Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

Everyone’s the hero of their own story. In Negan’s mind, he’s the strong personality needed to unite people in desperate times, regardless of his measures. Simon sees himself as the pragmatic tough guy willing to do the things others, including Negan, won’t. And Dwight—well, maybe he’s more the tragic martyr type.

The Saviors are the closest The Walking Dead has come to just straight-up making an alternative community of protagonists for the narrative to follow. We spent a season and a half with the Governor, true, but that was largely from the point of view of Rick and the gang, one or two episodes notwithstanding. Aside from a few minutes with Daryl and Rosita—and Michonne playing the executor of Carl’s will by reading Negan his letter—this episode (and a large portion of the season) is all about the Sanctuary, and was all the better for it. By focusing not just on the people trying to kill everyone we’ve come to know, but an entirely different ecosystem of personalities and conflicts, the show gains some momentum and engagement by creating different stakes and working to establish contrasting loyalties. True, the fatal outcome of this hour may weaken the Saviors as a source of fascination, but the power struggle among Negan and his lieutenants made for rewarding viewing while it lasted.

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It’s easy to admire the show’s willingness to take out one of the Saviors’ most compelling characters in one go for the sake of a good episode, but it’s also another example of the show no longer willing to put anyone from the main credits in peril unless it’s a season (or mid-season) finale. Did anyone really think for a second that Simon’s insurrection against Negan was going to succeed? The show made it so obvious he was doomed to fail that it was tough to invest in Simon’s machinations as a viewer. Steven Ogg’s performance has been excellent, and before Negan reappears to pardon Simon for his actions and plant the fake strategy in order for Dwight to sell it to Hilltop as the real thing, the scene between Gregory and Simon gave us a taste of what it would’ve been like having someone like the mustachioed maniac in charge. Namely, thrilling: Ogg sells Simon’s tenuous grip on his cruelty, maintaining a seeming level-headed disposition even while you can see the rage bubbling just below the surface. Had the show spent a little effort trying to paint Simon and his fellow traitors as a plausible alternative to Negan, this story could’ve gone somewhere great.

Instead, they’re all sacrificed—but at least the sacrifice itself was enjoyable. Revenge is almost always fun to watch, regardless of who’s plotting it. Even after gunning down all the others, Negan’s warped but coherent sense of honor means he needs to defeat Simon one on one, in front of the whole community. (You come at the King, you best not miss, etc.) It’s the same reason we knew Negan wasn’t going to bludgeon his number-two guy to death during the council meeting; there’s no way he’d bash someone’s head in without looking them in the eyes while doing it. So we get a brawl, delightfully kicked off by Simon’s sucker-punch, and ending with Negan’s hands wrapped around his former underling’s throat. (“Like, what else was I gonna do besides crush the guy’s throat?” he amiably tells Dwight.) It’s too bad we didn’t get the information that Simon was responsible for the all-male massacre at Oceanside sooner; not only would have helped reinforce Negan’s ethos that he doesn’t take lives without good reason (thereby making him less of an inconsistent cartoon, more of just a regular cartoon), it would have given our introduction to that community clearer stakes and contributed to the individual characterizations of the Saviors.

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Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

But let’s not cry over that bloody spilled milk, and instead focus on what worked here. Dwight’s secret-agent behavior may have been impulsive—surely he didn’t think no one would notice him sending off Gregory with a car and the map explaining Negan’s plan—but it feels of a piece with his “fuck it, let’s see what happens” decision to aid the Hilltop crew, even at the cost of his own life. The character already feels like he’s living on borrowed time, which can make for surprising decisions as long as they’re not wallowing it nihilism and/or crazy (paging Mr. Morgan), and Dwight’s ambiguous duplicity was a rich source of tension, at least until Laura showed up to rat him out. R.I.P., Dwight’s usefulness as a character; you are probably doomed to be a source of misery porn for your few remaining hours alive on this show.

Eugene, by contrast, had some fascinating scenes here that point the way forward for him, not including the utter waste of time that was Daryl and Rosita’s idiotic failed kidnapping—dumb for a number of reasons, not least of which because Eugene outwitted them so quickly, rendering the whole affair moot. There’s nothing to suggest Eugene is any different after the kidnapping than he was before it, save being slightly more determined to make as many bullets for Negan as possible, now that he knows how badly his ex-friends want to kill him. But watching the former ally consolidate his authority, grow in confidence, and deliver wannabe-Negan speeches to his underlings is making him a far richer personality than another round of drink-to-fall-asleep Eugene would’ve provided. Gregory’s bluster is laughable because he’s so predictably weak; when Eugene steels himself, there’s an element of unpredictability.

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Photo: Gene Page (AMC)

The episode’s unfortunate bookends, on the other hand, felt like little more than checking off boxes of things that needed to happen. Chekov’s Letters From Carl needed to be taken off the shelf (or out of the drawer, rather) and delivered—one to Rick, one to Negan. And both provoke the expected response. Rick gets emotional. (To be fair, he should, as there were some quite touching lines in there. Carl’s observation that growing up means making people as safe as you can, and his desire that his dad feel as protected as he did as a young boy were eloquent and moving, much more so than many of the lines Carl got when he was still alive.) And Negan reacts almost exactly as Rick first did, disregarding everything the kid said and vowing to annihilate every last one of the Hilltop crew. To be fair, Negan is pissed because he feels penned into this course of action, thanks to Simon’s clever “everyone at Hilltop dies, oops, just kidding” strategy of attack. The Savior leader won’t be doing any more demonstrations of strength; it’s killing time. He may have murdered his right-hand man (and lost his left-hand man, with Dwight exposed), but it no longer matters, for his purposes or ours. With one episode left in the season, that all-out war on which the year began might finally (dear god, let it be finally) come to a close.

Stray observations

  • No-fucking-around Eugene is a definite improvement. “Try not to cry too loud.”
  • Possible counterpoint to the above: Someone I watched this episode with is convinced that Eugene repeated Rosita’s line about “doing something useful with your pathetic life” because he’s going to betray Negan and sacrifice himself to make amends for his behavior. I think that sounds like horseshit. How did you all interpret it?
  • I’m also worried Rick reading Carl’s letter is going to undo the intriguing changes to his character in the back half of this season, turning him back into nice-guy Rick whose word is his bond. In which case, look for the ending next week to involve Rick offering Negan peace and Negan turning it down, resulting in a Superman-snaps-Zod’s-neck-style ending a la Man Of Steel.
  • Aaron had to spend a number of days starving in the woods before Oceanside would listen to him give another speech about why they need to fight. Presumably they’ll show up at just the right moment next episode.
  • Negan’s definitive statement on Simon: “What an asshole.”

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