The Walking Dead “Rogue Element” was written by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and was directed by Michael Cudlitz. The heart of this episode is a bravura performance by Josh McDermitt (Eugene), and is more like a police procedural/true crime/Tiger King than a traditional Walking Dead episode. I think Cudlitz was likely able to draw on his own recent acting gig with Clarice! The episode starts to unravel a lot of what’s really going on in the Commonwealth – especially what Hornsby (Josh Hamilton) is up to. Connie (Lauren Ridloff) is taking her job as a reporter seriously – and nobody’s very happy about it.
The episode opens with a happy morning scene between “Stephanie” (Chelle Ramos) and Eugene. He wakes up to find her reading the manuscript of the science fiction novel that he’s started writing. He’s clearly spent the night… Eugene gives her a key to his apartment and tells her that he loves her. She seems surprised but returns the sentiment. Stephanie waves goodbye from her balcony.
Eugene goes to tell Princess (Paola Lázaro), who has clearly replaced Rosita (Christian Serratos) as his number one confidante. Eugene can’t believe what just happened, but Princess tells him to believe a woman when she says ‘I love you.’ Eugene tells her they’re meeting for ice cream later and with smarmy love song musack playing, Eugene sits with two ice cream cones as they melt to nothing… just like his love as Stephanie never shows up.
It’s after dark when Eugene arrives back at Stephanie’s apartment. A man is coming out (Roman Calhoun (Michael Tourek). As Eugene bangs on the apartment door, we see Stephanie inside the apartment shoving clothes into a suitcase…
Connie and Kelly (Angel Theory) are at the newspaper office, and Connie is not happy with what her editor – Jan (Aneesh Sheth) is sending to press. She wants to include Trooper Davis’ story. Jan insists that his doctors are saying it’s PTSD, and Connie tells her that she doesn’t trust the military doctors any more than she trusts the military. Jan insists that the facts support a mental health crisis – and not that something happened between Tyler and Milton (Laila Robins) and they are suppressing the truth. Connie insists that they should be following up on the thousands more that Tyler insists are out there. At this point, Kelly starts to be reluctant to translate. Jan tells Connie that she wants her to paraphrase Governor Milton’s press release – so Jan won’t have to do it the next time. Is Kelly worried about getting into trouble, losing their job, or even getting themselves kicked out of the Commonwealth?
The two go to the hospital to try to see Davis, and Kelly asks Connie if she’s sure and points out that she’s been in fear for her life and never took an innocent hostage. Connie is determined to find out more. A soldier blocks entrance to the door, and when they want to know what charges he’s being held on, Mercer (Michael James Shaw) suddenly opens the door and glares at them.
Jan sends Connie and Kelly on a ride along with Mercer. Connie calls bullshit as Jan knows that Connie is against the militarization of the police and now wants her to write propaganda. Kelly suggests that Connie should do what Jan wants to stay on her good side. The two laugh about her doing just the one time. They are going on a ride along with Mercer – and they seem surprised and a bit nervous. He scowls at them before getting in a gigantic armored vehicle – it’s the Mercermobile and it’s fantastic!!!
Eugene checks in at Stephanie’s work, but she has shown up there. Next, he gets Rosita to perform a wellness check on Stephanie. She’s not there – obviously. Eugene wants to file a missing persons form, and Rosita tells him to come down to the station and she’ll help him fill it out. There’s a nice little moment that passes between the two.
Hornsby has taken Carol (Melissa McBride) on a trip to visit an outpost that he controls. They have troopers to clear an walkers as they drive alone. He confides to Carol that he feels like he’s better out there – and Carol tells him she gets it. I loved this little exchange because Hornsby really has no idea who he’s dealing with. WE know just how much better Carol is than anybody ‘out there!’
Hornsby wants her to stop seeing them as her people and his people. He wants her to see how things work so that she’ll be a part of it. He does recognize that she’s smart and resourceful, but I wonder if her ruthlessness and her truly stubborn belief in HER people will come as a surprise at some point. Hornsby is a realist – he started out at the bottom – and tells Carol that he doesn’t think he runs the city – Milton does – but he knows HOW the city runs. Hornsby recognizes two types of people – the mercenaries, in it for the money, and the patriots, the true believers. Carol asks if she’s there for him to make a true believer out of her. He tells her that she’s there because she’s smart and he thinks she can help him with ‘this asshole’ – Moto (William Mark McCullough). He tells her what she gets out of it is up to her. He clearly sees her as a mercenary – and he’s frighteningly not wrong. Although to be fair to Carol, I think she IS a patriot of her people.
The two end up at a poppy farm. Hornsby is producing opium for the hospital. Carol asks if they are smugglers or drug dealers. Hornsby explains that they are smugglers. The place isn’t quite part of the Commonwealth, but they need each other. And we have to immediately think what Hornsby is planning to get out of Alexandria – and isn’t this pretty much exactly like Negan’s system with the Saviors? Or even the mutual benefits between the Kingdom, Alexandria, Hilltop, and Oceanside? Moto tells Hornsby that his workers are on strike until they get a raise. Hornsby had told Moto to handle it, but seems ok with having to sort it out himself now. It’s also clear that he knows exactly who is stopping the harvest – and it’s not the workers…
Princess shows up at Eugene’s to check on him and he looks terrible. She brings an empty dish, claiming it’s lasagna because people have to let you in if you say you have food. She discovers that Eugene has a gigantic murder board dedicated to his search for Stephanie. He was out wandering around drunk – maybe putting up more missing Stephanie posters? – when he happened to run into Calhoun again. He confronts him about being at Stephanie’s building. Calhoun comes up with a story that he’s a plumber and he was there fixing a sink.
Eugene followed him and discovered that he is not a plumber. He’s found a building in the warehouse district that is his base of operations. There’s the same four people that frequent it at odd hours, and there is a fifth person who he believes to be the head honcho. I loved the music in this episode – we get a total film noir soundtrack over this – as well as dark lighting that almost mimics black and white. Eugene suspects a “rogue element” has taken Stephanie. Another co-conspirator – beanie-hat man – showed up at Stephanie’s apartment and took all her belongings. He’s also found a work transfer notice signed by Stephanie on the day of her disappearance, which Eugene assumes was falsified by someone high up. Then they spirited her away…
While Hornsby fishes and negotiates with Moto, Carol watches – them and the workers. Hornsby offers an incentive program. If they produce more, they’ll get bonuses. He insists that it’s the best he can do. Carol notices a bandage on one worker’s wrist.
Later, back at the camp, Hornsby apologizes to Moto for not being able to stay for the fish fry. The two shake hands and appear to separate on good terms. Hornsby checks in with Carol. The sound was so badly mixed in this scene that I missed most of what Carol said to Hornsby. There’s no explanation for how she found out what was going on, but apparently Moto was mistreating the workers and keeping their raise for himself. He went too far and that’s why the workers are on strike. Hornsby has Moto taken into custody. Moto calling him a ‘mother-puss-bucket’ was lamer than not having him “swear” at all. Carol exchanges another look with the leader of the workers – her informant?
Out in the field, the troopers are trying to clear a herd. Mercer has to step in – with an awesome skull split of one with his ax – to save one of the troopers. Mercer’s armor is covered in gore. He goes up to Connie and Kelly and asks if they’ve seen enough. He then tells them to ask the questions they came with. Again, Kelly hesitates to translate. Finally, Kelly says it’s been a month (wow!) since Davis has been in hospital under armed guard. They ask what he’s been charged with. Mercer says that’s not one of the questions – clearly, there was an approved list. Connie asks if it has anything to do with the fact that the woman taken hostage (fyi, the REAL Stephanie (Margo Bingham)) was his sister! Bombshell! Mercer says he was wondering when she would figure it out – but it had nothing to do with it. Connie says she knows Mercer was the one who pushed for Tyler to be promoted – doesn’t he want to know who he’s going into battle with? He tells her that he’s more curious about why she’s out there digging for answers that they both know will never see the light of day. Connie looks at him – surprised? Kelly calls him an asshole, but it’s pretty clear that Mercer is going to turn out to be a good guy. He’s not happy with the status quo, but it is keeping the majority of people safe. It’s clear that he took Davis under his wing – much like he’s tried to do with Daryl (Norman Reedus).
Princess tells Eugene that she thinks it’s great how much he’s doing to try to help Stephanie, but he insists he’s just trying to repay what he owes. Eugene explains that Stephanie gave him the courage to do something he’d always wanted to do – become a science fiction author. The two have been watching Calhoun’s place and as soon as Calhoun goes out for his daily run, Eugene goes to break into his apartment! Princess was clearly not expecting more than surveillance and tries to dissuade Eugene. I loved that she tells him it’s so bad – she doesn’t want to get in trouble and risk her little job, little bed – or the little cat she’s thinking of getting… aw! She agrees when Eugene insists that Calhoun is the key to breaking the whole thing wide open…
Princess keeps watch while Eugene searches Calhoun’s apartment. It begins to rain… and Calhoun comes back. Princess tells Eugene they have to leave, but Eugene has found some keys – which unlock a case hidden under the bed that contains a lot of weapons. They make it out of the apartment before Calhoun comes in – but an old woman shows up with troopers and shouts that’s them!
Mercer goes to check on Davis, and he’s been moved. He confronts a nurse and wants to know where he is as Davis can’t be moved without his authorization. She calmly tells him apparently he can be. Mercer punches a hole in the wall and leaves – clearly proving that he has been protecting Davis…
Eugene and Princess are in a cell, and Eugene apologizes to Princess for getting her into trouble. Hornsby arrives and tells them that Calhoun is a plumber and had a work order to fix a sink on the night Stephanie disappeared. He explains the weapons by saying Calhoun has a permit because he’s a full citizen. Calhoun isn’t going to press charges as Hornsby explained about Stephanie. He tells Eugene that he has to leave Calhoun alone and sign a paper saying he was emotionally distraught and in a paranoid state following Stephanie’s disappearance. Princess nods at him to do it.
Back at his apartment, Eugene is mulling over the murder board and says the conspiracy goes deeper than he thought – and we know he’s right! But Princess doesn’t want to lose all she’s gained – exactly how Hornsby gets what he wants. She tells Eugene enough – Stephanie broke up with him. He laughs and reminds her that she told him to believe a woman who says she loves him. Princess gathers the ‘evidence’ – maybe he should also believe a woman who moves away. Eugene is devastated. Princess tells him about her father leaving, drawing the conclusion that you can think you know all about a person and have it turn out that you never even met them. HA! And she’s totally right in this case! Eugene says he’s privy to some information that Princess doesn’t have – and neither do I as once again, I could NOT understand what he said – and I rewound about 10 times. Eugene is devastated – but he’s also not giving up.
Back at their apartment, Connie and Kelly have a drink. The paper is on the table with a huge headline: “Task Force Holds the Line – Second Wave Expected” and some drawings of Mercer – encouraging people to enlist. Kelly tries to tell Connie that it’s a good thing – she did her job. They won’t be there forever, and every day doesn’t have to be a fight. Kelly clearly thinks that moving there temporarily was supposed to be a rest from fighting – but Connie just says maybe. The lights flash to indicate someone at the door. When they open it, it’s just a piece of paper with a list of names – and the last one is Tyler Davis!
Eugene is staking out the warehouse alone as people arrive for a meeting in the dark. He’s armed with a spray bottle. He manages to spray Beanie hat, but Stephanie takes down Eugene with a vicious kick to the gut. She looks at Eugene with disgust as he gasps. Hornsby arrives and tells them that he’ll handle it. Eugene is devastated. He’d thought that Hornsby was involved, but he never thought that Stephanie was in on it. He tells Hornsby that Occam’s Razor should have lead him to this conclusion long before she kicked him – the simplest answer is usually the right one. Stephanie never loved him – and there was never any Stephanie. He asks who she is – a conman who Hornsby used to pull on his heartstrings and trick Eugene into telling Hornsby everything about their community? Eugene clearly unwinds all the plot elements. He thinks she’s read the novel to get any final autobiographical details about him that Hornsby could use – but now that he’s got everything, there’s no need to continue the ruse. Hornsby remains utterly unmoved.
Eugene tells him that he’s going to expose him – and Hornsby says fine. As what? The villain? Bogeyman? Or best thing that ever happened to him? He admits he lied, but Eugene and the others lied through their teeth to get inside the walls. No one is keeping score. It’s not his fault that his friends are too stupid to recognize something good when it happens to them. Hornsby says they tried to rip the band aid off when they saw it was getting serious – and he tried to get Eugene to stop looking. Hornsby reminds Eugene that it wasn’t getting better for his community – they were going to starve. Here they have everything from concerts to cancer surgery and all they ask in return is that they are productive members of society if they choose to stay. Hornsby reminds him of the paper he signed that he was suffering from paranoia due to nervous strain. Hornsby says that he’s sorry Eugene’s heart was broken, but on balance it was a good deal for him and his friends. Hornsby tells him “Stephanie’s” real name is Sharon and she hates Iron Maiden – but she did genuinely enjoy his book – and he should stick with it.
In the final scene, Eugene is burning the missing posters – and of course, his novel follows them into the fire. A figure appears behind him – “Eugene, are you all right? Eugene, I need to talk to you – Taterbug – this is Blue Weevil to Taterbug – come back.” And the real Stephanie finally comes out of the shadows! Yep. Mercer’s sister. And if you’ve been looking at IMDb at all, she’s been listed as Stephanie since last season – so not quite the surprise they’d been hoping for, but now we have a lot more info about her. I’m sure she’s working for the resistance and I’m betting she’s got big brother on her side too.
I don’t think we’ve had such a great Eugene episode in several seasons, and Josh McDermitt really delivers a terrific performance here. We see just how much Eugene really has grown – without losing his history. I like how Hornsby isn’t really clearly a villain. Yes, he’s out for himself, but his wheeling and dealing does also benefit others. Hamilton is really great in this episode too – he’s growing on me. I doubt he’d do much in an actual fight with walkers though. What did you think of the episode? Is Hornsby just evil? Are we going to see a revolution in the Commonwealth or just its destruction? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!