Returning to the closing cliffhanger moments of “A Certain Doom”, episode twenty of the extended season ten of The Walking Dead reconnects with the storyline of Eugene’s crew. Everyone’s favourite socially-awkward tech-nerd had been determined to track down the mysterious group he had contacted by radio. But a patrol of what appeared to be bargain-basement Stormtroopers intercepted Eugene’s party. Enticing him with the promise of friendship and resources seems to have been an elaborate trap.
“Splinter” tells the story of the detention of Eugene’s newest recruit: the zany, passionate and precocious Princess. With the party separated and locked up inside rail wagons, Princess finds her anxiety spiralling and her adrenaline surging. Escaping confinement she’s able to speak with both Yumiko and Eugene but returns to her cell.
Under interrogation, she refuses to give up any information. Later, she’s visited by Ezekiel, who’s also found a way to slip his bounds. But as the pair prepare to breakout, rescue their compatriots, and flee the compound, Princess begins to worry about her mental state. Are the things she is experiencing really happening, or are they figments of her fevered and unbalanced imagination?
This fourth instalment in the set of six ‘extra’ small-scale episodes that will complete the ‘Covid-paused’ season ten is a quite different proposition from the three previous stories. As it focuses on the inner-dialogue of a single character, it has to address a pressing additional challenge. Princess was only introduced in episode fifteen “The Tower”, when she convinced Eugene to allow her to join their mission.
She’s a flamboyant, larger-than-life personality and, thanks to a winning performance by Paola Lázaro, Princess makes an immediate and distinctive impression. And before they are detained, Princess’ arrival also disturbs the fragile equilibrium of Eugene’s group with entertaining results.
More than ‘kooky’
But Walking Dead viewers know relatively little about Princess, her backstory or the causes for her unusual psychological condition. And it’s not self-evident that fans, eager to track the latest travails of the stalwarts of Alexandria, would feel that she’d earnt a strong enough sense of audience-identification to want to spend an hour in her company. It’s just as well then that Tony Moore’s edgy and convincing script, and a finely-honed star-turn by Lázaro, prove to be such an intriguing combination.
There’s much more to Princess than simple ‘kookiness’, and her struggle to keep a grip on her sanity, help her new friends, and frustrate her captors, is teased out here to great effect. The story of her childhood anguish and parental dismissal had weighed heavily on her even before the arrival of the zombie hordes. Her self-diagnosis lists (at great speed) “the ADHD, the anxiety, the PTSD, the depression, the crushing loneliness, and the active imagination that helps me cope with all of that”.
With the group that she’s part of now separated (“splintered”, if you will), she’s left to cope alone; the sliver of wood in her finger (a “splinter”, no less) a painful, niggling distraction and a metaphor for her more serious and persistent psychological wounds.
With Eleanor Matsuura unable to travel to the set due to lockdown travel restrictions, Yumiko is heard but not seen. Eugene (Josh McDermitt) appears only briefly in his cell, and while Ezekiel (Khary Payton) is at least able to join in the action, this is almost exclusively about Princess’ prison time.
There are echoes here of earlier episodes of incarceration in the series: be that Rick and his compatriots’ imprisonment in the railyard of Terminus in the fifth season premiere “No Sanctuary”, or Daryl’s (seemingly endless) solitary confinement in Negan’s lock-up during the opening stories of season seven. In “Splinter” there’s the added element of Princess’ delusional, dysfunctional reaction to being locked-up in the dark.
Enthusiasts for The Walking Dead comic book series will have more than a suspicion as to the identity of this new set of prison warders and interrogators. But there’s no big reveal here of either their name or their true nature. For now, they are enigmatic interlocutors whose real agenda remains opaque, but who have impressive misdirection skills.
With most of the action set in and around the train wagon, the episode is lacking in memorable visuals or impressively rendered action sequences. Cinematically, there’s not much to see here – and nothing approaching the haunting imagery of “Home, Sweet Home“, “Find Me” or “One More“. But this is a revealing study of a single character who, in the process of isolated scrutiny, confirms that they merit the attention. The narrative about-turns delivered in the closing minutes switch focus back to the bigger picture, and trigger troubling comparisons with previous life-and-death standoffs on the show. Moments that, on The Walking Dead, are just as likely to end in tragedy as in triumph.
The Walking Dead: Splinter, episode twenty of season ten, is available now on the Fox network