The Walking Dead needs a little bit more Negan!
Finally, after the painfully slow build up of the first half of season 7, The Walking Dead seems to be getting around to delivering some pay-off, and the latest installment ‘Hostiles and Calamities’ delivers what I felt to be the most enthralling episode since the mid-season break – but could definitely do with a bit more action. After a lot of single-character episodes in the first half of the series that have been just willingly-let-a-walker-eat-your-face, mind-numbingly dull (the Tara episode… why, just why?), we actually see an effective one as Eugene (JOSH MCDERMITT) takes centre-stage. The brainiac has been taken from the group in Alexandria by the Saviors, and given an increase in screen-time, he’s at his best: intelligent, unintentionally funny and finally not whimpering (for some of the time at least).
With the episode focusing on the Saviors again, we start with a better pace and high tension in the aftermath of Daryl’s escape, with Negan’s (JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN) impending return. Dwight (AUSTIN AMELIO) is on edge, realising his precarious position and the likelihood of his wife, Sherry (CHRISTINE EVANGELISTA), having been an accomplice in the escape. Dwight’s role had previously drawn comparisons with Daryl (NORMAN REEDUS), through taking his bike, jacket and crossbow, and now he finds himself in Daryl’s old cell. The draw between the two is an interesting one, that will surely pay-off later in the series when the two meet again. Both tough, emotionally withdrawn, and the right-hand man to each opposing side’s leader. We see a different side to Dwight though, as he displays a vulnerability when he hunts down Sherry and finds their old house. Between her letter to him, delivered by her voiceover to the audience as he reminisces, and the little personal details of him bringing the beer and crisps as a sign he would have gone away with her, only to find she’s already gone, is both moving and provides a nice balance to the predominantly violent show. It shows a new side to him that’s refreshing, and despite his treatment of Daryl and various awful things he’s done, he’s written well enough that we do sympathise with him, and certainly look forward to finding out more about him. He’s a really vital character in allowing audience insight into the Saviors, and to be able to have someone in a position of power and causing issues for Rick’s group, and yet have us emotionally invested in him as well is a real feat.
When Eugene arrives at the Savior’s base, he quickly learns that being the softy he is receives better treatment than Daryl’s resilience ever did, and he’s straight into the room Daryl was offered. While he is frankly terrified of Negan, and remember in TWD’s timeline he’s only just seen Negan gut Spencer (AUSTIN NICHOLS) and kill Oliva (ANN MAHONEY)… you know the one. She watched the guns (not particularly well) and Judith; speaking of whom we haven’t seen for quite a while and she no longer has a babysitter, so who knows where she is. Although terrified, Eugene is compliant with Negan, and initially very wary. Whilst it seems like he’s playing along, we certainly get the sense that Eugene’s playing the game and still loyal to Rick. He’s back to his initial story of the genome project, but has the intelligence to back it up and prove his value to the Saviors through his ideas to essentially coat the walkers attached to the fences in molten metal, acting like a suit of armour and preventing decomposition. He proves his value, and is smart enough to know that almost any situation with Negan can be a test, so doesn’t let his guard down, but the fact that he’s back to lying as effectively as ever suggests he knows that he’s just got to do what it takes to survive and seem valuable in this place.
The scene where Eugene entertains Negan’s wives is quite a nice moment, giving insight into what Eugene would have been like back before the zombies: just playing video games and eating pickles. He’s blunt and awkward but careful around them, and starts showing them what he can do with a few basic household ingredients. He’s smart enough to read between the lines and sees the ladies’ plans when they request a couple of pills to aid a fellow wife in suicide, and although he makes the pills, he refuses to help the women after acknowledging their intention to use the pills on Negan. It goes to show that while the group may chant ‘We are Negan’ to their leader’s face, things aren’t all rosy behind the scenes. When Eugene himself gives his speech to Negan, imploring that he was Negan even before he met Negan, he convinces the him that he’s a weak, submissive but intelligent asset. Negan doesn’t know that Eugene has and will likely have again, an opportunity to kill him.
While this episode does well in terms of character development, and the Saviors are more interesting to delve into than say Hilltop, if you’re one for the gore, and lots of action or violence, it is a little lighter than some would expect and hope for from this show. We get only one walker death, which is pretty graphically gross as the body disintegrates and insides slosh out, but does lack any impending doom for primary characters. There is a big moment of tension and shocking violence where Negan asserts himself in front of new recruit/captive Eugene, tormenting their Doctor (TIM PARATI) with the threat of burning his face with the iron. Dwight has framed Dr Carson to take responsibility for Daryl’s escape and Sherry running away, and again this scene gives insight into both Dwight’s character and what it takes to survive in the Saviors – where even the Doctor isn’t safe. Negan decides to change up his act, and instead taking the iron to his face, hurls the man into the furnace itself, holding him in place so that he burns alive. A particularly nasty way to go that horrifies his wives in the crowd, as well as the audience at home.
The characters and acting is stronger in this episode, but I personally think any episode with Negan featuring more heavily is better. Unfortunately, if he was in every episode we might lose the novelty and impact he has, but he’s always a welcome addition and changes the dynamic, with his comically sick and twisted commentary. Additionally, Josh McDermitt who plays Eugene is brilliant. I mean seriously, watch an interview of him in real life; he’s absolutely NOTHING like Eugene, so not only is he impressive at playing the socially inept guy, but he also brings a comic value with his bluntness and unawareness of normal social queues. I look forward to seeing Eugene start to take a bigger role in the rest of the series, finally shaking off that feeling that he’s not valuable because he isn’t a brave fighter, and proving his worth with his brain as almost an undercover operative in Negan’s camp. Hopefully the whole ‘gathering groups together to fight’ can hurry up a bit and we can get back to some proper action, fighting, and dare I say it, maybe a few more actual walkers!