We finally get the backstory of Abraham Ford, as well as the extremely telegraphed reveal that [SPOILER REDACTED] is nothing at all like what he claims. Spoilers ho!
“Self Help”, the 5th episode of season 5 of The Walking Dead makes the explicit case for something we’ve all suspected for a long time: mullets are not to be trusted.
Ok, I’m joking, kind of. I mean, people with mullets aren’t necessarily inherently full of crap. But this episode (and the entire season) makes the mullet sported by Eugene Porter the essential clue that all is not what it seems with the man. I’m betting this plot device was necessitated in part by the fact that, with the possible exception of Michonne, Porter looks more as though he stepped off the pages of Robert Kirkman’s comic series than any character ever seen in this show’s history. His “Kenny Powers-meets-Dan Clowes background character” aesthetic stands out like a sore thumb next to the other survivors who don’t look like straight up comic book archetypes.
That discordancy is impossible to ignore. Every time you see Porter, you think “man that guy looks ridiculous”. Which is why it was refreshingly hilarious at the start of “Self Help,” when Glenn, Maggie and Tara Chambler, who left Rick’s core group of survivors to accompany Abraham, Rosalita and Porter on their mission to Washington, all seem to fixate on Porter’s mullet as if they too realized how ridiculous it is even in context. So begins an entire episode in which someone’s unfortunate fashion choices becomes a symbol of their character. Never has a party in the back and business in the front had more tragic undertones.
Those undertones lead to a reveal readers of the comic have known was coming since Porter and Abe first walked onto the screen near the end of season 4. But thanks to a deft use of flashbacks, that revelation hits like a punch to the gut, and our characters are finally forced to confront the last illusion they had about the world in which they live: that it could ever be fixed. Strong stuff. It’s just too bad that otherwise, “Self Help” is a relatively bloated episode that feels more full of filler than anything previously seen. Fortunately, it just feels a bit overlong, not the excruciating slog we saw in seasons past. Even if the final moment doesn’t come as a shock, it still leaves a powerful afterimage that manages to make the episode’s previous excesses forgivable.
Let’s jump in, shall we?
“Self Help” begins shortly after we left off back in episode 3, with Abe, Rosalita, Porter, Glenn, Maggie, and Tara packed onto a church bus and headed for Washington to deliver Porter to a purported scientific installation with the key to stopping the zombie plague. After some lighthearted conversation that includes our first mention of Porter’s mullet and the fact that he doesn’t exactly look like a scientist, the bus suddenly blows a tire just as Abraham is driving it through a small pack of walkers staggering across the road. He loses control and hits an abandoned car, flipping the bus onto its side and, eventually, igniting the engine. Everyone is beaten up, especially Abe, who is knocked out in the crash, triggering the first of a series of dream sequence flashbacks to his life before teaming up with Porter (more on that later).
Everyone comes-to, and Glenn and Abe quickly work out a plan to bust out of the overturned bus and make short work of the zombies now surrounding it. Everyone files out, last but not least Porter who, as usual, is frozen in terror. Tara gives him a quick pep talk, explaining that it’s OK to be terrified, but when everything is probably screwed anyway, he can choose to act in a way that at least might help other people. She hands him a knife and leads him out of the bus, where we see Porter for the first time try to actually attack a zombie attempting to go after Tara. He ultimately doesn’t have to make the kill, as Tara then comes to his rescue, but it’s an important establishing moment.
The zombies are quickly killed, but the bus is trashed. Porter suggests they turn around and walk back to Rick’s church (it turns out they’re only 15 miles out), but Abe, probably concussed by the wreck and is becoming extremely irrational, clearly has his entire life wrapped up in the quest to get Porter to D.C. He freaks out and demands they keep moving forward. To keep the peace, Glenn agrees they should keep going, but insists they need to make sure Abraham isn’t injured or worse. Abe insists as long as they’re on mission, he’s good, and off they go.
Shortly after, they find themselves in a small town, and hole up for the night in an abandoned library. After establishing a watch order, everyone breaks off into pairs. Glenn and Maggie go off to talk about how, while they’re sad to have left their friends behind, it feels good to be moving toward a new future rather than mourning the death of the old world. Meanwhile, Abraham and Rosalita (revealed to be a couple, but duh) engage in a reading-is-fundamental bone session somewhere in the stacks. And Porter turns out to be a total creeper. Rosalita notices him watching her and Abe going at it, and her remarks make it clear this is something he’s done before. Ew.
Tara interrupts Porter mid-peep. Porter hastily admits what he’s doing, offering up a blithe justification, but Tara quickly dismisses that bit of creep and instead thanks Porter for having attempted to mix it up with the zombies after the bus crash. (She inaccurately insists that he saved her life.) This bit of bonding – and recall, Porter creeped all over her when they first met – seems to turn a key in Porter’s brain, and he decides to confess to her something obvious from the moment he was introduced: he sabotaged the bus.
Tara is understandably shocked and disturbed by this news, but Porter concocts a smooth justification that is clearly at least partly true. He insists it’s because he feels useless, he’s afraid of what happens if they reach D.C. and for whatever reason he isn’t able to stop the zombie plague. His companions are all survivors, he explains, while he is a coward who cannot defend himself at all. His delaying is, so he says, simply a tactic to prolong his membership in the group for as long as possible.
For some reason, Tara accepts this explanation and chooses to keep Porter’s admission a secret. The next morning, we see another glimpse into Abe’s single-minded obsession with the “mission”, as Rosalita attempts to convince him the group should stick around in their library for a few more days and fully recuperate. Abe angrily denounces the notion they won’t keep moving as soon as possible and appears to accuse Rosalita and the others of being content to let the world continue to die. It’s a disturbing moment, the tenderness between the two forgotten as Abe becomes almost animal in his insistence. Rosalita, perhaps having been through this with him before, quietly relents.
Soon after, the group locates an abandoned fire truck perfect for their traveling needs. While attempting to get it running, they accidentally disturb a nearby pack of walkers. It’s a great moment – a tire suddenly rolls past them like tumbleweeds, the camera traces the tire’s path, and we see it came from an open door of the abandoned firehouse. At which point, several desiccated zombies begin pouring out.
At first it seems the group is about to be overwhelmed, but lo and behold, Porter has apparently found it in him to contribute to the group’s defense. Having climbed on top of the fire truck, he turns on the hose and blasts the herd of zombies into bloody pulp in a moment that feels lifted from a video game. This act of saving his companions earns Porter a new measure of respect, and temporarily brings harmony back to the group.
But it’s not to last. We soon cut to the side of a road a short time later, where the fire truck has run out of gas. Abe, once again, is adamant about going forward, but the conversation is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a disgusting smell wafting in from somewhere down the road. He and Glenn go to check it out and discover a large farm where, for some reason, thousands of zombies shuffle around in its various pens and pastures.
Glenn suggests they find an alternate route, but by now Abe has become totally obsessed. He refuses to accept the impossible danger of trying to walk past that swarm, and when the rest of the group concurs with Glenn, Abe angrily grabs Porter by the back of his neck and begins force-marching him toward the zombies. Glenn rushes over and nearly fights it out with Abe, but in the chaos, Porter finally shouts out the truth: he isn’t a scientist, he’s just a smart guy who “knows things”, he’s a good liar, he’s a coward who can’t bring himself to kill zombies, and he concocted the story about curing the zombie plague in order to make people want to protect him.
Abe completely loses his shit over this admission. He grabs Porter by the front of his neck, shoves him against the fire truck, and begins punching him repeatedly. The others manage to pull him away from Porter, at which point Porter falls face-first to the pavement with a sickening crunch.
Now, about those flashbacks: Before meeting Porter, Abe was traveling with his wife and two young children. At some point, while hiding in a grocery store they were apparently set upon by a typical post apocalyptic murder/robbery/rape gang. When we first flash back, we see Abe beating the hell out of the last surviving member of the gang, then finishing him off by pushing his boot on the man’s neck and snapping it. In flashback number two, Abe, absolutely covered in blood, goes to the back of the store where his family, obviously traumatized, are hiding. Alas, Abe’s blood-soaked visage terrifies them, and in the next flashback, we see Abe wake one morning to find them gone, with a note telling him not to follow.
Now before we get to the last flashback, let’s return to the present. Bookending the earlier scene, Abe walks to where an unconscious Porter lies on the ground, clearly intending to snap Porter’s neck just as he did to the men who threatened his wife and kids. He’s stopped, however, by Rosalita, telegraphing the likely end of their romantic connection when she casually rests her hand on her gun, making it clear she’ll shoot Abe if he proceeds. Abe staggers off, obviously on the brink of a total collapse, while the others turn Porter over and frantically try to find out if he’s dead.
Cue the final flashback. Some time after his wife and kids left, Abe discovers their rotting corpses. They appear to have been ripped apart by zombies. In his rage and despair, he pulls out his gun and shoves the barrel into his mouth. However, just before he pulls the trigger, he hears Porter, screaming for help as he’s being followed by a couple of slow-moving zombies. Abe gets up, makes short work of the zombies, then stomps off, presumably to finish his suicide. Porter yells after him that “you can’t go. I have an important mission!” And so we now know why Abe has been so single-minded. The mission to save the world was literally his only reason left for living. WALKING DEAD END CREDITS MUSIC.
- The decision this season to separate the survivors yet again still yields dividends for the previously terrible series. Characters who might get ignored or obscured thanks to the large cast have more time to shine, and storylines are actually developed, then discarded once they reach their conclusion in a timely fashion. I feared we’d have to endure an entire season of everyone watching the show understanding Porter is full of shit, only to have the characters onscreen painfully refuse to see how obvious it is. Instead, his lies and shadiness were made front and center in the very first episode centered around his quest, and the truth was revealed with appropriate haste. Even if this episode felt a bit bloated, I’m glad to see the momentum hasn’t diminished.
- People who have seen Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, weigh in: Am I the only one reminded of how Caleb won himself a reprieve with his vampire friends in that film, during the scene where Porter suddenly used some of his cleverness to dispatch a horde of zombies via firehose?
- Speaking of possible influences, the way this season is following the characters’ adventures in separate episodes that take place roughly during the same time makes this feel like a zombied-out Arrested Development. I approve.
- Incidentally, one thing this show has done very well is how it handles Porter’s lies. He’s not a villain, not intentionally. He’s someone clever, a fast talker who means well but gets swept up under the weight of his lies as they get bigger and bigger. Seeing the stress he’s under keeping up the facade and, I think, his guilt at risking other people’s lives, especially once he manages to step up, makes what could have been a “JUST KILL HIM ALREADY MOMENT” instead something tragic. I’m actually concerned about whether he’ll survive to find any redemption for his deceptions.
- By the way, Michael Cudlitz is a truly spectacular actor. This show is so much better even just having him in the background. But his dye job is ridiculous. Seriously, he looks like his main survival tactic is raiding the hair care aisle of whichever store he finds.
Bottom Line: A step down, slightly from the quality of previous episodes, but the flashback sequences were sparing, and very relevant, and the final moments hammered home the season’s key themes well.
Recommendation: Lots of essential moments bogged down by what feels like a lot of filler, it’s still a solid outing from a season that remains surprisingly great.
Next week, we find out what happened while Daryl and Carol were away in “Consumed,” written by Matthew Negrete.[rating=3.5]