If you needed any more proof that these bonus episodes of The Walking Dead season 10 are more than “cutting room floor” material, look no further than “Splinter,” one of the best uses of the single-character focus in the entire series. Princess is a character that feels at home in comic books that could seem much sillier on TV, but once more this rejuvenated writers room, aided by a terrific Paola Lázaro performance, has delivered a great episode and given fans a new character to root for.
“Splinter” is very nearly a true bottle episode. Shot almost entirely inside a stationary train car, this makeshift holding cell by our yet-to-be-named (on the show anyway) new community becomes the mental prison for Princess, who is haunted by her past soon after she’s abandoned in the dark boxcar.
When Princess arrived earlier this season, her fluffy pink jacket, enormous grin, and care-free handling of an automatic rifle sold her as a wild card new to the group, perhaps a comic relief character and nothing more. It would be easy for fans and other Alexandrians alike to expect to see only that side of her. But in “Splinter,” we learn much more about who Princess was before the world fell apart, and those parts of her reveal vulnerability and repaint her big personality as a defense mechanism.
Princess’s time in the dark, dingy boxcar becomes a triggering event for her, and while the show lets us in on this fact to some extent right away, it hides the best parts for later. As she jabs her finger with a literal splinter trying to talk to a possibly concussed Yumiko in the next car over, her mind starts to wander. The splinter is figurative too, as from here parts of the episode play out only in her head, though the cast and crew cleverly hide this till the end.
Princess talks at length to Yumiko — in a scene I’m now unsure ever actually happened — about the torment she endured as a kid. Nights without meals, locked in her room, taking hits to her jaw by her stepdad, you begin to see how she was so set off by the splinter, or later by a punch to her face from one of the unnamed interrogators. The writing is sophisticated and reminds us that all the new tragedies everyone living in the zombie world inevitably faces don’t wash away traumas from the world gone by. They coexist. The zombie trauma in The Walking Dead is built on a foundation of past hardships, just like we’ve seen with Daryl, Kelly, and so many others.
She’s scared and unsure of herself not because of what’s happened to her since the dead began to walk, but because her mother neglected her and her stepfather beat her. Those formative years have made her seek fast friends in the apocalypse, and she recollects about the past groups she’s been a part of in “Splinter.” We’ll never know them, but we can see how Princess treated them: desperate for camaraderie and with a paralyzing fear of letting others down.
When we learn Princess has been hallucinating some of the events in the boxcar, like Ezekiel’s daring rescue of her, and we see his beating of an armed guard was actually hers, it makes so much sense in retrospect. The dialogue that seemed slightly off, the unlikelihood of success he would’ve had in coming through the roof undetected — the clues are there, but I’ll admit I did not see it coming.
It makes the reveal so much better, when it becomes apparent how damaged Princess is beneath the veneer of her fluffy pink jacket. It’s unnerving to watch her unload on the armed guard, who is revealed to be hardly past his teen years and might just mean well even after he’s wiping away the blood from his face. These revelations only serve to endear her as a brilliant new character, and even as these bonus episodes have all been good or great so far, none of them feel as daring as this. To take a new, potentially polarizing character and give her an episode all to herself could’ve gone badly, but I’d put “Splinter” only after “Find Me” as the best episode of the bonus stretch this season.
On top of teasing more information on the mysterious new community, the story the Walking Dead writers tell with and about Princess feels vital. Rather than dragging their feet til season 11 kicks off this summer, it seems like the writers haven’t really lost a step at all. Even with an extended final season upcoming, it’s a small consolation in this pandemic that great bonus episodes like “Splinter” have become possible.