NOTE: Full spoilers for this episode of The Walking Dead are present in this review.
Rather than build on the Beth-centric episode’s planned second half immediately after the decent, but slightly slow-paced episode, “Slabtown” from last week, “Self Help” instead shifted the focus to Abraham’s new group, which was making a rapid departure to Washington D.C. after the events at the church from the season’s first three episodes.
Putting aside the fact that the show is going to frustratingly let the Beth/Atlanta cliffhanger dangle for a little while longer after last week, I have to note that, at this point, Season Five is starting to feel rather slapdash. The show is clearly trying to create multiple perspectives in an effort to both show a larger range of the zombie apocalypse, and groom viewers for AMC’s plans for a companion series. It’s still not bad, but it feels messy, and trying to have the show hop between three different storylines that it now has to juggle over a strict helping of episodes for the season, feels a bit irritating.
With that said however, at least “Self Help” was an improvement over the past two episodes. It’s still well beneath the standard of this season’s first two episodes, but at least it has a better mix of action, horror, character moments and drama.
Fans of the comics may already know that the mission to D.C. is doomed, and sure enough, it’s not long before Eugene’s story starts to sound rather suspicious. As he starts running his mouth about the apparent process to cure the world of its Walker plague, the suspicion grows that something is wrong. In fact, if I’m being honest, the only major issue with what is otherwise a reasonably good episode is the fact that nobody calls Eugene on the fact that his story really doesn’t add up. The worst moment is when Maggie almost spots a hole, only to have Glenn interrupt and start asking about the story behind Eugene’s mullet.
Sure, one of the episode’s themes was self-delusion, and that was illustrated nicely through both Eugene’s and Abraham’s characters, but the rate that people just blindly buy Eugene’s story felt like a bit of a stretch. Yes, Maggie brings up needing hope, even if it’s false hope, but it’s yet another way that the show is forcing a contrivance that is easy to see through.
Another contrivance came when Tara catches Eugene spying on Abraham and Rosita having sex in the library that the group holes up in, which they apparently allow him to do sometimes. Eugene then explains to Tara that he enjoys the female form and sees his perv’ing as a victimless crime that provides both comfort and distraction. Well, it’s not like there’s a court of law to disagree with him anymore, I guess. As strange as the dynamic is though, it works to illustrate just how much Abraham and Eugene have come to depend on each other, even if that dependence is based on a mutual lie.
Yes, that was the big bomb this week. Eugene confesses to Tara that he was making up the whole D.C. thing, and that he can’t actually do anything about the Walkers. Not only that, but it was Eugene that was responsible for the violent bus crash that everyone miraculously survived, as he poured glass in the fuel tank, which (somehow) got everyone as far as they got before cutting through the fuel lines. Yikes. Thankfully, Tara takes this pretty well.
In fact, she takes it way too well! She does make a few comments about how Eugene could have killed everyone, but then says she’ll keep his secret, and he’d better not tell anyone else. Seriously?! Eugene just sent everyone on a fool’s errand that took them away from shelter and security, regardless of anyone’s opinion of Rick (who once again sat out this week), and will probably kill most of the people in that group, and she’s just going to be mum about it?! I get wanting to protect a friend, but that’s way too hard to swallow for even die-hard fans of the show, I imagine.
Fortunately, for any issues and contrivances with how much the survivors blindly follow Eugene and his tall tales, the episode was at least universally strong in its exploration of Abraham, and his obsessive devotion with reaching D.C. Sure, some of this was the writers doubling back to address the obvious plot contrivance they created with the group’s forced splitting in “Four Walls and a Roof” a couple of weeks ago, but the result was at least rewarding, particularly in fleshing out how Abraham has kept centered after losing his own family in a very surprising way.
The episode occasionally goes into flashback, detaling how Abraham once beat a man to death over some canned food, scaring his wife and children, who eventually abandon him. Towards the end of the episode, the pieces of this flashback eventually show Abraham almost committing suicide, only to bail Eugene out of being eaten by some Walkers (apparently, Eugene is no more useful in combat now than he was then), and initially about to walk off, before Eugene calls to him about needing a soldier for a special mission in the episode’s final seconds, bringing the Abraham/Eugene story full circle.
“Self Help” gradually shows the faltering of Eugene’s lie from Abraham’s perspective, and it does it remarkably well. Abraham gets more and more unhinged as the episode goes on, culminating in Eugene confessing his lie to the group after they spot a collection of hundreds of Walkers in the distance from their procured fire truck, and Abraham beating him senseless, and potentially to death before the rest of the group intervenes. There’s a bit of ambiguity involved in Eugene’s fate at present (though it looks like he’s merely unconscious), but it was fantastic to see Abraham finally fall to his feet in anguish and admit to himself that he has pursued false hope, and probably killed everyone that he took away from Rick because of it. Yes, it’s his own fault for rushing off when it made no sense, but you have to feel for the guy too.
Beyond that, the episode also featured some great Walker kills, with a highlight being when Eugene finally made himself useful by turning a fire hose on some Walkers at the fire station. Sure, it’s a waste of water, but it was very cool to see, and helped to make up for the fact that Eugene could barely use a knife just a few scenes beforehand, even then having to be bailed out by the other survivors.
To a point, this episode’s resolution presented some frustration, since it means that the D.C. plot is yet another plot that Season Five is bringing up and sweeping under the rug, making the splitting of the group so far feel all the more pointless. In a way though, the frustration is kind of the point. I still question whether splitting the group, and especially the show perspectives, was ultimately necessary, but I suppose the ultimate judge of that will be the end of the season.
Regardless, it looks like we’re going back to Daryl and Carol next week. Again, this messy way of telling Season Five’s story isn’t ideal, especially when it means we have to wait even longer for the resolution to the plot of “Self Help”, but if next week’s episode can keep up the many great character moments of this episode, the season should stabilize a bit more.
"Self Help" presented a more well-rounded, effective episode this week, filling in the desperate quest of Abraham and Eugene, and what it means for their new group.
THE GOOD STUFF
Better mix of action and drama
Abraham's arc was very well-done
Eugene's big lie made for real, effective consequences
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
The Season Five storytelling is getting pretty messy
The group should have picked up on Eugene's obvious deception
Tara keeping the lie and sabotage a secret made no sense