What he assumed were Whisperers (right down to peeling a face off during an attempted unmasking, which looks incredible) are actually just smarter versions of zombies. A walker that uses tools, opens doors, and climbs fences to get at food is a formidable opponent, indeed.
Max might talk a big game about wanting to save The Commonwealth from the Miltons et al, but if those walkers get inside the walls, there might not be anything left to save by the time the inevitable social upheaval settles down. Between Hornsby making enemies without and Sebastian Milton having made plenty of enemies within, it wouldn’t take much external pressure from the undead to topple the whole house of cards. Better enjoy the rocky road ice cream while it’s still available.