‘The Walking Dead’: All Hail Princess (and Paola Lázaro)

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Princess, a.k.a. Juanita Sanchez (Paola Lázaro) on The Walking Dead is a weird character. First introduced in issue #171 of the comic book series by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard, and Season 10, Episode 14 of the AMC show, Princess is the manic pixie dream girl of the zombie apocalypse. She’s got purple streaked hair, an outrageous pink coat, carries a big gun, wears goggles, and has a tendency to treat everything like a weird joke that only she gets. Even by the standards of a show that once introduced a guy who owned a tiger, Princess is just plain bizarre.

But in the few episodes she’s appeared in, the AMC series has done a bang-up job of humanizing the character. And this week’s episode, “Splinter,” written by Julia Ruchman and Vivan Tse and directed by Laura Belsey, took full advantage of not just the COVID protocol quarantine restrictions the series is currently under, but Paola Lázaro’s phenomenal talent as an actress, to drill down into what makes Princess so special.

Spoilers for The Walking Dead Season 10, Episode 20 “Splinter” past this point.

Picking up on where we left Princess, Eugene (Josh McDermitt), Ezekiel (Khary Payton) and Yumiko (Eleanor Matsuura) in the ostensible Season 10 finale (six bonus episodes were added to the season’s runtime after the fact), they’ve been captured by a group of white and red bedecked soldiers that comic book fans know are from a civilization called The Commonwealth. However, our heroes don’t know about The Commonwealth yet. They know they may be related to a contact Eugene made, one they were seeking out. But given we see the foursome getting roughed up by these soldiers in this week’s episode, it’s natural that Princess reaches for a gun — and they get captured, as a result.

What follows is an hour that keeps Princess front and center the whole time. Over the course of the episode, Princess rattles against her cage, an abandoned train car. She tries to talk to Yumiko, who seems to be hurt. She’s interrogated by the Commonwealth soldiers, hallucinates that Ezekiel is there to rescue her, and captures one of the soldiers, ultimately freeing him. And the shocking cliffhanger finds Princess having a black bag thrown over her head, right after she sees Eugene, Yumiko and Ezekiel lined up as if about to face a firing squad.

From a structural perspective, this episode is a fascinating addition on its own. Though we don’t know exactly what will happen next when The Walking Dead picks up for Season 11, it’s pretty clear that the Commonwealth cliffhanger would have roughly followed the plot of the comic, with the group being taken back to their leaders and discovering a civilization that is far, far advanced when compared to Alexandria and its surroundings. Instead, we get this interlude that tells us a lot — but not much — more about the Commonwealth, as well as further amping up the danger for our heroes.

But it’s the emotional perspective that’s the much stronger angle. The episode takes full advantage of the limitations of shooting in COVID in creative and exciting ways, and use it to give us a glimpse into the enigmatic Princess’s backstory. The first chunk of the episode finds Princess isolated and mostly alone, other than Yumiko’s voice from a nearby crate (given later events, it’s unclear whether Yumiko was ever there, or Princess was hallucinating her, too). As Princess tries to pull apart the rotten wood holding her apart from her new friend (see if you can figure out the metaphor there), she monologues about a time she got a splinter, and it only got worse, leading to a rift between her and her family. Another section has a Commonwealth soldier getting captured by Princess, and the resulting détente eventually leads to a softening from the latter (and briefly the former). There’s even a point where the Commonwealth soldiers strip her down and wash her, seemingly to check her for zombie bites, but again it works as a metaphor of her being stripped down emotionally to who she is underneath all the flare.

That’s really what sticks out about the episode, the rawness and complexity of Lázaro’s performance. It would be easy to make Princess a caricature, and that’s certainly how she was first presented. But what this episode does is dig underneath the purple hair and pink coat to help us understand that ultimately she’s a lost woman who has been hurt over and over throughout her life, yet keeps hoping that the next person she befriends won’t betray her in the same way. The splinter, of course, is a double metaphor: Princess is annoying and gets under your skin; but it’s also that nagging worry inside of her that her high level of trust will harm her, time and again.

Lázaro plays this all perfectly, vacillating between determined and terrified, often at the same time. Though she was already on her way to becoming a fan favorite thanks to her appearances early in Season 10, this episode seals the deal, and makes her as iconic and complex as any other character on The Walking Dead. There are few things to be thankful for during this pandemic, but that the show got the time to dig into this character, and allow this actress to shine? That’s at least one silver lining.

The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.

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