“Rogue Element” presents the Commonwealth’s heel turn as a fun conspiracy thriller that’ll nonetheless have mixed appeal.
This recap of The Walking Dead season 11, episode 11, “Rogue Element”, contains spoilers.
The problem with the Commonwealth, at least insofar as its function within a post-apocalyptic TV zombie drama, is that whenever it’s set there The Walking Dead kind of stops being The Walking Dead. It has to since by definition the Commonwealth does away with virtually all of the issues that tend to be pressing in narratives about the downfall of civilization and the raising of the dead. It’s safe, relatively speaking, both from the undead hordes and from other human factions. It’s democratic, or at least close enough to it that it’s reminiscent of a regular human society like the ones you and I belong to, which means no leadership squabbles or debates about how to organize. And it has resources – plenty of them, it seems, so nobody needs to risk life and limb to secure two tins of beans and a bottle of water.
The Walking Dead season 11, episode 11 recap
Thus far, the final season has kept everything involving the Commonwealth separate from the usual post-apocalypse shenanigans, and even then, it presented the place’s by-the-book way of doing things as oppressive, draconian, and a bit suspicious. “Rogue Element” takes this a step further by leaning into the idea of an actual government conspiracy, which follows on from that bit in the previous episode when a disgruntled former officer warned Pamela Milton of a burgeoning resistance movement. It’s logical narrative progression. But what makes the episode interesting is that it frames the development of this idea almost exclusively in Eugene’s point of view, as he personally looks into the disappearance of Stephanie and reinvents himself as a kind of rogue gumshoe intent on getting to the heart of the matter.
As with anything involving Eugene, it’s a mixed bag in terms of effectiveness, since Eugene doesn’t think or speak like a real person; he’s part comic relief, part narratively convenient genius type, so while this new role suits his personality the show itself doesn’t suit his new role. We have to keep switching between different genres and tones just to follow along with his investigation, and when the revelations actually amount to a moment of real emotion for him, his reaction seems overdone given how knockabout so much of his investigation has been.
But it’s hard to fault an episode for attempting something genuinely different, especially this late in its run, and it actually takes the important step of establishing outright that the Commonwealth has some sneaky hidden agenda. I mean, it was obvious to anyone who has ever seen an episode of television in their lives before, much less anyone familiar with The Walking Dead’s source material, but still. Exposing that “Stephanie” was simply a plant designed to lure Eugene and co. into the community while also exposing the location of Alexandria immediately gives Stephanie an air of calculated menace. But the last-second appearance of out-of-character Stephanie, Pamela Milton’s assistant Madison, ties into a recurring theme of her showing up and getting more involved in situations than a simple PA necessarily should. Remember that old theory that Madison was really the head honcho and Milton herself was a stooge? Well, it seems a lot more credible that Madison is an insider in the Commonwealth’s government, and in exposing the conspiracy Eugene has also found an ally.
None of this should work in how it’s presented, and some of it doesn’t. But whenever it seems like things are going to become too hokey for their own good, Josh McDermitt nails his performance as Eugene and gives everything a surprisingly human contour. I’m on record as saying I really can’t stand Eugene most of the time, but I couldn’t help but feel for him as it became more and more obvious that his idealized version of Stephanie really was a fiction.
Eugene is explicitly anti-Commonwealth, but he isn’t the only one. Since we can’t make our main characters look too stupid, basically everyone who has come from Alexandria hasn’t exactly taken to their new surroundings, but it manifests in different ways. Carol is playing a longer, more subtle game, ingratiating herself with Lance, while Connie is determined to rock the boat as much as possible despite Kelly’s protestations. Kelly’s viewpoint is harder to buy into – the stability of the Commonwealth is a much more compelling argument when it’s coming from the kids – but it’s a necessary counterpoint to the mounting insurrection that’s brewing on the sidelines. The overall direction of this final season seems pretty obvious given what we’ve seen so far, but it’s nice to see a little texture on the way there.
I imagine opinions will be split here, since large stretches of “Rogue Element” were pretty insufferable to me, and it was far from the norm in terms of style and tone. I wouldn’t want every episode of the show to play out like this one, but I can’t help but appreciate the effort in doing something genuinely different so late in the day. And it raises some interesting questions about what the future might hold for the remainder of the season.