TV Review: The Walking Dead, 11×19, “Variant”

While effective enough thanks to various character beats, I can’t help but think “Variant” was an episode of The Walking Dead with nowhere else to go with its primary plotline than we saw. Perhaps a more ambitious version of this series in its early run would shockingly make a turn and kill off Max unceremoniously or even Rosita. But no, Eugene may have been on the run, but I never saw a scenario where he wouldn’t be caught by the end, let alone turn himself in. Perhaps that speaks to how well the show has established his character, but given the chaos from last week (complete with a satisfying result), this week could have used a bit of a jolt. That said, we did get an intelligent zombie.

Let’s unpack that. The Walking Dead hasn’t really done anything to evolve the undead over the years. They are more like giant locusts than anything else. Sometimes they are gooier or more burned than average, but outside of physical differences, this is not an enemy with any layers. So, despite believing hanging out at an abandoned Renaissance fair, Aaron, Jerry, Lydia, and Elijah learned that it was not the safe haven they had hoped for, as one walker (the variant) had enough wherewithal to be alerted to where their targets were hiding, open doors, climb, and even pick up a rock as a weapon.

Having recently re-watched Night of the Living Dead (in stunning 4K), it’s a big reminder that the first zombie we ever see in Romero’s landmark series was similarly gifted before the rest merely acted as shambling corpses. With that in mind, this group being attacked are far from shambling. They all have lots of feelings they want to explore. Jerry has a family and can’t afford to be injured while traveling. Yet, he also wants to keep spirits light enough to recognize their current shelter as a possible Kingdom 2.0. Meanwhile, Lydia and Elijah are in the early stages of courtship, though Lydia is having trouble thinking about becoming attached again.

Over the years, Ross Marquand’s Aaron has certainly become more hardened (losing a hand and a husband will do that to you), but he actually comes in with good advice about love this week. He assures Lydia that it’s far better to go for it when the feelings are there rather than block everything off, and the two are better for it. Sure, they still have to deal with a large horde invading their area, but at least the next morning opens up a chance for Lydia to seal the deal with Elijah. Maybe these crazy kids will make it.

Okay, so now onto the Commonwealth. While Eugene is on the lamb (by which I mean he’s hiding in a church that no one ever searches), Pamela Milton is looking at the state of things, visiting her son’s corpse, and declaring that an example needs to be made. As suggested, peacetimes for Pamela are over. She wants Mercer to do whatever it takes to bring back Eugene. As a reward, she’ll pardon Max. Obviously, the man is going to put family first, leading to a round-up of all the usual suspects.

This ultimately goes nowhere, as Daryl and his people aren’t rats. With that said, despite how obvious it is that they know where Eugene is hiding, the plan to get him out of the Commonwealth is not a simple one. Eugene will not leave without his beloved Max. Here’s where I know the show will not be able to get around this stumbling block. Yes, the show needs drama, and that really doesn’t leave room for Eugene to have a happy ending with Max after all the chaos he caused. From here, this portion of the episode is largely built around Daryl, Rosita, Mercer, and Eugene having various talks about what actions make sense and why.

This is nice to a degree, as much of the conversations revolve around relationships shared between these people, romantic or otherwise. That helps tie into the other part of this episode, making this one of the rare episodes where love is somewhat in the air, and all the Walking Dead characters are dealing with the fallout. With that said, this does finally lead to the return of Princess.

Here’s a character who seems to have finally found a life she can deal with. Despite her eccentricities, she fits into the Commonwealth more than she doesn’t. While she cares for Eugene, she’s also formed a partnership with Mercer. However, Mercer’s resolve to follow orders (for the sake of keeping his sister safe) pushes Juanita Sanchez past her limits of what’s acceptable. We get a good story about Princess’s upbringing to watch Mercer see things at her level, which ultimately leads to her saying goodbye to her armored boyfriend.

Will these two get back together? Who knows. People that have become inseparable, however, are Hornsby and the late Sebastian Milton. After taking forever to become a walker, we eventually find out that Pamela did not have her son put down. Instead, she has a discussion with her insubordinate second-in-command about the people he had killed to make a point. It was a bad move, as Pamela has her own version of justice in mind for him. The reveal of the undead Sebastian was one thing, but knowing that Hornsby will now have to feed pieces of his henchman to Pamela’s undead son is a swing I didn’t see her taking.

There’s a nice balance this week in seeing walker action in addition to the results of last week’s Commonwealth mayhem. I appreciated how character-building managed to come from all of this. Still, it does lead to the simple solution – Eugene turns himself in, saving Max in the process (ideally, at least). Obviously, our heroes will need to form a new plan, but things at least seemed in order. That is until the end stinger of the week finds Rosita being randomly attacked and captured by some unknowns. Nothing’s ever simple.

Dead Bits:

  • Zombie Kill of the Week: Jerry (with an injured knee) goes on a samurai sword kill spree this week, which was wonderful.
  • Obviously, the big question is – Who is coming after Rosita?
  • The whole wagon-based b-plot did enough in the tension department, as anyone of these characters is expendable, and, at the same time, I don’t want to see any of them die.
  • Aaron talking about Eric was a nice look back for the mace-handed warrior.
  • Hornsby really gives off an even creepier vibe now that he’s incarcerated.
  • At least zombie Sebastian doesn’t talk.
  • That bit where Daryl moves aside to avoid fighting Eugene is lovely.
  • Mercer, you’re great, but it’s time to get your head in the game.
  • Thanks for reading, and feel free to hear what me and a few other fans of the show have to say about the series on The Walking Dead TV Podcast.

The Walking Dead is now airing on AMC and streaming on AMC+.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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