'The Walking Dead' Recap: Eugene-ics 101

The resident mulleted genius takes center stage as 'TWD' gets ready to lay down a big midseason finale

'The Walking Dead' gives its resident mulleted genius Eugene center stage while prepping for a major midseason finale. Our recap of tonight's episode. Credit: Gene Page/AMC

A little bit of Eugene Porter goes a long way, which is why it's surprising when his step-into-the-spotlight episodes turn into series highlights (see the seventh season's "Hostiles and Calamities"). In a way, this week's episode – "Time for After" – is the sequel to last year's Eugene showcase. As his new allies face a desperate situation, with only a couple days of supplies remaining and no clear way out, he once again asks the only question that matters to any well-coiffed opportunist: Who's going to keep him "vertical?"

But this chapter is also about one man wrestling with both his soul and his survival instinct. This character's always going to skew toward the cartoonish. Beneath all his bluster, however, Eugene is a fairly complex, somewhat relatable guy. He'd prefer to be saintly, but has no problem coming up with justifications for his jerkier behavior. Aren't we all like that sometimes?

In this episode, those stubborn rationales manifest as a super-sized portion of moral relativism. For most of the running-time, Eugene drifts from one conversation to another, with Sanctuary-dwellers – none of them "Saviors" per se – who fruitlessly lecture him on how he should be using his intellect and influence. When he tells Dwight that he won't rat him out if he ceases the double-agent act for "the AHK" (that's Alexandria, Hilltop, and Kingdom), the scruffy saboteur snarls back that keeping Negan's side safe means dooming Rick's. Later, the drunken concubine Tanya, the kidnapped doctor Harlan and the sickly Gabriel all urge Eugene to do the right thing: help tip the balance of this war to the good guys. He remains unmoved, arguing that "the right thing" is different for everyone. Nobody's really better or worse than anybody else … just stronger or weaker.

That's why the only person he'll really listen to is Negan, who's strong as hell – and who, not incidentally, treats our man like a valuable resource instead of a weaselly creep. ("How does it feel to be the second-most important person here?" Negan asks, sincerely.) So Eugene gets busy concocting an exit strategy for everyone trapped in the Sanctuary.

And here's what makes Josh McDermitt's TWD beta male such a fascinating dude to watch: Despite all his annoying quirks, he just can't escape his conscience ... or his cowardice. When he retrieves Sasha's iPod from her casket to make a "pied piper" drone (a mobile sound system that will lure zombies away from the compound), he suffers pangs of remorse remembering how he aided his former comrade's demise. After Dwight shoots the plane down, Eugene's ready to spill what he knows to Negan. Then the turncoat walks into the room and he stops, because he's afraid to betray him to his face. And as fiercely as he toes the "I'm Negan" party line in public, he's gulping down Tanya's smuggled wine the second he's back in his room, desperate to be numb.

Yet despite all of that, "Time for After" isn't as satisfying an episode as "Hostiles and Calamities" was, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, Eugene's shtick really is hard to take at length. As a minor figure who pops up every now and then to say things like, "You look like a potato-and-shit casserole," he's very colorful and entertaining. But when those kinds of lines dominate? They lose their novelty in record time.

More damningly, one of the two subplots this week is — to put it mildly — absolutely idiotic. Remember how Sheriff Grimes got himself captured last week? And how the only way that move would've made any sense is if he'd had some kind of safeguard in place? Well, never mind. Rick does eventually get the better of Jadis, and forges the alliance he's looking for. But that's only because his captors try to execute him with a armored walker rather than, y'know, their guns. At no point does any Scavenger shoot our hero, even as he's wresting control of their ghoul and turning it against them. What the hell?

The one saving grace to this whole asinine turn of events is that when our smug hero leads the Scavengers to the Sanctuary – to complete the final phase of his ultimate scheme – he finds the facility vacated. Sorry, no more zombie hordes serving as your siege engine, sir. That's a consequence of what happens in the other subplot, where Daryl, Morgan and Tara shrug off the objections of Michonne and Rosita and breach their enemy's walls. The idea is to create carnage and chaos – and also, apparently, an opportunity for escape.

Daryl's plan is arguably as short-sighted and dependent on dumb luck as Rick's. But at least his storyline rounds out the larger theme of this episode, which has to do with picking sides and following through.

Early on, Eugene tries to delay taking any action by sitting around and making lists: "What I Know," "What I Know I Don't Know," and "Things I Am Unaware Of. Wholly." Dwight tries to encourage his inaction, insisting, "All you have to do to be on the winning side is nothing" – a directive that suits the sniveling smart guy's personality just fine. Rosita and Michonne make similar cases to their people, saying they should trust Rick, and avoid making rash decisions just because they're itching to stay active.

But those two never actually try to stop Daryl & Co. And by stepping aside, they effectively let the attack happen, screwing over their fearless leader. It's too bad they couldn't consult Eugene, who could've easily articulated for them his philosophy of non-involvement. He knows as well as anyone that as much as we may like to plead ignorance, eventually even our indecision becomes a choice. Especially when there's a storm brewin' and heading their way.

Previously: Odd Couples