In his three years on The Walking Dead, fake scientist/human mullet Eugene Porter has played the part of the tragic loser, the lovable underdog and, at certain times, the lone voice of reason. Mostly, he’s been the show’s primary source of comic relief. Thanks to Josh McDermitt’s amusingly expressionless line-readings – and his purposefully excessive, flowery dialogue – the character has become a reliable tension-cutter, bringing a touch of goofiness to otherwise heavy scenes.
At least until tonight, that is.
In this week’s episode – “Hostiles and Calamities” – our man Eugene undergoes a dark, and rather rapid metamorphosis. In retrospect, we all should’ve seen coming: There’s always been a bit of Breaking Bad‘s Walter White to this tale of a fearful, arrogant science teacher, who keeps lying his way into positions of power. By the end of this hour, however, any path to redemption for our man is effectively cut off. He’s gone full Heisenberg.
After two straight weeks of white-knuckle action, fast-paced location-hopping and glimmers of actual hope, The Walking Dead slows down and decides to go small and sad once more. We hop back to the Sanctuary in the days immediately following Daryl’s escape; Eugene is now living under the protection and demands of Negan, slowly acclimating to his new home. And then there’s Dwight, who’s in trouble for losing track of both his prisoner and the woman who sneakily set their former prisoner free: Negan’s wife (and Dwight’s ex), Sherry. Forced to atone, he hits the road, to track down the woman he still loves.
This week’s subplot is a prime example of a problem that too many serious TV dramas have: overestimating viewers’ level of investment in certain character arcs. Dwight is undoubtedly a major player in this show’s larger story; in the abstract, he serves a purpose as the ultimate cautionary tale. He tried to escape the bat-wielding boss man, and ended up losing his spouse and getting half his face burned off. Now, he’s forced to pretend every day that he’s willingly choosing to serve his master. But so far, nearly every one of his appearances in the series has just reinforced what we already know. He pines for his lady love, he desultorily follows orders … and that’s about it. It’s like the best the writers can do with this guy is to keep nudging us, asking, “Hey, remember him?”
To that end, this installment almost directly parallels last year’s episodes “The Cell” (which contrasted Daryl’s experiences in the Sanctuary with Dwight’s) and “Sing Me a Song” (which did the same, but with Carl). The only real difference is that “Hostiles and Calamities” shows what happens when one of Negan’s guests doesn’t resist his charms. Whereas Dwight was set up to be the Goofus to some stronger-willed Alexandrian’s Gallant, here he actually comes off better than Eugene. Even when he cooks up a story that gets the community’s doctor killed, he only does it to protect Sherry, whom he falsely claims was devoured by walkers right in front of his eyes.
It’s not all that plausible that Negan would buy this excuse without any proof. But the bigger problem here, from a storytelling perspective, is that everything Dwight does this week – including reading a touching letter his ex leaves for him where they used to live – would be more dramatic if it all weren’t a repeat of exactly what happens nearly every time the scarred henchman shows up.
That said, the dreary Dwight scenes don’t entirely sink this chapter, because Eugene’s journey from whimpering wimp to coward-in-charge is so entertaining – and so chilling. The episode gets off to a rough start, if only because McDermitt isn’t as much fun to watch when he’s playing his character completely paralyzed by fear. But once he realizes how well Negan rewards people who are useful to him, he settles back into his old role as deadpan blowhard, making up credentials and feigning expertise based on his many years of hardcore geekery. It’s funny … at first. And then it becomes clear just how quickly and thoroughly the Sanctuary has seduced one of our former heroes.
There’s genuine novelty to the scenes where he impresses his psychopathic patron with his on-the-spot idea to use molten metal to better secure the zombie sentries (“God-damn is that not the coolest thing I’ve ever heard in my life!”), after which his new boss sends three of his best wives to his room as a thank you. The understanding is, of course, that there’ll be no sex. This “date” is particularly weird and wonderful, with Eugene showing off his Yars’ Revenge skills, then impressing the ladies by MacGyver-ing up a small explosive device while tunelessly humming “The 1812 Overture.”
The key moment in the episode, though, comes when this new resident discovers just what it means to be in Negan’s inner circle. Early on, he’s almost ashamed to ask for anything that the community’s peons have had to work to produce, such as homemade kettle-cooked potato chips. But after spending so long being treated as one of Alexandria’s special projects – a pitiable liar who could maybe someday prove himself worthy – he’s jazzed at being able to take whatever he wants. When he’s ultimately asked to declare his allegiance, he doesn’t even wait for the entire question before he blurts out that he is “Negan … stone-cold, utterly Negan … I was Negan before I even met you.”
This comes after he agrees to help his friends from the harem by making them a suicide pill, and then changes his mind once he realizes they’re going to use it against their evil husband. Always more comfortable being coddled by strongmen like Abraham then having to be courageous himself, Eugene shrugs off their outrage, and justifies switching sides by saying that well, since the Alexandrians killed a bunch of Negan’s people, the two groups really aren’t so different. It’s moments like these when the show cuts uncomfortably close to the bone in its assessment of our common weaknesses. We like to think that we’d be Daryl, refusing to kneel to our enemy. The truth is that many of us are probably more like Eugene, however: eagerly selling out our ideals for a pat on the head and a jar of fresh pickles.
Previously: Pit Boss