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The Walking Dead Season 11 Episode 19 Recap: Eugene's Crucible

Contains spoilers for "The Walking Dead" Season 11, Episode 19 — "Variant"

The only constant on "The Walking Dead" is change. That's something pointed out by little Judith Grimes (Cailey Fleming) during Episode 19's opening monologue. As we flash back to some truly terrible events — ones that she was too little to witness — we take a moment to contemplate all we've been through alongside these characters. Quickly, we realize we're seeing these moments through Eugene Porter's (Josh McDermitt) eyes, in spite of who is providing the voiceover. 

"Sometimes I wonder if it takes more courage to live or die," Judith says, as we're all retraumatized by the sight of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) beating Glen Rhee (Steven Yeun) and Abraham Ford (Michael Cudlitz) to death with Lucille. She expounds on Eugene's series-long character growth, leading to his heroics during last week's episode, "A New Deal." At this point in Eugene's story — after having firmly joined Negan's camp and deciding to stand against the Commonwealth's tyranny — he has two choices: he can save himself, or he can turn himself in to save those he loves.

He's not the only one on uncertain ground after the events of "A New Deal." With the Commonwealth in the process of being torn to shreds, no one knows quite what safety is or how to reach it. So who's alive, who's dead, and who remains behind to tell their story by the end of "Variant"? Let's dig in.

Eugene struggles with his faith

"But who we are — the choices we make now — maybe that's all that matters," little Judith says as we smash-cut from the past to the sight of Eugene and the other citizens of the Commonwealth panicking as their safe little town is breached by a group of walkers during the already-disastrous Founder's Day event. He's trying to hustle Max Mercer (Margot Bingham) through the crowd in the wake of Lance Hornsby's (Josh Hamilton) walkerized custodians being unleashed on the audience. In the flow of foot traffic, Eugene loses Max, but he finds Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), who brings him to the relative safety of a church.

There, he and a shaky Eugene hole up. When Rosita Espinosa (Christian Serratos) returns from her Commonwealth interrogation, Daryl explains that he's planning on evacuating everyone on their team at dawn. But Eugene refuses to leave without Max. Rosita agrees to go out looking for her, which is a dangerous prospect since a generous bounty has been placed on Eugene's head and anyone who has been caught helping Eugene will "share [his] fate."

Eugene is caught in a crisis of faith. Recognizing that he has lacked courage during his journey and realizing he's relied on others to protect him, he castigates himself for his previous cowardice. While Daryl tries to dissuade him, Eugene remarks that hiding away has been his sole virtue as a survivor. "I'm ashamed to say it's my only discernable skill," he admits. But, as Judith tells us at the beginning of the episode, it's what happens now that matters the most.

Pamela seeks a frightening revenge

While Eugene is wrestling with matters of the heart, Pamela Milton (Laila Robins) is simply a mother in the throes of grief. As Mercer (Michael James Shaw) stands by, she explains that she always knew about her son's misdeeds, but looked the other way — made an exception for him because he was family. Nevertheless, she must tamp down any further rebellions for the good of the Commonwealth. She tells Mercer to find and arrest Eugene so that he might be made an example of, promising Mercer she'll help Max in return.

Unfortunately for Mercer, he gets nowhere with Eugene's friends, who also happen to be his own friends. It's even worse for him when Princess (Paola Lázaro) tries to reason with him after being interrogated. He explains that he's looking out for his family (IE: Max) and doesn't want to provide special treatment to anyone, but she points to the importance of the family she's found among the survivors of Alexandria. There will be no fair trial for Eugene, and it's something Mercer himself can't reconcile aloud. 

While Mercer tries to choose between duty and heart, Pamela tries to talk out her sadness and resentment over Milton's corpse. Unfortunately, soon her son begins to reanimate. She doesn't have the steel to stick around and watch him die one more time, but she does seem to have the reserve to order his ultimate destruction via Commonwealth army soldier (or does she ...). The lion and lamb within her are not incongruous, but simply different sides of the same coin. As she tells Mercer, "Family is a complicated thing." In the end, that may be the most pertinent maxim ever uttered on this show.

Max refuses to back down

"What is the point of this place if a good man is put to death?" Princess asks her boyfriend aloud. That's what's ringing in Mercer's ears when he heads to Sector 3 to follow up on an apparent sighting. He's clearly jeopardizing everything in the name of Max's safety — and it's Max who's spotted and brought in to face the music, just seconds after she and Rosita spy one another. While Rosita is allowed to leave, Max soon finds herself in her brother's custody.

Mercer begs his sister to sign a confession that blames her actions on a bout of unmedicated depression. The document additionally states that the broadcast of Milton's confession was falsified. But Max refuses to throw Eugene under the bus for her own actions. "I did this because I couldn't stand being a part of something so rotten!" she says. Mercer tells her they're going to execute her for treason, but she refuses to take the easy out and extend her life. Instead, she says that she thinks their late father would've liked Eugene and approved of her actions. "I think he would've been ashamed of you," Max says, twisting the dagger extra hard. Forced to deal with the fact that honor and regulatory systems are not mutually exclusive, Mercer is being set up to pick between what's right and maintaining order at the behest of someone who has no honor.

Lance's luck runs out

We bet you're wondering where Lance is in this mess. He, naturally, is still in solitary confinement, which is where Pamela comes to visit him. Lance tries to plead his case, saying that he helped Sebastian to get her attention. When she silently grabs him by the neck, he insists that it's the Alexandrians who are to blame. She kneels before him and pulls his lucky coin out of his pocket. Juggling it back and forth — silently determining the value of his life, as he has done for so many others so many times before — she smiles, allowing him to quietly panic. She secrets the coin in one of her fists. If he picks the right hand, he wins — if he loses, he'll die. 

He chooses correctly, to her agony and his relief. He vows that he's sorry and that he'll be a good employee from now on. But she has a walker brought in. Lance soon learns this is not a betrayal, but a strange kindness as the walker is Milton. Also dragged in by Pamela's troops? The body of Roman Calhoun (Michael Tourek), Lance's co-conspirator who has been executed with a single shot through the head. A trooper drops a machete to the floor of Lance's cell and uncuffs him.

Pamela turns and walks from the scene with her troopers clustered about her. Her parting words? "The body's still warm," she says. "Feed my son, Lance." Talk about your nanny state.

Princess and Mercer break up

"Variant" proves to be a sad episode for Mercess fans everywhere, as Princess finally decides she can't bear to stand by and let Mercer do the Commonwealth's bidding without a single protest. In the wake of their conversation at Commonwealth soldier headquarters, Princess decides to get some advice from a trusted face. She discusses moving on from the settlement with Ezekiel (Khary Payton), who tries to get her to confess her true feelings about Mercer. "Most folks try to make the best out of what's in front of them," Ezekiel tells her. But Princess, exhausted by this betrayal — one of many she's faced from the people in her life — decides to choose what's healthiest for her. Mercer catches her moving out of their apartment, and they have a frank talk in which she tells him about her abusive father and the mother who stood by as he hurt her without compunction.

"If I sit by and watch, that makes me my mom. And I am not my mom," Princess declares. She knows that Mercer is no monster like her own father was, but she won't be complicit in the abuse she sees Pamela's soldiers doling out. Mercer is left devastated, silently marinating in the realization that both his sister and his ex-girlfriend have their limits. Money, order, and power or love? Which will he ultimately pick? We're left to wonder as the episode fades out. 

Eugene decides to save Max

In the end, it all boils down to Eugene and his choice between being a mouse and being a man. Rosita eventually reaches Daryl and Eugene at the church and explains that Max has been found and is being held by the Commonwealth. Though there's an opening for all three friends to escape, Eugene decides that he'll turn himself in, if only in the hope that by doing so he can save Max's life.

Rosita tries to talk some sense into Eugene, reminding him that if he stays he'll die. But he knows leaving Max behind is no option. "Being with Maxine has made me better. Better than I ever thought I could be," he says. He knows leaving without even trying will make him double the coward, and that living without her is no option. Pleading with Rosita for her trust, he tells her it'll be okay, even though she knows he's a sitting duck. He gives her his bolo tie to remember him by, as well as a tearful hug goodbye. Then he heads to the soldier's headquarters to turn himself in. There, he confesses to Mercer that he made the recordings, which unintentionally led to Milton's death — and that his Maxine had nothing to do with it. Max sits down in silent horror. All Mercer can do is have Eugene taken away.

While Eugene awaits his punishment, Rosita prepares to spirit Coco away to safety with his bolo tie in hand — only for two unknown assailants to arrive and attack and then kidnap her. It appears that Eugene's noble sacrifice might not effectively deter bounty hunters looking for some quick cash.

When does The Walking Dead Season 11, Episode 20 air?

"The Walking Dead" will continue its final season with Episode 20, titled "What's Been Lost," which will air on AMC on October 23 at 9 p.m. EST. Like other episodes, it will be available a week early to AMC+ subscribers, dropping on the streamer on Sunday, October 16. 

As is to be expected in the final batch of episodes, the stakes feel like they are rising rapidly, and the various endings of "Variant" set "What's Been Lost" up to be another nail-biter. Not only is Eugene in the hands of the Commonwealth, but Rosita's kidnapping means that any potential rescue mission will be made all the more complicated. On the other side of the aisle, Lance has also found himself in an incredibly precarious situation. Will his nearly-fatal brush with Pamela's bad side cause him to shift allegiances? Or will he do as he promised her and further devote himself to protecting her rule over the Commonwealth? Whichever way he ends up falling could have a significant ripple effect on our heroes. 

And then there's the Oceanside gang. Elijah (Okea Eme-Akwari), Aaron (Ross Marquand), Jerry (Cooper Andrews), and Lydia (Cassady McClincy) spent the episode at an abandoned Renaissance fair where they encountered walkers who appear to have brand-new defense mechanisms — they can climb walls, open doors, and create masks out of their victim's skin. This segment may have just been a tense detour, but as we've seen time and time again throughout 11 seasons of "The Walking Dead," it's never a good idea to underestimate a new threat.