Spoiler Warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “The Walking Dead” season five, episode five, titled “Self Help.”
Whether we realized it or not, “The Walking Dead” has been building to this episode ever since Abraham, Eugene and Rosita crashed into our survivors’ lives — showing us the unexpected culmination of Abraham’s mission to Washington to flip the switch and save humanity.
But alas, as many may have suspected (whether they’re fans of the comics or not), Eugene has been lying all along; there is no magical switch to be flipped, he’s not a scientist, and there’s no way to undo the damage that’s been done, as far as he knows. Continuing the season’s overarching theme, “Self Help” is, above all else, an examination of humanity, and how it can be lost and found.
All seems well at the top of the hour as Abraham, Rosita, Eugene, Tara, Glenn and Maggie embark on their road trip to D.C. in the bus they discovered at Father Gabriel’s church, but even as Abraham and Rosita are joking and making plans for the future, Eugene is pensive, ruminating on how Father Gabriel betrayed his congregants by locking them outside and leaving them to die. Eugene has always come across as a humble and self-deprecating type, but as his lies begin to unravel, we realize why; it’s not his genius that makes him so aloof, it’s the fear that others will see just how little he has to offer them, and just how much his cowardice has cost them. Like Father Gabriel, he wants to put his head in the sand and stay above the fray out of self-preservation, but he doesn’t seem to mind letting others get their hands dirty on his behalf.
After he purposefully sabotages the bus, causing it to explode so that their trip to Washington will be delayed, he admits the sin to Tara — stopping short of telling her the whole truth, but admitting that if he can’t fix the virus, he has no value to them, and will only slow them down. He doesn’t want to be left behind, but Tara reassures him that they’re friends, and that means protecting each other even if some members of the group are weaker than others: “you’re stuck with us, just like we’re stuck with you.” He’s not sure why he admitted his sabotage or his insecurities to her, but she does — he’s not just a mission to them: they care about him, and he’s starting to realize that they think his life has worth beyond his scientific knowledge. “Welcome to the human race, asshole,” Tara teases, clearly glad to see evidence of his heart beneath his detachment (even if she just caught him watching Abraham and Rosita have sex like a post-apocalyptic pervert).
But as Eugene finally starts to embrace his humanity, Abraham’s is beginning to slip away as more obstacles are placed in their path; getting Eugene to Washington is his entire reason for living, and as hope dwindles, so does Abraham’s control. When the road ahead is blocked by a herd of walkers, he becomes determined to drive straight through instead of taking any more detours, almost coming to blows with Glenn and the rest of the group when faced with the prospect of being diverted from their goal.
Abraham has always been single-minded in his focus, but in “Self Help,” we discover why: As we see through a series of chilling flashbacks, Eugene first spotted a desperate Abraham right when they needed each other the most: Abraham’s wife and children, horrified and disgusted by his brutality in trying to protect them, fled from him while he slept, and were killed by the walkers before he could find them. Just as he was about to take his own life, Abraham heard Eugene’s cries for help as the cowardly conman fled from the zombies, and Eugene perceptively recognized Abraham’s need for purpose in that moment, telling the military man, “I have a very important mission.” Eugene gave Abraham a reason to keep living when all hope seemed lost, and Abraham gave Eugene protection when he clearly wouldn’t have lasted five minutes on his own.
That symbiotic relationship has brought them across the country, giving countless companions a similar reason to keep fighting along the way, but also costing several people their lives in the pursuit of Eugene’s impossible dream — he counts off at least nine names, including poor Bob, as casualties of their quest. It’s one hell of a body count to be wasted on a lie, and the betrayal seems to break the last of Abraham’s tenuous control — he punches Eugene into unconsciousness before falling to his knees, utterly desolated that his entire reason for existing has been nothing but a manipulation. Now that he knows everything he’s sacrificed has been in vain, what’s left for Abraham? He believed that they could rebuild the world, but now he and the other survivors must reconcile themselves to the hard truth they’ve been trying to forget ever since Eugene presented them with another option: this is it, and the world will be what they make of it. Abraham has always taken a little too much joy in killing walkers — telling Glenn in this episode “it’s the easiest thing in the world now,” but how much of his soul has he lost in the name of the “greater good” of getting Eugene to Washington? Is he even still human, or is he the kind of monster that his wife and kids saw him as, prompting them to run off and face the walkers rather than staying with him?
This season hasn’t spent much time with Maggie and Glenn thus far, but the two do share one poignant scene in this week’s episode, with Maggie admitting that she feels a little guilty for leaving the others, but that she’s enjoying being away from them, since they’re now fighting for the future instead of trying to take revenge for the past. It’s sad that the only “vacation” the two can manage now is on a store floor drinking toilet water, but for a moment, it’s a brief escape from the oppressive terror of their lives — at least until Eugene dashes their hope a few hours later.
While “Self Help” does a good job of expanding Abraham and Eugene’s backstory, further fleshing out their motivations (since they’re both equally driven by cowardice and desperation, even if Abraham might be loath to admit it) the show has failed to give the same depth to Rosita so far. “Self Help” offers us the first real flashes of Rosita’s personality we’ve seen since her introduction, but she still seems to exist largely to react to Abraham. We see that she’s willing to challenge him when she feels he’s being irrational — suggesting that they need to take shelter for a little longer to give them all a chance to heal and regroup — but also that she’s unwilling to undermine him in front of the others; when Maggie makes the same suggestion that Rosita made just moments before, that they should regroup and sweep for supplies before moving on, Rosita insists that they can’t stop, repeating Abraham’s argument as if it’s her own. The show has made great progress in adding dimension to Carol, and seems to be doing the same with Beth (and to a lesser extent Tara), but it would be nice to see Rosita sharing meaningful conversations with someone other than Abraham, and being given more than a couple of lines per episode in general.
Much like last week’s Beth-centric episode, “Self Help” maintained the season’s momentum while still allowing time for much-needed character beats to contextualize the mayhem, although we haven’t spent nearly enough time with Eugene and Abraham to feel the full emotional impact of Eugene’s betrayal, and at times it felt like the episode was trying to wring a sympathetic response from us without earning it. Still, Tara and Maggie’s attempts to empathize with Eugene gave us our first real glimpse into his psyche and offered some explanation for his cowardly choices, if not an excuse, and at least he now seems like a more relatable character, if not a particularly sympathetic one.
How the group deals with this monumental setback as a whole and individually may determine their fate — especially with Abraham struggling to find meaning for his very existence as a military man without a mission. Can hope still exist in the face of such betrayal? Echoing the title of the H.G. Wells book Eugene takes from the store, is there any sense trying to predict the shape of things to come, especially when the great “dream” of the future has been shattered? When an ultimate utopia requires great bloodshed, unrest and loss, do the ends justify the means, or do the survivors deserve chaos for everything they’ve done? Hopefully the answer lies ahead.
“The Walking Dead” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on AMC.
Should Abraham and the others forgive Eugene’s manipulation, or should they abandon him? Did you believe there was a cure, or did you suspect Eugene was lying all along? Weigh in below.