“Splinter” hones in on the character of Princess as she battles both her inner demons and the Commonwealth.
This recap of The Walking Dead season 10, episode 20, “Splinter”, contains spoilers.
There’s a lot to be said for a furry pink coat.
People in the universe of The Walking Dead, generally speaking, tend to wear leather jackets, body armour, or rotten human skinsuits. In the case of the soldiers of the Commonwealth, seen now and again throughout “Splinter”, they wear bulky, plasticky get-ups, like video game henchmen or action figures. The stark, clinical white of those outfits is weird, suspiciously devoid of grime and wear. It makes them feel detached, like they have been dropped into the apocalypse suddenly. But Princess’s furry pink coat is different. It is a splash of color and extravagance clinging to her shoulders like the last bit of self-expression she has left. Everything else is worn down and faded and damaged, but the furry pink coat endures.
Like a lot of the Season 10C episodes have been, “Splinter” is deeply character-focused. But it takes the concept to an extreme by not just being about Paola Lázaro’s Princess but locking her in a boxcar, alone with her thoughts and the facets of her personality she is trying to keep buried. Eugene, Yumiko, and Ezekiel are all in The Walking Dead season 10, episode 20, albeit briefly, but they are the slightly off-kilter imaginings of a brain yanked this way and that by a laundry list of mental health issues exacerbated by trauma. You are not supposed to know this from the start, but it was obvious to me, and I think it will be to most people. Anyone who has spent ten seasons with these characters will be able to tell quickly that the versions of them Princess is interacting with are only based on the week she has spent with them, having filled in some aspects of their personalities herself.
It starts with Yumiko, whispering to Princess through a gap in the boxcars. Princess is eager to save the day, in part to prove herself to her new friends, and as the episode progresses, we begin to understand why. When, while trying to pull some boards apart, Princess gets a splinter in her finger, she regales Yumiko with a story of how she had a similar one as a kid that was allowed to become badly infected by neglectful parents, including an abusive stepfather. The little shard of wood becomes a niggling reminder of her childhood; in contrast to the furry pink coat, it’s something she’s trying to get rid of, but can’t. Both, though, represent the loss of innocence, a need to survive in a new world that erodes individuality away until only the basest instincts are left.
What becomes clear throughout “Splinter” is that Princess can’t necessarily trust those instincts. They’re too warped by her trauma; reflexive, instead of considered. When she’s interrogated, she snaps constantly, defensively. She can’t help but be difficult. When she’s thrown back into the boxcar and then rendezvouses with an imagined Ezekiel, the first thing she does is fret about how she conducted herself during the interrogation. It’s that classic self-destructive tendency to overthink and overcomplicate everything, to second-guess every decision made until it can’t help but feel like the wrong one. Here, Ezekiel, given a streak of righteous impulsiveness, represents her self-preservation instinct in its purest form. He demands they escape. When a guard comes into the boxcar to feed them, Ezekiel knocks him to the ground from behind. When the guard begins to extoll the virtues of his group and the necessity of the precautions they’re taking, he jumps astride him and begins to violently beat him, screaming that nobody will ever hurt him again.
Of course, it’s Princess herself doing the beating and the screaming, a revelation she arrives at halfway through the assault. Her first impulse is to take his gun and flee, not just the boxcar but the trainyard itself, but another version of Ezekiel, this one flanked by dressed-up Walkers that resemble the ones in her dioramas, gives her someone to argue with. This Ezekiel is the Devil on her shoulder, the voice telling her to run, that she’s better on her own. Deciding to resist that impulse, one that has obviously kept her alive thus far, and instead return to save her new friends, is a big turning point for the character.
It might well be out of the frying pan and into the fire, though, since The Walking Dead season 10, episode 20 is deliberately ambiguous about the nature of the Commonwealth (they haven’t actually been called that in the show yet, but the evidence is pretty compelling.) When Princess returns to the boxcar, she frees the guard and reels off a litany of issues – ADHD, anxiety, PTSD, depression – to help explain the full-on conversations she’s been having with herself. Oh, and the assault. When she unlocks his handcuffs, they tug out the splinter that has been bothering her. It’s symbolic, obviously, of her letting go of a longstanding issue by making a decision to put her friends before herself – something that was causing her pain, literally and figuratively, has been removed because of her selflessness. But her selflessness also seems to land her in trouble when she asks if she can see her friends, and the guard leads her outside, where they’ll all stood with bags over their heads. “Splinter” ends with one being pulled over Princess’s, too.