I understand why people are often frustrated by The Walking Dead’s pace. It’s slow. Often very, very slow—at its worst, the show is like something that moves in sluggish, jerky circles, moaning softly to itself as it echoes some dimly felt but wholly unrealized impulse in its rotting brain to move forward, ever hungry, ever yearning, ever unfulfilled. Something like that. But while “decompressed storytelling” can be immensely frustrating, it can also make for opportunities like “Hostiles And Calamities,” a solid hour that shows Eugene’s journey to the Dark Side. Whether or not that journey was entirely necessary is a question we can save for some other time; for now, it’s nice to have a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end, one that finds a character making an unexpected (and yet entirely plausible) choice.

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How you feel about that choice probably depends on how you feel about Eugene. I want to like him more than I do. He was entertaining enough when first introduced, a flat-voiced, desperately self-conscious nerd in a world full of grim-faced killers. And since then, he hasn’t entirely worn out his welcome, but it’s hard not to be irritated at someone who is so openly bad at staying alive. Eugene is pathetic and a coward, as he himself regularly admits, and while that should make him more sympathetic (in the case of an apocalyptic event, I’m going to be a lot more like Eugene than I am going to be like, say, Daryl), it mostly just means cringing a little whenever he’s forced into the spotlight.

Maybe there’s something to be said for that cringing. “Hostiles And Calamities” gets some laughs and tension out of Eugene’s fears, and while his tour through Sanctuary doesn’t show us anything we don’t already know, it’s at least interesting to see how the place would effect someone this vulnerable. Daryl got the stick, but Eugene gets the carrot, and his decision to embrace his new role and go “full Negan” is completely fitting. Not everyone wants to be a hero, and not everyone takes the hard choice when forced to decide between the right thing and the easy thing.

This probably won’t work out for Eugene long term. Given that Rick is The Hero and always right (sigh), it’s clear that Negan is going to end up either dead or defeated eventually, and when he goes down, it’s doubtful that the people who serve him are going to enjoy the transition much. Even in the best case scenario, Eugene’s new life is going to be short-lived, and given how comeuppance usually works in stories, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he dies horribly sometime in the next season or two. Traitors always get the shortest end of the stick.

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And he is a traitor; there’s no getting around it. Negan beat Abraham to death, and while Eugene and Abraham may not have been on the best terms near the end, they were still friends. It’s not just that Eugene is going along with Negan’s orders. It’s that he’s embracing those orders with an enthusiasm that suggests he has no interest in going back to the way things were. Given the situation, it’s not surprising that a self-professed coward isn’t able to withstand the demands of a dude who carries around a murder bat. But it is surprising (comically so) how, when the moment comes to demonstrate where his loyalty lies, Eugene commits to his new master without even a moment’s hesitation. It’s technically possible that this is all an act, that Eugene is playing some deep game here that will only become evident in later episodes, but it sure as hell looks like he’s drinking the Kool-Aid.

Given the show’s general contempt for weakness, that isn’t unexpected. And it’s not as though the real world hasn’t already given us plenty of examples of how readily nebbishes turn to fascism when it props up their own egos. What makes this odd is that I can’t find it in my heart to blame Eugene for what he’s done. His actions should be infuriating, or at the very least disappointing. Instead, I found myself surprisingly cheered by it. Even though I understand morally that Negan is evil and the Saviors are bad folks, it was fun to see someone actually get what they want, even if that getting involved them selling their soul.

Really, if this wasn’t the intended reaction, the writers have no one but themselves to blame. After spending season after season telling us over and over again that the only people who really matter in this brave new world, the only people we should be rooting for, are the people with the will and the guts to get things done, how can we not respect Negan on some level? Awful as he is, he’s also the ultimate expression of the show’s core values: he bent the end of the world to his will, and while we can pretend that we’re upset about the cruelty of his leadership, his greatest sin is opposing Rick. It’s hard to get that upset about Eugene abandoning friends when he’s doing so for a guy who seems to understand the core values of the story he’s living in far better than said story’s protagonist ever will.

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The Dwight storyline, which has Dwight trying (and failing) to track down his missing ex-wife, is more effectively upsetting, because Dwight, at least, seemed like he might have some good left in him. It’s late in the game to try and push this idea that he suffers from memory problems; I don’t think anything we’ve seen from him before suggested that, and while it’s an interesting idea, it’s too subtle a concept to be fully-realized in the short time we have with it. The show has always been stronger with evocative moments and imagery than it has been with actual characterization, and Dwight as a person is really best used in the abstract. Trying to delve into what makes him tick beyond “everything is fucked” was probably never going to work.

Still, his decision to sacrifice the doctor is more disturbing than Eugene’s refusal to poison Negan because it’s far less defensible, and the hour ending with the two men standing side by side looking out over the obstacle course of the damned is a solid ending visual. As is so often the case with this series, I appreciated this entry more in the abstract than the actual practice (Eugene’s awkwardness is hard to endure for long stretches of time, and I just don’t care that much about Dwight), but I respect the effort to tell smaller stories in the middle of bigger ones. At the very least, it’s a relief to watch the series’ reach not exceed its grasp for once.

Stray observations

  • Nice repurposing of “Easy Street.”
  • Eugene doesn’t like freshly made potato chips. Eugene is an idiot.
  • “I am indeed a smarty-pants.” -Eugene, achieving his destiny. (He also starts spouting that lie about working on the Human Genome Project, a decision I’m sure won’t backfire horribly.)
  • I know we’re supposed to be disappointed at Eugene’s unwillingness to help Negan’s wives poison their “husband,” but they did lie to him about their intentions.
  • “Truth of the matter is, I’m not good. I’m not lawful, neutral, or chaotic. None of the above.” -Eugene is a nerd, in case you were wondering.
  • Unexpected use of They Might Be Giants to confirm again that yes, Eugene is a nerd.

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