It's not easy to encase a dramatic narrative almost exclusively within the confines of a dark, tight space. Ryan Reynolds’ psychological thriller Buried certainly took a decent stab at it back in 2010, and now The Walking Dead has attempted a similar conceit, throwing Princess into an empty train carriage (following an underwhelming tussle with the Commonwealth) for what is supposed to be a twisty, tension-drenched character study of this comic book heroine.
Unfortunately, the results are nowhere near as affecting as you'd hope, the episode’s 40 minute runtime slowing to tonally inconsistent, awkwardly structured crawl.
For what it's worth, Paola Lázaro makes the most of the material she's given, as Princess' claustrophobia and rising anxiety resurface painful memories of her traumatic past. Fluently peeling back the layers of her eccentric persona to reveal Princess' more human and vulnerable dimensions, Lázaro is in command of the character throughout, even if her social quirks have a tendency to grate rather than endear us to her.
But Lázaro's performance isn't enough to elevate “Splinter” beyond its miserable mundanity, with a plotline that – even for Walking Dead standards – is embarrassingly thin. It's worth breaking down what happens just to understand why this episode fails at a foundational level.
After spending the first 15 minutes in the aforementioned train carriage, Princess makes a break for it, only to talk to Eugene, who persuades her back into the carriage. She then faces interrogation by the Commonwealth, before returning to the carriage, where she decides to attempt another escape before… yep, you guessed it, heading back to the carriage.
The episode's final moments, in which Princess, Yumiko, Eugene, and Ezekiel are held up by Commonwealth guards, leave us in exactly the same spot at which we started, with barely anything learned to show for it.
To be clear, there's nothing inherently wrong with stories that trade plotting for character. Some of the best moments in television have come from bottle episodes, in which the narrative momentum of the overarching season comes to a grinding halt to explore the people at its centre. Unfortunately, “Splinter” just doesn't contain enough thematic meatiness or memorable dialogue to sustain that kind of self-imposed narrative limitation, and what we're left with is instead one of the most needless episodes in the show's history.
There are a few minor moments of promise amidst the misfires, however. The big, last minute "twist", in which we discover that Princess has been imagining much of the events of the episode, was pulled off smartly, with subtle visual and audio clues that invoked a sense of the illusionary in the moments leading up to the reveal. Equally, there's something to be said about the image of King Exekiel hanging out with two fancily clad walkers like three friends on a drunken night out, which offered a bright spot of surreal comedy amidst the episode's darker shades.
We even learned a few nuggets of new information about the Commonwealth, who process newcomers with all the convolution and coldness of an over bureaucratised state. "We're careful because we have a lot to lose," says the guard who brings Princess her lunch. That culture of insularity will no doubt be a source of tension for our survivors once they enter the Commonwealth en masse next season.
For now, however, these second-rate stormtroopers are still just that; faceless guards wrapped up in mystery, and the episode's reluctance to color them with any great detail only exacerbated its meandering formlessness. With two episodes left in The Walking Dead season 10, and the previous four swinging wildly in quality and entertainment value so far, here's hoping the showrunners can escape the bad taste left behind by “Splinter” and segue us into season 11 with a stronger sense of anticipation and promise.