Review: The Walking Dead Season 11, Episode 19 – “Variant”

There are spoilers ahead for this review of The Walking Dead. We start by addressing a great big problem. The smart zombie one, no less. In 2010, the horror drama introduced us to the concept of an intelligent zombie, the type of shambling flesh-eater that could break glass with rocks or climb ladders. The concept was fleeting, and the smart zombies were not seen again beyond Season 1.

Now, more than twelve years later, this new zombie variant, as the title indicates, has made a surprising comeback. The problem is simple. It’s far too late in the story to introduce such a game-changing plot. With the parent series drawing ever closer to its ending, it’s easy to argue, what’s the point?

However, with a wealth of spin-offs waiting in the wings, the storyline makes some sense. It’ll provide a potential launching point for many of The Walking Dead’s side projects, notably the Daryl-centric adventure in France. The storyline could play a pivotal role in any number of spin-offs, but right now, it comes across as tacked on and irrelevant at this late stage in The Walking Dead’s eleventh and final season. If the show would run for another year or two, the plot would make sense, and the writers would have more time to flesh it out.

Rosita - The Walking Dead.
Lance – The Walking Dead. (Pic: AMC).

With only five episodes until the end, it seems too little, too late for the variant plot. Nevertheless, in the interests of fairness, the plot is eerily reminiscent of the Whisperers’ arrival in Season 9. For some time, it’d felt as if the flesh-eating corpses roaming the world offered little threat and interest as the Savior War rampaged on. Much like the Whisperer War that followed, the variant subplot could have saved the series from its gradual decline in quality years back. 

In the episode, as Aaron, Jerry, Lydia, and Elijah travel back to Oceanside, they set up camp at a medieval theme park. A variant scales the walls of the park, turns a doorknob, grabs Lydia’s cane in a fight, and later attempts to kill Jerry by picking up a rock. This last part is a bit on the nose, reflecting a scene from Season 1 in which one of the zombies breaks a pane of glass with a rock.

One of the most chilling moments in the episode comes as Aaron tears off the flesh from the face of the variant walker – under the suspicion that it’s a Whisperer in disguise. The horror on his face as he realises the truth speaks volumes. Audaciously, the scene cuts to the following day and reveals that despite being severely outnumbered, the group successfully wipes out an entire horde of zombies. Time was one man couldn’t fight a singular, skinny, seriously overpowered zombie – and that was the time Dale died. Good old plot armor and a dash of lazy writing make anything possible these days. Aaron acknowledges the rumours of variants that could climb walls and open doors, and it’s only taken us twelve years to finally see them in action. 

Eugene - The Walking Dead.
Eugene – The Walking Dead. (Pic: AMC).

Whether they’ll have any lasting impact on the series in the final five episodes remains to be seen, and something tells me probably not. The variant story piques my interest and hopefully the hearts and minds of the show’s dwindling fanbase, but in the time it’d take to finalise the foundations of the plot and develop it, the series credits will roll for the last time. Sebastian Million is dead, and the Founders Day celebrations are well and truly over. Eugene is receiving unwanted attention from the Milton devotees as Daryl takes him into hiding for his role in Sebastian’s death.

The Commonwealth begins to arrest and interrogate all associates known to Eugene, including Ezekiel, Princess, and Rosita. A grieving Pamela intends to make an example out of Eugene to the Commonwealth that actions have consequences. As Eugene hides in a church, Max is apprehended by Commonwealth soldiers and later instructed to sign a pre-written statement pardoning her for her actions, citing poor mental health for her role. She rejects the pardon and refuses to sign the statement. Mercer, her brother and General of the Commonwealth army, finds his loyalties tested, and his relationship with Princess strained more so than ever before. 

Eugene accepts his role in the events that transpired during the Founders Day celebrations, and as an escape plan is put in place, his attempts at reconciling with Max fall flat. After making one final heartfelt goodbye to Rosita and admitting to Daryl that throughout most of his life, he’s been able to survive by lying and relying on the heroics of others to keep him alive, Eugene calmly surrenders and confesses to his role in Sebastian’s death.

Rosita - The Walking Dead.
Rosita – The Walking Dead. (Pic: AMC).

Rosita is later ambushed by unknown heavies in her Commonwealth apartment and abducted, while Princess wants out of the new community as Eugene’s life hangs in the balance. Princess is the one to deal out another F-bomb, a third in a row, as AMC relaxes its rules on this particular obscenity. It’s delivered as Princess reveals her troubled childhood with abusive family members. 

Princess refuses to accept the Commonwealth’s social and political corruption as Eugene sets to take the fall for Sebastian’s death. Before leaving Mercer, she refers to men as “monsters” but believes Mercer is not one of them. Mercer will come good in the end as he fights his conflicted feelings on loyalty to the Commonwealth, and Princess’s story will help persuade the General. We hope.

Let’s talk about Aaron, and let this review reiterate why Ross Marquand is one of the most underutilised characters in the series. As the one to bring Rick’s group to Alexandria back in Season 5, it stands to reason that Aaron would naturally progress into a leadership role. He has, but his screen time has been limited as the series is stretched thin between multiple communities. The Commonwealth, Alexandria, the Hilltop, and occasionally, a visit to Oceanside. In this episode, it’s a speech he gives to Lydia as she struggles with her relationship with Elijah which resonates the most.

Aaron - The Walking Dead.
Aaron – The Walking Dead. (Pic: AMC).

She rejects a kiss from Elijah, leaving his pride wounded as he throws her a softly confused glance. God, these guys have no chemistry. Sorry. Save for one conversation with Aaron, Lydia’s relationship plight would feel like no more than filler. Aaron recounts his marriage with Eric, who died in the early stages of Season 8’s Savior War. Wasted potential. Aaron tells Lydia that while loss is inevitable, she has the chance to take what she wants from the relationship right now and should.

It’s a beautiful scene, set against a gorgeous backdrop of a desolate medieval theme park, yet it’s a moment that infuriates me too. Eric’s wasted potential as a character serves as a reminder that Aaron could do so much more in the series if the showrunners would take notice of these underutilised characters.

For more The Walking Dead content, check out last week’s review of “A New Deal”. What do you think of the eleventh season of The Walking Dead at this stage? Give us your thoughts in the comment section below!

Matt Bailey

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