‘The Walking Dead’ (Re)Introduces Smart Walkers in ‘Variant’ (RECAP)

Josh McDermitt as Dr. Eugene Porter
Spoiler Alert
Jace Downs/AMC

[Warning: The following contains MAJOR spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 11 Episode 19, “Variant.”]

Remember way, way back in The Walking Dead’s first season, when those Atlanta walkers actually felt like a threat? They attempted to break department store windows, they climbed ladders, and, as the opening credits showed for several seasons, they turned doorknobs? Creepy….

After a gradual decline in walker intelligence over the years, “Variant” re-introduced that climbing, grabbing-things, door-opening version of the dead. Unfortunately, it’s a move that seems less a final obstacle for the survivors and more a tease for the inevitable spinoffs that have permeated these last episodes like a continual, ominous rumble of thunder.

Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon, Josh McDermitt as Dr. Eugene Porter

Jace Downs/AMC

At the Commonwealth, Eugene’s (Josh McDermitt) whisked away to Gabriel’s (Seth Gilliam) church, the only safe place for him after his involvement in Sebastian’s (Teo Rapp-Olsson) death. But in a world where Eugene’s known love, “safe” just doesn’t cut it. He won’t leave with Daryl (Norman Reedus), Rosita (Christan Serratos) and the others under cover of nightfall unless he knows Max (Margot Bingham) is okay, although he’d prefer if she’d go with them, too. The snag there? Max, who’d barely been managing to evade the Commonwealth soldiers since Sebastian’s end, gets captured just before Rosita can save her.

Eugene’s character is explored so thoroughly in this episode that it implies the show has signed his death warrant. He (hilariously) threatens to fight Daryl so that he might locate Max; he reflects on his former self in pondering whether people are born brave or if they “become it.” (Daryl’s answer? “Both.”) Eugene gets a heartstring-tugging, likely final goodbye with Rosita during which he hands over his iconic bolo tie and tells her to give it to her daughter. In the past, shining such a glowing spotlight on a character who wasn’t named Rick, Daryl, Michonne or Carol would’ve meant their passing. Here, it’s less clear whether Eugene, in striding into the Commonwealth police station to sacrifice himself for Max, has a date with the chopping block, or if the show is merely indulging in some sentimentality about a longtime character. Hey, Eugene’s been here since Season 4!

Ross Marquand as Aaron

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The action in “Variant” arrives with its namesake walkers. Aaron (Ross Marquand), Jerry (Cooper Andrews), Lydia (Cassady McClincy) and Elijah (Okea Eme-Akwari) wind up hunkering down in the skeletal remains of a Renaissance faire after stumbling into the dead on the road. Unbeknownst to them, those walkers are special. They figure it out that night when the rotters wind up inside the fence, almost as if they climbed in — because that’s what they did do. Aaron and Lydia’s initial struggle is exciting, especially when Lydia raises her weapon only for a walker to grab it.

The whole group climbs up to the main building’s roof, where they plan to take down the dead. Aaron dispatches a walker that stealthily sneaks up on them and, believing it to be a Whisperer, pulls on its “mask” only for its whole face to slide off. Poor Aaron was also there for the first encounter with the Whisperers, and the writing in this episode remembered that.

We don’t actually see the fight happen (major bummer), but everyone survives. In the aftermath, Aaron says he’d heard of walkers like this that could “open doors and climb walls.” But it’s not abundantly clear whether we’ll see these walkers again on the show, or if this was a sliver of a backdoor pilot for a spinoff show that deals with them. If I had to put money on it, I’d bet Daryl’s show addresses the variant dead.

Laila Robins as Pamela Milton

Jace Downs/AMC

Weirdness ensues with Pamela (Laila Robins) and Hornsby (Josh Hamilton) this episode, as Pamela brings her son’s reanimated corpse into Hornsby’s new cell, along with a body, and demands he “feed [her] son.” She blames Hornsby for Sebastian’s death, which, like, isn’t not what happened. Hornsby still seems to hope they might reach a compromise, and as Pamela ditches him in his filth, we pass yet another week without having any inclination of this man’s endgame. What is he doing? Why did he have his people kill the workers?

As the episode ends, Eugene turns himself in and Rosita gathers her things for the trip back home. Someone enters her apartment, and she, in a different room, asks if everyone is ready to go. As is always the case when someone enters off-screen and a character just assumes it’s their friend, her visitor is not her friend. She’s attacked, restrained, and a bag’s shoved over her head. Why? We’ll have to wait a week to find out.

Christian Serratos as Rosita Espinosa

Jace Downs/AMC

Other Observations

  • I can’t decide if I’m happy all of Team Aaron survived this episode. On the one hand, Jerry surviving subverted the whole “Injured? Dead.” trope TWD had going on in the early seasons. On the other, we’re fast approaching the end, and this show has long drawn criticism for having a massive cast. Eliminating a major character here would’ve been a good opportunity to showcase these dangerous variants.
  • What is with Pamela and Hornsby? Last week when she weirdly stroked his face, I shrugged it off. But she did it again this week, along with, uh, reaching for the coin in his pants pocket. (It plays as suggestive in the scene.) I know it’s inconsequential in the larger scheme of things, but it’s just strange enough to pique my curiosity.
  • Really nice character moment for Aaron this episode. He talks Lydia into giving a relationship with Elijah a chance by telling her the story of how he turned down his late husband many times before agreeing to go on a date with him. Now that his love is gone, he wishes he’d gone out with him right away so they had more memories. We can’t control who we lose and when, he says: “The only thing we can control is when we say yes.” Awwww.
  • In fact, that Aaron conversation is what I wish the show was doing more of in its last episodes. They’re probably a spin on something from the comics, but the Judith-narrated openings continue to ring unnatural for me. However, I loved the casual reference to Eric (Jordan Woods-Robinson) in a way that tied to the themes of the episode, and I found Eugene’s musings about bravery and being a liar fitting, given his arc. I’m not against The Walking Dead calling back to its past on the eve of its conclusion. I’m against it doing so without nuance.
  • Powerful stuff from Paola Lazaro this episode during the scene with Princess and Mercer (Michael James Shaw). Princess’ past had been hinted at a few times, but this is the first that we’ve gotten a complete breakdown of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her stepfather and stepbrother. Lazaro does excellent work selling why the Commonwealth has started to remind Princess of her awful family, and why she feels she has to leave.
  • Rating: 3/5. If “Variant” slotted in as the third episode after a normal midseason break, I’d rate it higher. But as it is, the Commonwealth story’s moving at the pace of a (regular ol’) walker dragging itself through mud, and the Aaron story, while interesting, felt like a spinoff teaser. This show has five episodes left, and nothing seems to be building toward a conclusion. Unfortunately, I’m as concerned as ever about how TWD’s going to wrap up.

The Walking Dead Season 11, Sundays, 9/8c, AMC