Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review The Walking Dead each week in a series of letters. You can also catch them talking about the show Monday afternoons on HLN.
Before we get into this idea that Eugene is a fraud, which I think we’ve both intuitively understood for some time now, I want to just let myself react to “Self Help” on a gut level. I’m always afraid when I write TV reviews that my mood going into the episode dictates what I’m going to write afterward, regardless of the content that comes in between, and I want to issue that disclaimer here in case I look back on this episode at a future date and go, “wait…what was I thinking?”
BUT, that being said, I think the writers really hit this one out of the park. My basic formula for when The Walking Dead works as more than a really good zombie thriller is simple: Overt messages are bad, subtle character studies are good. Two weeks ago, in “Four Walls and a Roof,” we saw an example of the former, and it was a little less enjoyable simply because the “moral of the story” was delivered in monologues and one-liners and confessions by dying Bob and cynical Maggie and guilt-ridden Father Gabriel. This week, though, we witnessed the compelling story of two men corrupted by bad decisions, and how they found each other in the moment of their greatest need, and acted as each other’s salvation…and yet because their relationship was founded on deceit and an unfulfilled psychological need, they were also each other’s undoing.
We’ll start with Sergeant Abraham Ford, who, we see in foggy flashbacks, went a little haywire and got lost in a murder rampage. I may have missed a detail, but as far as I could tell, there was never an indication about whether the violent fugue was necessary. And in a way, I don’t think it matters, because even if it had to be done, it’s clear that he let himself be warped and seduced by an inner bloodlust he chose not to contain. One of the morals in Greek mythology that I remember from 7th grade, and which I’m obviously paraphrasing is: If you have to kill someone, perform the death as an act of duty, and take no pleasure or lust in it. If I have the details wrong, please blame my English teacher, but the deal was that when Agamemnon returned home from the Trojan War, he was killed by his wife’s new lover at her behest, and it was an ugly, hedonistic sort of scene. It was up to Orestes, Agamemnon’s son, to avenge the killing, and in order to end the cycle, it was imperative that he did it with a solemn sense of obligation. Otherwise, the rage would corrupt him as well. Abraham fails this test, and it horrifies the woman and two children who, we assume by the one kid’s red hair, are his wife and children. They leave him in terror, and he finds them dead. At this point, he decides that his own life’s purpose has been compromised, and he prepares to kill himself—with the gun in his mouth, the imagery hearkens back to the first episode of the series, when Rick nearly kills himself in a similar fashion while he’s trapped beneath the tank.
Enter Eugene, a coward running from three staggering zombies that Abraham kills without breaking a sweat. Eugene needed a protector, and Abraham needed a mission, so the lie that he tells serves them both. The problem is, Eugene didn’t know where to stop, and a lot of people ended up dying so that he could get to Washington D.C. to do…nothing. The lie kept them both going for a long time, and I would argue that were was a bit of self-delusion going on with Abraham—he knew how badly he needed a mission, and any doubts he had must have been easy to extinguish in order to keep his frail mental state on the right side of crazy. When Eugene confesses, though, burdened by days and months of lying and feeling guilty because of the friendship shown by Maggie and Tara, there are no more delusions left for Abraham.
The way he hit Eugene was brutal, but the way he’s going to punish himself will be just as bad, if not worse, and the truth is that since the moment they first met, this was the punishment they both had coming. Eugene may have escaped the zombies, and Abraham may have found a mission to save him from the disgrace that cost him his family and nearly led to his suicide, but in truth, these fates were only deferred. Faulkner had it right: The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
So that’s why I dug this episode—it told a nuanced story without beating you over the face, and it got pretty deep on characters that frankly never seemed very interesting to me before. I’ve rambled on, so I’ll kick it to you…am I overreacting on this one, or was it truly one of the great episodes?
I loved this episode, too, but mostly for the zombie heads getting blasted off with the fire hose. Okay, the all that subtle, meaningful character development was cool, as well, but did you see the way Eugene went from barely being able to hold a knife to unleashing a flesh-ripping spray of water?
I was really glad to see Abraham’s backstory. He’s been single-minded in his desire to get Eugene to Washington, and we now see that his motivation is more than just that of a soldier who’s been handed an important mission. Eugene’s promise of salvation was Abraham’s only reason not put a bullet in his own brain. His failure in giving in to the bloodlust, as you put it, cost his family their lives. He holds himself responsible. In the comic, those people he killed were his friends and neighbors who’d raped his wife—a pretty understandable cause for snapping. But when he learns the whole mission is a lie, everything crumbles, and he’s back to that state of utter rage.
Part of what seemed to help Eugene finally to confess his deception was a budding belief that he doesn’t have to be completely useless. First, he saves Tara’s life with a poorly placed but still effective knife to a walker’s back, and you can see his attitude begin to change when he spits on the walker. Then he saves the group by manning the fire hose. He hasn’t been able to believe that anyone would allow him in their group as pathetic as he is. But the lie is starting to put him in as much danger as it is saving him. Even in his apology, he makes the asinine decision to tell Abraham that he’s still smarter than them—just asking for the beat down.
Abraham was already having his own meltdown, though. His demons were keeping him from being a good leader, demanding that the group try to plow through a gigantic herd of walkers. His greatest fear is going backwards; ever since he came upon his dead family, he’s had to just keep blinders on with one goal in mind.
Going back to the episode name, though, “Self Help” really points to Eugene as just a creepy guy—the kind of person who would spy on Abraham and Rosita and put crushed glass in the fuel line to slow their journey to D.C. So when Abraham pummels him at the end, I was as concerned about Abraham losing his humanity again as I was about Eugene getting hurt.
So now both Abraham and Eugene have to relearn their place in the zombie apocalypse. They’ve saved each other one way or another up to this point. Abraham needs to find a new reason for living, and the people around him, especially Rosita, hopefully will factor.
What do you think? Carol got banished from the group for crossing lines. Does Eugene deserve the same? Is there hope for any kind of redemption for Abraham? And with no sanctuary in D.C. and Terminus blown to hell, what should the group be looking for now?
(Can I lead with a parenthetical? Is that even allowed? Anyway, one thing I have to mention before I forget: For a show that’s not typically very funny, Glen’s “Well, I didn’t need to know that, but thanks” line absolutely killed me.)
But yes, you bring up a great point about Eugene. The way the episode is framed, it’s almost like we’re supposed to care about him and his redemption arc, and I think I got roped into that a bit. The problem is, this dude is wayyyyy past saving if you consider the body count. Not that this show is averse to rehabilitating monsters, as we saw with the Governor, but I’m with you, Abraham’s outburst was more concerning for his mental state than Eugene’s physical state. Facts are facts, and in Walking Dead world, Eugene probably deserves to die.
Speaking of which, did you have the same thought that I had, which is that the really bold choice to complete the cycle and emphasize the “our sins haunt us forever” motif would have been for Abraham to kill Eugene and then himself? That’s probably wayyyyy too fucking dark for this show, but I would have been in awe if they shocked us all by going that route. As it is, I suspect they’ll both survive, and since they’re nominally “good” guys unlike the Governor, some redemption will await them.
Great calls twice on Eugene’s newfound manhood wanting him to cast out his old demons so he can transform himself completely, and the symbolism of Abraham behaving like a shark who needs to keep moving forward to survive. Once the mission is gone for him, so is the impetus to live. He’s a little like a zombie that way—one-track mind, and will pursue something to his own death since life means almost nothing to him in the first place.
One thing we have to talk about—between Beth and Eugene, it’s clear that there’s some kind of weird phenomenon going on where total weaklings one day can turn into fire-breathing killing machines the next. It’s like a dorky teenage boy’s fantasy come to life, NOT THAT I WOULD KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT EVER BEING DORKY.
I think the group should reunite, and I think they should probably stay away from D.C., since Eugene’s idea that it was some kind of safe harbor seemed really stupid and inexplicable to me. And I’ll give Eugene the nod in the hair department, if only because he called it a “Tennessee Top Hat.” And speaking of which, resorting to humor in his moment of confession was almost as dumb as telling everyone how stupid they were, right?
Final question for you, and I won’t lie, Josh: It’s a tough one. Let’s say you’re a Eugene type of dude, and you have a compulsion to watch people in the Walking Dead universe have sex. You have no choice in the matter—you have to watch. That established, what would be the three most awkward couplings that you’d never want to see? I’ll let you set your own orientation parameters on this one, and God, I apologize for even asking this. I’m truly, truly sorry.
But you have to answer.
Isn’t it enough that I had to get an eyefull of Abraham’s #dolphinsmooth skin? Now I’ve got to imagine Eugene and Carol…or Eugene and Daryl…or, God forbid, Eugene and Rick? Because that’s my nightmare—seeing any one of those badasses giving our resident redneck savant a little lovin’. I’d have put Michonne and Eugene in there too, but Danai Gurira is so gorgeous I might not notice Eugene was there.
I’m glad you brought up the humor, because The Walking Dead inserts it into an episode it works because you realize these people haven’t had a chance to laugh much. And there were a couple moments in that library, including the one that gave us the “Self Help” title of the episode that really work before we’re brought back down to earth with Eugene’s out-of-the-blue admission that he sabotaged the bus. Brief moments of lightness that don’t even have a chance to shine very long before the darkness once again snuffs them out.
And the teen-boy fantasy of becoming a badass in the zombie wasteland is a HUGE part of the show’s appeal. When civilization falls, we all have to become warriors, and just surviving for a year prepares you to become one. We saw it with Beth; we’re seeing it with Eugene; only Father Gabriel has avoided the transition to warrior—and he did so by holing up with the food drive at the expense of his flock.
So, yes, I do think that despite the absence of most of the characters that we’ve come to know so well, this was one of the great episodes of the series. It’s a nice confidence booster that a Walking Dead spinoff show can retain the feel of the original. It’s not just the main characters that we love, but the whole world that Robert Kirkman dreamed up and a talented team of writers and production crew brought to life.
Please don’t die, Sgt. Abraham Ford.
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