After two full weeks of narrative progression, I suppose The Walking Dead couldn't help itself. Huffing and puffing, it stopped its lumbering but steady jog to take five; catch its breath; and show us what's happening with Negan, his new captive Eugene and the rest of the Saviors' compound. Turns out what's hell for Rick and the others may be paradise for Eugene and his mullet.
"Hostiles and Calamities" looks at two residents of Negan's "Sanctuary", one old, one new. The "new" is, of course, Eugene, who was taken after he admitted he made the bullet that Rosita stupidly, stupidly shot at Negan in the mid-season finale. The "old" is our old buddy Dwight, who begins the episode realising Daryl has just escaped. This is bad news for him, since Daryl was his pet project of sorts, which means Negan has his goons kick the crap out of Dwight and throw him in Daryl's cell. But the news gets worse. Because Daryl isn't the only one who just fled. Sherry — one of Negan's wives, formerly Dwight's wife, who "married" Negan to save Dwight's life after their earlier escape attempt in season five — is also gone.
Let's start with Dwight, just because his storyline rehashes what we've seen in previous episodes, which is to say There's Still Some Good in Him. After a night in the pokey, Negan still trusts Dwight enough to send him after Sherry, and even believes him when he returns to Sanctuary and says she ran from him into a horde of zombies, who tore her apart. This seems pretty dumb on Negan's part, even though he (presumably) doesn't know what the audience knows — he didn't see the note that was given to Daryl, reading "Go now"; he doesn't know Dwight returned to his and Sherry's old home, where Sherry left another note confirming that she let Daryl loose (and that it was her handwriting on Daryl's note); and Negan doesn't know Dwight didn't even try to find her after that.
However, Dwight does give Negan a scapegoat for Daryl's escape in Dr Carson — he plants part of Sherry's note to him in the doctor's desk, as if she left it for him because they were sweethearts, and the doc let Daryl out to impress her or something. It makes very little sense. That doesn't stop Negan from throwing the doctor into the furnace anyway as a lesson to everyone, including newcomer Eugene. Hey, I said there was Some Good left in Dwight — he basically let Sherry go, and made someone take the fall for letting Daryl escape. I didn't say he was All Good.
Meanwhile, Eugene didn't need this particular lesson, as he's terrified of Negan pretty much ceaselessly through the episode, from start to finish, just as one would expect. But upon his arrival, he quickly impresses Negan when he solves a problem that's been plaguing the leader of the Saviors for a while now: The zombies on his wall keep decomposing! Eugene thinks back to Game of Thrones season one, and suggests pouring molten metal on them — it will harden, the zombies get a hard crunchy shell, and bonus points if you render their heads impenetrable. I'm not sure if that would really work — that is, how much zombie flesh would be instantly destroyed by the burning, liquid metal — but Negan has the proper response: "Not only is that practical, that is just badass!"
After that, "Dr Smartypants" (as Negan dubs him) discovers he's in the closest thing to paradise the post-apocalypse has to offer him. As one of Negan's elite, he gets his own room with a kitchenette, a TV, an Atari 2600(!) and even a lock on his door. He gets to commandeer whatever foodstuffs and equipment he wants over the proles. And Negan even sends over a few of his wives — not for sex, just for an evening of companionship.
Eugene starts this evening out by trying to get the ladies to play Atari (which would be pretty insulting if I didn't think there might literally not be any other entertainment options in his room), but eventually he wows them with some basic, Mr Wizard-esque chemistry tricks. The next night, it prompts the ladies to return and ask if he can make a couple of poison capsules for one of Negan's miserable wives who just wants to end it. These women sweet-talk him, he makes the pills, and that's when Eugene sees Negan toss Dr Carson into the furnace.
So later, when the ladies ask for the pills, Eugene tells them no. Eugene knows they're not for a suffering wife, they're for Negan himself, and Eugene is not going to risk his life — a suddenly very comfortable life — in an attempt to kill a monster that has thus far proved unkillable. The women call him a coward. "That is a correct assessment," he replies, not looking up from Yars' Revenge.
If The Walking Dead wants me to feel like Eugene has done something wrong here, or has somehow betrayed the group in some way, it's failed. Eugene is a coward. He's said it multiple times; he's been called it even more often by his compatriots (mainly Rosita). He has not presented himself as anything else. OK, sure, he pretended he was a scientist from the Human Genome Project who knew how to cure the zombie plague, but he admitted he was a cowardly scientist from the Human Genome Project who know how to cure the zombie plague.
What else was Eugene going to do here? He's surrounded by killers, and he has none of the skill sets Daryl has. Even if he could MacGuyver his way out of the compound, he couldn't fight or survive. He can't withstand torture. He's going to end up helping Negan no matter what. His choice is to do what Negan tells him and enjoy all the nice things he's been given, or refuse to do what Negan wants, get tortured and then do what Negan tells him to do. Basically, he can play Atari or get tortured and not play Atari. That's no choice at all.
And it isn't Eugene's fault he got taken. He didn't make Rick attack the Saviour compound. He tried to talk Rosita out of (very, very stupidly, I can't stress this enough) trying to murder Negan in Alexandria. Eugene is at Sanctuary because of the actions and poor decisions of others. So when Negan comes by his room at the end of the episode and tries to ask Eugene who he is, but Eugene interrupts him and blurts out "I am Negan!" before he can even finish the question — well, I was actually a little happy for the guy. At least someone is getting a little happiness out of this nightmare.
Of course, right now Eugene is only being asked to passively help improve the compound defences. Soon he'll be asked to make bullets that will be shot at his friends, or bombs to be thrown at them, or something worse. And then he'll be forced to decide where his allegiances stand. If he decides to stand on the side where he doesn't end up maimed and tortured, Rick and Rosita have no one to blame but themselves.
Again, this was kind of a filler episode, which is fine since we've actually been getting somewhere since the mid-season debut. But if next week doesn't pick back up again, TWD is going to run into the same problem it had last year, which is that it simply just doesn't have enough story in it any more to be as compelling as it once was. After seeing the preview for next week's episode — which looks like just Rick, Michonne and a bunch of zombies — I'm a little worried.
- Whoever makes the beds at Sanctuary is almost terrifyingly good. You could have sliced bread with the edges of Eugene's blanket, it was so crisp.
- I did appreciate that Dr Carson still had those terrible doctor's office lollipops for his patients. There's no doubt in my mind those things will survive the apocalypse.
- Eugene gives Negan his line about being part of the Human Genome Project, which Negan doesn't call him on. Between this and Dwight's explanation of what happened to Sherry, Negan seems to swallow an awful lot of garbage in this week's episode.
- I will say, however, that I suspect Negan suspects Dwight is lying, but is making a big show of trusting Dwight so that he can seem like (sort of) a fair person to the crowd. And if Dwight turns out to be lying and Sherry is found, Negan can be extra horrible and talk about how Dwight betrayed his trust, yadda yadda, thus imparting an even more visceral lesson.
- The Walking Dead pushes Eugene's nerdery really hard this episode, as Eugene says he's neither "Lawful, Neutral or Chaotic", some of the standard Dungeons & Dragons personality alignments. Except I think Eugene is pretty much exactly Lawful Neutral. He follows the rules, and while he flirts with morality he's infinitely more interested in staying alive. My fellow D&D nerds, correct me if I'm wrong. (I'm kidding, you already are.)
- Somehow I found the use of a They Might Be Giants' song in The Walking Dead… distasteful.
- I am a big Atari fan, so of course I'm a fan of Yars' Revenge, which is an unbelievably simple game made wonderful by a bizarre and elaborate storyline. It's meagre source material, stretched out to its maximum narrative possibility through entirely artificial means. Just throwin' that out there.