Directed by Laura Belsey and written by Julia Ruchman and Vivian Tse, "Splinter" finds Eugene (Josh McDermitt), Ezekiel (Khary Payton), Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura), and Princess (Paola Lázaro) captured and separated by the Commonwealth soldiers viewers were introduced earlier in the tenth season. Now from just that description alone, you would think a lot would be going on this round and you would be right- and wrong. And that's one of the reasons why this weekend's chapter of AMC's The Walking Dead makes it four-for-four when it comes to the six "Season 10C" episodes. But most of all, it was our realization that Lázaro's Princess might be the first character in the franchise's run who best speaks for us- the viewer- and best demonstrates how each of us would realistically face the kind of apocalyptic nightmares they've had to endure. Okay, before we go any further? We're throwing on the "MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!" sign because there will be major spoilers- and we'll see you on the other side of this spoiler image buffer.
For the sake of this review, I'm actually going to reverse things up a bit and start with the supporting aspects that were in play that made this episode work. First, Belsey's direction and Ruchman and Tse's words combined to bring us two episodes in one: a taught, nerve-wracking thriller that hit me with a few moments of wide-eyed staring and sweaty palms; and a personal, introspective look at the pain and hardship past trauma can wreck on our present- and the difficulties that come with trying to break free from the cycle. While a number of moments stand out, it was the opening minutes of the episode that set the proper tone as we watch Princess go through her routines and exercises to keep the effects of her PTSD from causing her to shut down.
And we would lose serious sleep tonight if we didn't mention Payton's Ezekiel- or maybe "Ezekiel" is more important. As a manifestation of Princess's raw, uncut anger and rage, Payton presents a version of "The King" that could've easily become a reality had one or two things gone differently in his past. The best way to put it? This "Ezekiel" would've sicced Shiva on a lot more people- and for a lot less than what the Saviors were doing. Now for those who will say that they knew something was off with Ezekiel earlier than the reveal and that gave it away, my response is that was supposed to do that. "Ezekiel" as Princess's rage and anger wouldn't just pop up out of the blue- not if the episode wants to stay true to what dealing with and responding to trauma is really like. As for the Commonwealth soldiers themselves, it was a nice introduction to a group/community that will play a major role in the long-running series' final season.
And in fitting with what showrunner/EP Angela Kang has been saying, they are exactly the big bag of further questions that we were hoping for. Jessejames Locorriere's interrogator gives off the "big bad" vibe and is in serious need of a backhand or two. And yet, the soldier "Princess Ezekiel" nearly beats to death makes some valid points. I mean, is what they're doing any different than what Rick (Andrew Lincoln) used to do with new faces, and we saw a less formal version of the "audition interview' when Alexandria first entered the scene.
But none of what we just described would have much meaning if it wasn't for Lázaro and her awards season-worthy turn as Princess. Now as much as The Walking Dead has presented us with characters over the years that I could relate to and connect with, Lázaro's Princess might just be the first time the series' offered viewers a character who was them- warts and all. Princess has doubts, she screws up, she makes bad decisions, and thinks more often with her heart than with her head. She also has doubts because she cares and doesn't want to hurt those around her. Though she screws up, she owns it and acts as part of the solution. And while thinking with her heart may not also lead her down the right path, at least she stays in the game- she still gives a s**t when others would walk (as another "Ezekiel" tries to convince her to do).
As we learn from the stories she tells of her childhood, she's crafted a persona for herself that while not perfect, allows her to survive. Not just the future that lies ahead, but the past that never stops looking to crawl its way into the present. And isn't that who each and every one of us is? A "Princess" looking to make sense of an uncertain future, stumbling sometimes towards a better sense of self. With Lázaro, we have a hero to root for on a visceral- because she allows us to root for ourselves.