Airdate: November 9, 2014
Directed by: Ernest R. Dickerson
Showrunner: Scott M. Gimple
Written by: Heather Bellson, Seth Hoffman (episode); Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Tony Moore (graphic novels)
Last week was a change of pace as we got to catch up with a long-lost member of the group; this week is another focus episode, again following a group that’s split off from the main bunch. While last week felt a little like a hiccup after three amazing episodes to begin the season, how will tonight’s turn out, with a much more action-oriented crew involved? Click through after the break to get my take on “Self Help.”
<<Spoiler Alert: The following review will discuss at length plot points of The Walking Dead S05E05, “Self Help” – read more at your own risk.>>
So the real question tonight is this: Is Abraham a more interesting character than Beth? To my mind, the answer is yes – slightly. I think that Abraham has a ton of potential, as I mentioned in my preview yesterday, but I’m not sure how much of that potential was realized tonight. It was without a doubt the Abraham (and to a lesser extent, the Eugene) show, with Glenn retreating into his usual role as peacemaker, Tara being ineffectual in everything but her awkward fist-bumps, and Maggie looking angry and somehow forgetting yet again to talk about her sister. Rosita, who still seems to have no real point in the show, is used by Abraham (and, again, by Eugene in a really creepy sense), which does nothing to give her any sense of purpose in the show. As Michael Cudlitz said later on Talking Dead, he suspects Abraham would be just fine if Rosita were to die – and that, I sense, is largely the consensus for the viewing public.
Despite all of this lack of sympatico, there were some bright points to tonight’s show. We get a lot of character exposition showing us how Abraham ticks, with a nicely done parallel structure of flashbacks and current events, tied together with the motif of Abraham’s bloody left hand – more on that later. We also get some character growth with Eugene, including an absolutely massive reveal that was likely anticipated by readers of the comics, if not in exactly the way we got it tonight.
We open on the church bus. This is the scene from the preview video, and in addition to Glenn and Maggie questioning Eugene regarding his cure and his mullet, we see Rosita and Abraham enjoying a moment, as she talks about cutting his increasingly unruly hair. Suddenly, something in the engine blows, and the bus ramps over a stalled vehicle, crashing hard onto its side. The six survive the crash, a little worse for wear, and they fight their way free of the walkers attracted by the noise. Tara gives Eugene a knife, and he actually uses it after standing there shaking for a while, when a walker is about to take Tara from behind. He isn’t very effective, mind you, stabbing the walker in it’s shoulder – but hey, that’s as physical as we’ve ever seen Eugene get. As the group walks away, he stays behind a moment, spitting in the face of the walker he helped kill.
Interspersed with this scene, and throughout the episode, are flashbacks to Abraham’s past. In the first scene, we see him smashing a bent tin can into a man’s head over and over again, the man held beneath him barely gurgling through the blood and ruined face. He places his foot on the man’s throat, and crushes his windpipe; as the camera pans up past his bloodied hand, still gripping the tin can, we see that there are three or four other bodies similarly destroyed further up the store aisle. He turns and moves to the front of the store, shouting for “Ellen.” A woman, hiding two children behind her, stands, fear etched deeply into her face.
As we learn, this is Abraham’s family: Ellen his wife, and his children AJ and Becca (how much do you want to bet that “AJ” stands for Abraham Jr.?). Through several more flashbacks, we see that not only is Ellen scared stiff of her husband and his rage, but that she leaves during the night, writing him a note telling him “Don’t try to find us.” He killed the other men because they had raped his family – but his sheer brutality in destroying the perpetrators scars his wife and children to the point that they’d rather take their chances away from everyone.
Now there is a bit of a problem with motivation in these flashbacks. While Abraham does tell Ellen that she doesn’t have to worry, that they guy he’s just killed won’t “touch her again,” it is never made explicitly clear what has happened. Without this understanding, the choice Ellen makes to leave with the children is never fully justified. Readers of the comics will realize that that it has gone far beyond touching – these men that Abraham destroys have raped his wife and children, all while Abraham was on a run to get supplies for the group. The combined betrayal that Ellen feels – their trusted groupmates have violated her and her children, and Abraham was not there to protect them – means that she is already mostly broken, and seeing the violence within Abraham unleashed frightens her so badly that she can’t stay. But in the context of a forty-four minute episode that is trying to tell other stories, they do a fairly good job of depicting the whole situation through looks, brief comments, and ultimately, with Abraham’s discovery of what has happened to his family.
Back in the show-present, the group leaves the now burning bus behind, and head north to the nearest small town. They hole up in a bookstore, setting things up for a safe night with a quiet efficiency that speaks to many nights spent on the road. Glenn and Abraham share a quiet moment, looking out on the street. Abraham opens up to Glenn a bit, telling him that it’s “Getting to the point where everyone left alive is strong now.” His clear implication is that there are going to be more Terminus-type groups, and fewer “good guys” moving forward.
Abraham and Rosita have an “intimate” moment. As they have sex, Rosita notes that Eugene is “watching us again.” Again? So Eugene, apparently, likes to watch – and doesn’t even try to hide that he’s doing it. Abraham just laughs at him and calls him harmless. Tara catches him in the act, and this leads to an interesting moment between the two. Without so much as a how-do-you-do, he admits to her that he caused the bus crash earlier. Apparently, he put crushed glass into the fuel line. His reasoning? He’s “afraid” that he won’t be able to cure the zombie plague once they get to DC, so he’s trying to slow them down. Tara accepts this as an attempt to bond, and an awkward fist-bump later, she’s promised not to reveal Eugene’s secret. But of course, this isn’t his biggest one.
The next day, the group tries to get a firetruck started. Abraham sees it as a win-win – a vehicle large enough to carry all of them in some safety, with a 500 gallon water tank to keep them supplied. Turns out that the engine air intake is full of walker bits, so they need to do some minor maintenance. Unfortunately, they unblock the door to the firehall – which is, of course, full of walkers. They come out en masse, and the group starts to get overwhelmed – until Eugene comes to the rescue. He climbs atop the firetruck, and starts up the house, blowing walkers down with the powerful force of the water. They come apart easily – it’s a bit like watching food particles gradually being shot off a plate that is being rinsed – and Eugene seems to genuinely enjoy what he’s doing. The rest of the group is surprised, but grateful. Abraham climbs up top to clear out the intake, and starts to laugh – there’s a sign painted on the sidewalk, missed until Eugene pressure washed the debris away: “Sick inside, let them die.” Of course, this is not so simple as all that – it is, like the red hand I’ll get to shortly, another thinly veiled reference to what is going inside Abraham.
Inside the bookstore, before they left, Rosita expresses to Abraham her desire to stay another day, to get over their bumps and bruises from the bus crash; however, Abraham is adamant that they leave, and when the other group members approach, she backs him up publicly 100%, even taking on the idea of moving on as her own. This changes later in the day. When the firetruck, inevitably, breaks down, Glenn and the others detect a horrible stench in the air. The group walks over a ridge, and sees an enormous horde of walkers, all milling about a town that the road goes straight through. Each member of the group – including Rosita – tells Abraham they need to turn back, but he won’t listen. He shouts, “We don’t go back. We can’t go back,” and he grabs Eugene by the scruff of his jacket, manhandling him back to the truck. When Glenn, and then Rosita, try to intervene, he shoves them roughly to the ground, his gun swinging wildly about.
Eugene seems to sense that someone is going to die in this moment, and he decides he’s had enough. He looks right at Abraham, and says, “I lied. I’m not a scientist. I don’t know how to stop it.” Abraham’s face goes absolutely blank, and he slowly lowers into a crouch as Eugene continues. Eugene explains that he thought the best place to be in the country, the most prepared in the event of an apocalypse-level event, would be DC. Being that he couldn’t survive on his own, he used those around him, lying in order to get them to take him where he felt he’d be safe. In return, he felt they’d appreciate it, despite his lies, as they too would be in a safer place at the end of the road. Abraham isn’t the only one who is shocked, Maggie and Rosita especially looking horrified as Eugene lists off all of the people who have died to keep him alive, concluding with Bob. He finishes, saying, “And I am smarter than you,” looking right at the in-shock Abraham.
Big mistake. Abraham launches at him, hitting him hard in the face twice. Glenn tries to intervene, but is pushed back as Abraham hits him a third time. Eugene, out on his feet, falls prone face-first onto the road with a sickening crunch. As the others go to Eugene – their sense of concern for him outweighs any anger at the moment – Abraham walks up the road toward the army of walkers, and then falls to his knees. We cut to the last of the flashbacks. Abraham is outside, and he comes across his family – dead and half-eaten. He falls to his knees – here we see the mirrored effect – and then pulls his gun, putting its barrel in his mouth. Before he can pull the trigger, he hears a cry for help: it’s Eugene, coming at a shuffle-walk, trying to get away from three walkers (“I think they’re getting faster” he complains shortly after). Abraham walks over, and dispatches all three easily.
Abraham turns back to his family, and Eugene quickly assesses the situation. It’s clear that he knows Abraham is about to commit suicide – after all, he just saw the man with his gun to his mouth – and it is equally clear that Abraham has the particular skill-set (to paraphrase Eugene) that will keep him alive. Recognizing that Abraham is military – likely through a combination of the haircut, and possibly having seen Abraham tear off his dogtags, Eugene immediately formulates a plan. “I’m on a very important mission,” he says, and now we’ve come full circle.
The most interesting aspect of this last flashback is that it clearly shows that, without Eugene, Abraham would be dead. There is no question that he would have committed suicide had Eugene not shown up, and if Eugene hadn’t then come up with this fiction of an anti-virus cure in DC, it is very likely that Abraham would have gone back and finished the job. In giving Abraham – a sergeant, after all – a mission, he gave him purpose.
I enjoyed the episode, although for me it wasn’t quite on par with the first three episodes of the season. What it did do better than most every other episode that comes immediately to mind is deal with clear and coherent motifs and symbolism throughout, adding a layer of depth and complexity that actually reveals a whole lot more about Abraham’s character than an initial viewing might suggest. So while aspects of the episode grated on me a little – Rosita’s active lack of individual character was only slightly mitigated when she stood up to Abraham; Glenn reverted to his usual peace-making; and Maggie has yet to show an ounce of worry about Beth, even though she clearly knows that she might be alive (thanks to Daryl’s update at the end of Episode 501) – the overall writing and connectivity made this one top-notch, just a sliver below the first three in overall quality. In addition, there is a ton of symbolism to examine throughout the episode, all of which overwhelmed perhaps the biggest reveal of the season so far (we all knew the Termians were cannibals, right?): Eugene is not who he says he is. Big surprise there for non-readers of the comics, although a few of my friends were already a little suspicious. Well-played, Scott Gimple, well-played.
The symbolism was so important tonight, that I’m going to give it its very own subtitle, all big and bold and everything:
Correction: It is actually Abraham’s left hand that is bloodied throughout the episode, not his right. I’m choosing to leave the following break-down of what a red right hand means symbolically. While moving it from the dextere to the sinistra would, on the surface, appear to reverse the meaning, I believe that the connections between the traditional right hand and what Abraham is going through are pretty clear. Perhaps the major change that this reversal makes is that, rather than being the hand of the righteous, his is a more sinister motivation. Damn Michael Cudlitz and his southpaw tendencies! (Not really – love the guy.)
The two kneeling poses of Abraham, past and present, provide us with some wonderful imagery. It is a position of supplication, and one that resonates with Abraham’s biblical connections. In the Bible, Abraham’s faith was tested when he was told to sacrifice his son to God, much like Abraham’s faith is tested twice in this episode: once by the death of his family, and once by Eugene’s immense betrayal that, ironically, actually saved him. To understand further who Abraham is in The Walking Dead universe, we also need to go a bit further, and think about the recurring red right hand throughout the episode.
In his flashbacks, his hand is red first from the damage he sustains while destroying the men who hurt his family, and then again when he puts down the three walkers following Eugene. In the present, his hand is damaged both by the fight with the Hunters two episodes ago and the bus crash tonight, and then is bloodied further by his fighting with the group of walkers around the bus. His blood mingles with that of his victims (living and dead). And at the very end of the episode, he again uses his bloody red right hand to take down Eugene, Eugene who has been his salvation and his burden. Red hands – and right hands in particular – are full of symbolism.
The earliest specific mention of a “red right hand” in English comes from Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. It is found in Book 2, and the lines surrounding it are:
What if the breath that kindl’d those grim fires
Awak’d should blow them into sevenfold rage
And plunge us in the flames? or from above
Should intermitted vengeance arm again
His red right hand to plague us? what if all
Her stores were open’d, and this Firmament
Of Hell should spout her Cataracts of Fire (II, 170-176)
This is the fallen angel Belial speaking to Satan and the other fallen angels, counselling against hasty measures in case God decides to visit vengeance upon them again. This, then, equates the red right hand with the hand of God, of righteousness smiting evil. Combine this with Abraham’s biblical roots as one of the three patriarchs, and it is clear that there is something deeper at work. Interestingly, this allusion is even older than Milton: according to the annotation found here, it is likely that Milton actually took this line as a translation of rubente dextera from Horace’s Odes, published in 23BC.
There are plenty of other connections with the red hand: the idiomatic “caught red-handed,” meaning to be caught in the act of doing something nefarious; literary connections beyond Milton’s, such as Lady MacBeth’s “Out out, damned spot” as she tries to wash away King Duncan’s metaphorical blood (really, her guilt); and even the more honest approach, of red hands being a symbol of hard work. Looking at the right hand in particular (Horace’s dextere), the symbolism is again rife, with it mostly referring to the most important supporter, or sometimes a son. Jesus himself sits at God’s right hand in Paradise Lost.
So what does this all mean for our Abraham? His name is an obvious allusion to the biblical patriarch, as I have stated above; but his status as a red right hand means that he is not unblemished, carrying the guilt of his actions (and in-actions) in his conscience just as surely as he carries the blood physically on his hand. He is a right hand – he’s the second alpha male of the group after Rick – but he is also the hand that does the dirty work, carries out the orders, gets the job done. There is, despite all of the violence and the guilt, a purity left inside Abraham. This is made clear in the scene between he and Rosita, when she checks his hand and tells him that it’s “still not infected.” The fact that she is, symbolically, both his Madonna and his whore, adds another layer of depth to her diagnosis. This indicates a possibility of future infection, but that there is still hope for salvation for Abraham at this point – he hasn’t passed any metaphorical points-of-no-return quite yet.
As an added bonus, enjoy this link to Nick Cave’s excellent and melancholy song, “Red Right Hand”, inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost and Stephen King’s The Stand:
Steve’s Grade: B+
Another strong episode, this one giving us background on Abraham and Eugene. Abraham’s red right hand haunts him throughout the episode, reminding him of past sins and suggesting future transgressions – a very well-written and deep episode, deserving of multiple viewings.