On one of her first missions as a soldier in the Commonwealth Army, Rosita discovered that a dissident faction within the city was much more than a few angry people. Meanwhile, Carol began doing work for Lieutenant Governor Lance Hornsby in the hopes that he’d be able to move Ezekiel up on a list to receive life saving surgery.
Last time we saw “Stephanie,” Eugene had been put in a jail cell for defending her honor against Sebastian. This resulted in him potentially spending the rest of his life behind bars, which Hornsby leveraged to get him to reveal Alexandria’s location. We learned two weeks ago that Eugene not only cooperated, but went all in on convincing his people to join the Commonwealth.
So where does “Stephanie” fit into all this and what is her true identity?
As always, the recap portion of this review will contain plenty of spoilers. The sequence of events has also been streamlined for the sake of clarity.
The episode opens with Eugene waking up in bed next to Stephanie. In the context of the show and the character, this turn of events made me fear for his safety. As someone who finds actress Chelle Ramos to be unbelievably gorgeous, however, it’s hard not to be happy for the guy.
But I digress…Eugene finds Stephanie reading his unfinished novel and immediately gets to work managing her expectations. To his great delight/relief, she loves it and declares how proud she is of him. As she gets up and begins getting ready for work, Eugene reveals that he made her a key to his apartment. He follows up that big relationship milestone by also declaring that he loves her.
Stephanie hesitates, but quietly responds that she loves him, too.
The two share an excited kiss before Eugene leaves Stephanie’s apartment to head to work, where Princess tries to help him analyze how things are going with his new girlfriend. Despite not having any frame of reference for a romantic/successful relationship, she assures him that all signs point to things going great
Sadly, Eugene’s newfound happiness is shattered that afternoon when Stephanie stands him up for their ice cream date.
Later that evening, Eugene heads to Stephanie’s apartment to find out what happened and check if she’s okay. He knocks on the door and receives no answer, unable to see the woman he’d declared his love to frantically throwing her belongings into a suitcase.
The next day, Rosita and another Commonwealth soldier go to Stephanie’s apartment to do a wellness check at Eugene’s behest. When they discover she’s not there, he asks to make an official statement of her last known whereabouts. hoping it might help an investigation into her disappearance. Rosita sees how worried her friend is and offers to help with the missing person paperwork.
Later, Eugene goes to the Commonwealth radio/broadcasting station where Stephanie works (or claimed to work) and discovers that someone is already filling in for her. The man isn’t able to offer any information except that he was told to be there when Stephanie didn’t show up.
Code of Silence
The Commonwealth Tribune decides to run a story attributing Tyler Davis‘ behavior at the masquerade (when he held Max at knifepoint) to a severe case of PTSD. Despite this explanation being backed up by Tyler, his military doctor, and a press release from Governor Milton, Connie (with Kelly translating) insists that the paper should dig further into Tyler’s claims of there being “thousands” more like him instead of just paraphrasing the official story.
Connie’s editor (Jan) flat out refuses, implying that if Connie doesn’t do as she’s asked, it could be the end of her and Kelly’s time working at the Tribune.
Instead of being intimidated into submission, the pair head to the Commonwealth medical facility where Tyler is being held to ask him some questions. Connie finds his room and asks the guard what Tyler is being charged with and if he has any legal representation. Before the soldier can answer, Mercer appears in the doorway and glares at them before shutting it closed again.
Later, Jan sends Connie and Kelly on a ride along with the Commonwealth Army to do what basically amounts to a military propaganda piece. Things become a whole lot more interesting, however, when the pair discover that Mercer will be joining them, as well.
After saving two of his surprisingly inept soldiers from getting eaten by zombies, Mercer walks over and ambivalently asks Connie and Kelly to go ahead with the approved questions they were sent to ask. Instead, the pair boldly inquire why Tyler Davis continues to be held at the hospital under armed guard a month after the masquerade incident (and why he hasn’t been charged with any crime yet).
Mercer attempts to evade the question, but is uncharacteristically thrown off balance when the pair ask if Tyler’s detainment has anything to do with Max being his sister.
After admitting that he expected them to figure out his relationship to her, Mercer firmly states that Max’s involvement in the incident has nothing to do with Tyler’s incarceration.
Instead of calling him a liar or backing down, Connie brilliantly utilizes other findings from her research, pointing out that Tyler had previously been considered an exemplary soldier. He’d even been personally recommended by Mercer for an early promotion. Now, that very same man believes that the military is being manipulated by politicians — a belief he was ready to risk everything to expose.
*Side Note: There’s also the part about Tyler losing his job, but Connie still deserves a lot of credit for turning things around on Mercer via two different and extremely personal pieces of information.
Having verbally backed the Commonwealth Army general into a corner, Connie goes in for the kill by recommending that Mercer carefully consider who he’s risking his life for. Mercer replies that she should consider how pointless it is to dig for answers they both know won’t ever see the light of day.
Later, Mercer visits the hospital room where Tyler Davis is being held only to find him gone. He asks the receptionist what happened, pointing out that the Davis and the soldiers tasked with guarding him could not have been moved without his authorization.
The receptionists blithely points out that Mercer’s perception of the chain of command appears to be incorrect, causing him to angrily punch a hole in the wall before departing.
Sometime later, Connie files her story only to find that any actual reporting she did had been removed, leaving yet another shallow Commonwealth propaganda piece in its place.
Kelly assures her sister that this is a good thing, especially since they only planned to stay in the Commonwealth temporarily. Not every day has to be a fight, especially when the city isn’t going to be their permanent home.
The sisters’ conversation is interrupted when someone slips a note under their door. Connie opens it to find a long list of names with Tyler Davis’ at the end of it.
Hornsby takes Carol on a carriage ride to a nearby community that makes opium, which the Commonwealth buys and uses as a sedative/painkiller at their medical facility. On the way there, he reveals that his position as second in command came about from building trust with the Milton family over a long period of time. While Governor Milton is the one in charge, he’s the person who actually knows and understands how to keep things running.
Hornsby then explains his belief that there are two types of people in any organization: Mercenaries who are only in it for themselves and patriots who truly believe in what the organization does.
When Carol asks if Hornsby plans to turn her into a “true believer,” he indicates that her status as a mercenary is pretty obvious. That’s also completely fine, especially if she can help him with people like the man in charge (Moto) of the opium refinery. The relationship between Moto’s community and the Commonwealth had been extremely beneficial, but was starting to go south, resulting in an opium shortage.
As if on cue, Moto comes out and explains to Hornsby that the people refining the opium poppy are demanding a raise. If the Commonwealth doesn’t give it to them, they’re willing to let that year’s entire harvest rot, effectively crippling the city’s medical capabilities
Despite the tense greeting, both men are still cordial with each other. When they walk to a nearby river to fish and begin negotiations, Carol watches over Hornsby while two of Moto’s people watch over him. Hornsby says he can’t meet the refiner’s demands, but he can meet them halfway via incentive based pricing. If Moto’s people can increase their opium output, then the Commonwealth will pay them a great deal more than the previous rate.
When the pair return from their fishing trip, Hornsby asks Carol about any intel she is able to gather from speaking to Moto’s lieutenants. She informs him that Moto has been robbing his people of the Commonwealth’s payments, often via brutal physical force. One of his recent beatings apparently “went too far,” thus leading the workers to go on a strike that’s responsible for the current opium shortage.
Hornsby assures Carol that the people will get the money they’re rightfully owed before telling his troops to arrest Moto. As the deposed leader is taken into custody, one of the lieutenants gives Hornsby and Carol a respectful/grateful nod.
Days after Stephanie’s alleged disappearance, Princess visits Eugene to check on him. When he lets her inside his apartment, she discovers that her friend has gone full Pepe Silva in an attempt to figure out what happened to his missing beloved.
Eugene explains that after the Commonwealth Army gave up the search for Stephanie, he had a chance encounter with a man he saw leaving her apartment the night they were supposed to meet for ice cream. After catching up to him and asking about that evening, the man gruffly admits (or lies) that he’d been called to fix a clogged sink in the building’s common area. He also had no recollection of seeing the woman who’s face was on all the missing person fliers Eugene plastered across the city.
Understandably skeptical of the man’s story, Eugene began following him, eventually learning that his name was Roman Calhoun and he was definitely not a plumber.
Further surveillance revealed that Roman and three other people would frequently enter the same dilapidated building at odd hours of the evening. One night, they were joined by a fifth man who appears to be their leader. Based on their clandestine behavior, Eugene is convinced that this group is a rogue element (ROLL CREDITS) within the Commonwealth government that Stephanie somehow ran afoul of, forcing her to go into hiding.
Before Princess can process this outlandish conspiracy theory, Eugene reveals that he saw one of Roman’s compatriots show up to Stephanie’s apartment with a moving crew and remove all her furniture. Following this bombshell discovery, Eugene was somehow able to swipe a file from Union Station, which turned out to be a work transfer request signed by Stephanie on the same day as her disappearance.
For most people, this last piece of information would point to a fairly obvious reason behind Stephanie’s disappearance. Eugene, on the other hand, believes that the document was fabricated, citing the radio operator’s assertion that her absence from work that day was unplanned.
As far as he’s concerned, Stephanie is currently on the run from shadowy government agents. Her only hope of a safe return now hinges upon his ability to expose and stop the people attempting to hunt her down.
The next day, Princess accompanies Eugene on a stakeout of Roman Calhoun’s apartment. While waiting for him to leave, he relates a heartbreaking tale of how Stephanie encouraged him to finally finish the novel he’d never had the initiative or courage to write before she came into his life.
Once Roman leaves to go for his daily run, Eugene makes his move to break into the man’s apartment. Princess is apprehensive about doing something that could get them into major legal trouble, but Eugene convinces her to keep a lookout while he searches for any clues. He manages to find a briefcase filled with weapons and restraint rope, but an unexpected downpour forces them to leave before Roman returns early from his run.
The pair make it out of the apartment, but are apprehended when a woman who witnessed the break in points them out to some Commonwealth troopers.
Occam’s Butcher Knife
Upon returning from his recent business trip, Hornsby is surprised to learn that Eugene and Princess have been detained. After learning why the two were arrested, he presents Eugene with a slate of documents proving Roman is just a plumber who was on a work call in Stephanie’s apartment building the night she disappeared.
As for the weapons, the lieutenant governor tells them that Roman is allowed to have those due to his status as a fully vested citizen of the Commonwealth. The other items (like the rope) could be easily explained as part of the “go bags” that many people keep on hand in these uncertain times.
Hornsby then says that he explained everything Eugene had been through to Roman, who agreed not to press charges. All he would need to do to avoid jail time (and keep Princess out of trouble) is sign a statement attesting to the extreme mental stress and paranoia he’d experienced following Stephanie’s disappearance. He would also have to accept that all his theories about why she went away were wrong.
At Princess’s urging, Eugene signs the document and secures their release.
When the pair return to Eugene’s apartment, he immediately begins rationalizing Hornsby’s evidence into an even deeper conspiracy surrounding Stephanie’s disappearance. Princess finally pushes back, arguing that the most reasonable explanation is that she totally ghosted him.
Seeing how much this idea devastates him, she attempts to soften the blow by telling him about how her own father disappeared for seemingly no reason. In Eugene’s mind, however, the first true love of his life would never do such a thing.
That evening, Eugene sneaks into the building where he suspects the people behind Stephanie’s kidnapping are operating from. While making his way toward a stairwell, one of the alleged co-conspirators hears his approach and lunges toward him. Eugene is able to fight the man off with some homemade pepper spray, but gets knocked down by a hard kick to the stomach from someone else.
While laying on the ground and gasping for air, he looks up and discovers that his attacker was Stephanie.
Hornsby charges down the stairs with Roman following close behind. Upon seeing Eugene, he assures everyone that he’ll handle the situation and ask them to leave. The group immediately follows his orders, but Stephanie still manages to shoot a guilty look in Eugene’s direction before heading upstairs.
Eugene pulls himself up and begins moving toward Hornsby, who silently listens as the broken man furiously realizes all the ways he’d been deceived.
Eugene concludes his rant by vowing to expose the lieutenant governor’s lies to everyone. Hornsby takes this news in stride, pointing out that his community is the best thing that ever happened to the people of Alexandria. Instead of starving and struggling to survive, their city is currently being fixed while they live in comparatively luxury.
Additionally, Eugene and the people he arrived with all lied to get inside the Commonwealth city gates. That, combined with the statement Eugene recently signed about his impaired mental state, puts him in an extremely weak position to be any kind of whistleblower.
Hornsby then apologizes to Eugene for orchestrating a scenario that made him fall in love with a woman pretending to be someone else. It was undoubtedly cruel, but the pain it caused Eugene was a small price to pay for helping the people of Alexandria.
As he’s about to depart, Hornsby reveals that Stephanie’s real name is Shira. While much of what Eugene knew about her wasn’t true (like being a fan of Iron Maiden), she genuinely enjoyed his book. Hornsby encourages him to stick with it before heading back upstairs.
Instead of following after Hornsby, Eugene slumps down next to the stairwell, completely shattered and defeated.
Later, he finds a deserted alley and builds a fire, feeding its flames with missing person posters of the woman he never truly knew. In a final act of despair, he eschews Hornsby’s advice and throws his unpublished novel into the fire, as well.
As the pages curl and burn, a woman approaches and says she needs to talk to him. Eugene ignores her at first, but is shaken out of his stupor when she uses the call signs he and Stephanie utilized back when they were communicating via the radio.
The woman steps out of the shadows and reveals herself to him as the real Stephanie.
A little over five years ago, I wrote an article about why The Walking Dead wasn’t a good show anymore. If season 11 keeps going the way it is, however, then I may need to write a new one about why the series has completely revitalized itself.
Now to be fair, I actually did write an article like that back in 2019 that turned out to be embarrassingly premature. In this case, though, it’s starting to feel like the fundamental elements behind how good The Walking Dead‘s final season has been are much more solid.
Remember when Fear the Walking Dead first came out? All the trailers along with the first few episodes made it look like the show would focus on the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. Despite how unlikable the characters were (at least in my opinion), getting to see the chaotic first chapter of society’s collapse was a welcome change from the repetitive slog the main series had turned into.
Instead, Fear the Walking Dead just became a different viewpoint of virtually the same thing. I’ve heard from others that the show got much better after the first season thanks to some fantastic characters, but I’ve yet to feel compelled enough to pick it up again.
In the meantime, The Walking Dead continued with its predictable cycle of events:
- A new group of psychotic antagonists appear.
- Internal strife begins between two factions of the main characters.
- Carol has a mental breakdown.
- Main(ish) character is killed by the new psychotic antagonists.
- Carol rediscovers her inner badass and/or humanity.
- Main character death fake out
- Bickering main character factions work things out and take down psychotic antagonists.
Even the opening chapters of season 11 (which I enjoyed) appeared to be following roughly the same formula, albeit with some of the most brilliant execution we’ve ever seen. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth plot continued to simmer and boil beneath it. Now it’s come to the fore as a brilliant narrative that explores a whole different form of chaos — the painful and uncharted attempts at reconstructing society.
For those of you undoubtedly pointing out that The Walking Dead: World Beyond explored the same concept, you make an excellent point — one I can’t really counter since that show hasn’t interested me enough to watch it, either.
What I can say, however, is that the main Walking Dead series tackles this concept on a what appears to be a much more relatable scale. Instead of a sprawling conspiracy, it takes place primarily within the confines of a singular city/government. More importantly, the narrative integrates backstories and arcs from well-established characters, which in turn has provided some of the most compelling individual performances we’ve ever seen.
Connie is completely in her element, assisted by a sister who finally appears to be coming into her own due to (ironically) being reunited with her sibling.
Daryl’s lone wolf sensibilities have finally met their match via the responsibility he feels for Rick and Michonne’s children…and maybe a bit more contentment from being a soldier instead of a leader than he’d like to admit.
Ezekiel finds himself at a mortal crossroads, which inspires Carol to be more ruthless and cunning than ever for the best possible reasons.
Princess finally has a home and feels like herself again, but is also placed in the very odd position of being the voice of reason to a friend unraveling before her eyes.
Speaking of Eugene, how can you not be blown away by Josh McDermitt’s performance? For a guy that’s normally played for comic relief and/or stubborn “aww shucks” optimism, the rant he did in front of Hornsby was one of the most beautifully raw soliloquies we’ve ever seen on the series.
The show’s writers also deserve a lot of credit for how they’ve treated his story this season. Rather than lazily imbuing him with a strong/uncharacteristic emotional IQ, Eugene’s mind and heart break in the most Eugene way possible, inspiring a depth of pain and heartache for the character that few of us ever expected to feel.
All that being said, the new characters are fantastic, as well.
Hornsby has gone from a cardboard bureaucrat to someone far more cunning and imposing than we gave him credit for — all without sacrificing his sleazy demeanor.
Any of us who read the comics or paid attention to the most basic casting news were aware of Stephanie’s duplicity, but Chelle Ramos played her with unsettling conviction. When Eugene finally took the lie too far, it was the first time a hint of her inevitable betrayal (purposefully) slipped through.
And then we have Mercer, who’s started giving us the first inklings of how much more there is to Commonwealth Army General than his badass reputation/demeanor. With just one look or a few words, Michael James Shaw infuses the character with more presence and emotion that an entire monologue could ever provide.
There were still a few areas where “Rogue Element” didn’t quite hit the mark — like Eugene doing an offscreen infiltration to swipe a key file in his search for Stephanie. Or how Hornsby and his band of covert mercenaries so brazenly met on a nightly basis within the confines of the same city they’re operating in.
And why the heck would Stephanie continue to stick around in a confined community where her cover’s been blown? The only point to her continued presence setting up a contrived moment where Eugene literally has the wind knocked out of him by the discovery of who she really is.
It was a brilliant moment, but a contrived set up none the less.
Those nitpicks aside, this episode is a very strong indicator that The Walking Dead‘s final season is going to be something completely different and better than the show has been in a long time
Keep in mind that this jam-packed episode didn’t even touch on some of season 11’s most intriguing characters/plotlines, including:
- Maggie, Elijah, and a rebuilt Hilltop vs. Daryl and the Commonwealth.
- Daryl becoming a soldier in the Commonwealth Army.
- Daryl trying to be a surrogate father to Judith and RJ.
- Sebastian‘s collision course with becoming a post-apocalyptic King Joffrey.
- The underground Commonwealth Resistance group.
- Whatever is going on between Rosita and Gabriel.
- Whatever is still happening back in Alexandria with Aaron & Co.
- Whatever Leah has cooking up for Daryl and Maggie.
Even if Rick and/or Michonne don’t show up in the end of the series (which is still a very distinct possibility)…and even if you don’t care for the direction that The Walking Dead is taking for it’s final season…there’s no way anyone could accuse it of being boring.
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