“Maybe that’s the only sane response to an insane world, you know what I’m saying?”
The Walking Dead’s COVID episodes continue this week with what is perhaps the smallest scale episode the show has ever done. It’s a quintessential bottle episode; having a limited cast, only one location, and very little effects work. And while that was once a term that would instil fear into TV watchers, bottle episodes have a long history of actually sometimes being very good. Breaking Bad‘s ‘Fly’, The X-Files’ ‘Ice’, and Bojack Horseman’s ‘Free Churro’ being just three, wide ranging examples. Unfortunately for The Walking Dead, these smaller, less flashy episodes usually don’t go over too well with fans. ‘Still’, the Beth and Daryl two-hander back in season 4 is often cited as one of the shows worst episodes (even though it’s actually pretty great). Hell, the episode from two weeks ago, ‘Find Me’, which I raved about here, is currently sitting on a disappointing 6.5 on IMDB, a low point for the show. That episode had fan favourite characters too (Daryl, Carol, and Dog). So it’s no wonder fans have been mixed on ‘Splinter’ an episode focused around a controversial comic book character, a relatively new one at that, and features no zombie or human kills (a first in the shows history). Is it really that bad though?
First things first, ‘Splinter’ is not an all time great episode of The Walking Dead. I’m not going to be calling it the greatest episode ever, like I did with the often maligned ‘Fly’, the bottle episode from Breaking Bad. Fans fundamentally misunderstood ‘Fly’ when it first aired and were put off at the lack of the usual Breaking Bad tension. But on rewatches, it turns out to be a highlight of the show, and a key character moment for Walt and Jesse. That’s probably not going to happen with ‘Splinter’ as the fans are sort of right when they say what’s covered in the episode could have been covered in a half, or even a quarter of the time. The reliance on the tried and tested ‘the character was hallucinating all along’ method probably won’t win anyone round either. But having said all of that, ‘Splinter’ does have a fair few things going for it. The greatest thing in the episode is undoubtedly Paola Lázaro’s performance as Princess. Princess in the comics was love her or hate her kinda figure, and unfortunately drifted into the background when the group got to The Commonwealth. Her though the character retains much of the wacky energy from the comic but without it ever becoming grating or annoying. Much of that is down to Lázaro’s portrayal of the character as high energy but hiding deep trauma. She’s excellent in this episode and because of that the episode is never boring, even when it’s just her monologuing about her past. Her past isn’t even particularly unique to the shows character either; an abusive parental figure, old scars etc. But Lázaro sells the hell out of it and makes for one of the most compelling character characters the show has had in a long time.
The episode also has some interesting stuff revealed about the Commonwealth and their soldiers. It’s not really enough, and we end the episode pretty much where we started – with the gang being captured by the soldiers, but what we get is fun. Visually the episode continues to show why it was great idea switching to digital. I realise this was mainly a COVID precaution, to prevent as many people needing to be on set to set up a shot, but the show looks a lot better for it. The colours pop and there are a handful of beautifully composed shots (Ezekiel with the walkers or the darkened Commonwealth interrogator come to mind). And is just me or do those Commonwealth soldiers look a lot better than they did last we saw them? Talking of COVID precautions, the showrunners continue to do a great job of hiding their limitation. The episode has a central scene between Princess and Yumiko but it turns out Yumiko’s actress, Eleanor Matsuura, wasn’t even on set. In fact, due to COVID travel precautions, she wasn’t even in the same country! It’s expertly handled and just by having Matsuura’s voice in the episode, you can’t even tell there was a problem.
So ‘Splinter’ isn’t an all time classic episode of The Walking Dead. But don’t be fooled into thinking it’s not necessary. Sure the characters don’t gain any new ground in the episode; they finish it pretty much where they started, but the character of Princess is developed a whole lot. Your enjoyment of the episode will probably depend on how much you like her character but if you’re like me, and think she’s one of the most interesting characters the show has had in a long time, then this episode will be enjoyable enough. These bonus episodes are not the fast, action packed TWD that we often get, mainly due to COVID precautions. But they are allowing for more nuanced, character driven stories that we don’t see enough of anymore. They feel like special edition one shot comics; they probably aren’t essential but that doesn’t mean they can’t offer something special. And most importantly, all of this is bringing us one step closer to episode 6 in two weeks time; the Negan-centric episode. I can’t wait.