]]> The Walking Dead faced a tough time following the addition of Negan, an injection of unpredictability that should have been a certified ratings-puller. Instead, the opening half of season seven saw the series suffer its first ratings decline in years, many failing to buy into Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s melodramatic portrayal of the often-sickeningly violent yet no less beloved comic book character.
Since returning from its midseason break, the series has seen a distinct rise in popularity with many praising showrunner Scott Gimple’s decision to go off the beaten track set out by the source material. This week, however, proves the real test – Negan has returned for an episode solely dedicated to The Saviours and their new prisoner, Eugene (Josh McDermitt). Fortunately, it’s one of the most pivotal episodes of the season thus far.
Sure, many might slap their palms to their heads upon realising that – for one episode, at least – The Walking Dead is returning to its ‘bottle episode’ formula. But it’s all for good reason: ‘Hostiles and Calamities’ occurs concurrently with the past two, showing viewers what Negan’s faction have been up to while Rick’s been busy building an army. There is no Alexandria, no Kingdom and, thankfully, no Hilltop. There’s no mention of last week’s mystery new group led by Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh) either. No, this week saw The Walking Dead thrust a character rarely given major screentime into the spotlight – Eugene Porter.
It’s to the writers’ credit – not to mention McDermitt – that, by episode’s end he has coalesced into one of the series’ most interesting characters aided by a pretty major revelation that may leave viewers staring at the screen in subdued disdain: Eugene becomes a Saviour.
This development may not come as a huge surprise when considering Eugene is a character built on cowardice, yet when he submits to Negan – without much coaxing – it stings. The warning signs are there: at one point, Negan’s wives brand him a coward afetr refusing to aid in their plot to murder their husband. “That is a correct assessment,” he replies, without even flinching. Eugene is a fickle creature of habitat – he’s done trying to appease others and, in a world without his trusty compadre Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), nothing or nobody can prevent him from taking the easy route – even if that does mean falling in line under the very man who took that friend away.
The polar opposite is happening to Negan’s once-loyal aide Dwight (Austin Amelio), a character so destined for brutal death his screen time hurts. While the character’s disillusionment with Negan is a less staggering turnaround than the Eugene twist, it’s quite astounding to discover how much your heart bleeds for Dwight, a character who nobody could have expected to enjoy watching this time last season. This episode savvily permits viewers to spend time with The Saviours, fleshing them out in a way we’ve not yet seen. Take, for example, Lindsley Register’s tattooed Laura who guides Eugene – well, “Haircut” to her – around the compound in the opening. She’s handed more humanity than any other faceless Saviour – if only so you can be invested in both sides when the all-out war rolls around.
The most shocking Walking Dead moments
The final scene between Negan and Eugene could be the greatest of the season so far. “You don’t have to be scared anymore,” Negan tells the quivering mess stood in front of him – somebody who has been waiting to hear those words ever since the apocalypse began. “I am Negan,” Eugene says instantaneously when the baseball bat-wielding maniac asks him to join them. “I have always been Negan.” Could the scholar be tricking The Savours’ leader? It seems unlikely. Whichever way the bat swings, it’s a showstopping transformation – and refreshing to see The Walking Dead can still shock without mercilessly bashing anybody’s head in.
The Walking Dead airs in the UK tonight (27 February) at 9pm on FOX