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The Walking Dead Villain Watch season 8, episode 7: Time for After

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The show’s make-or-break moment is upon us

Lance Herota as Pole Walker, Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes, Pollyanna McIntosh as Jadis - The Walking Dead _ Season 8, Episode 7 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC Photo by Gene Page / AMC

The Walking Dead is back, and for us here at The Verge that’s an opportunity to examine just how effective the show can be in creating a complex villain. As played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, big bad Negan has always been violent. But thanks to his man-baby antics, he’s stubbornly remained a comic book thug, never becoming the nuanced character the show so sorely needs.

Each week, I’ll be analyzing the show through its presentation of Negan: how he acts, how he delivers his jokes and threats, and most importantly, how his character develops in contrast to our supposedly-virtuous heroes. We’ll look at all the traits a villain is supposed to excel at, including those we detest, and boil it down into one single score on what we are calling the Neganometer™. A score of 10 means he’s the best, most complex villain we’ve ever seen; a score of 0 means he’s pretty much the same ol’ Negan he’s always been.

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Warning: There will be spoilers.

This season of The Walking Dead has been one of its most challenging. Ratings have plummeted, the story has gone around in circles, and the show still hasn’t justified why it’s spending so much time on archvillain Negan — beyond the obvious debt to its comic book source material.

That said, the show has demonstrated it can still be good when it wants to be, which is what makes the last two episodes before the mid-season break so crucial. They’re The Walking Dead’s final shots to prove that the season has been worth watching, and that the dead-ends and constant bottle episodes have been part of some grander, meaningful design. The show has been flailing ever since Negan’s introduction and Glenn’s death. If showrunner Scott Gimple wants to prove that there’s been a point to it all, then last night’s episode, “Time for After,” is the time to start doing it.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

Eugene becomes a Savior

The Walking Dead hasn’t paid much attention to Eugene this season, despite the large role he played in the lead-up to the Rick vs. Negan conflict. “Time for After” breaks that streak, delving into the role Eugene plays in the Sanctuary, and the naked sense of self-preservation that shapes every facet of his life. In the process, the episode delivers a portrait of Eugene that goes beyond the redneck, thesaurus-loving comic relief caricature he’s been until now.

It starts during a conversation with Dwight, in which Eugene confronts him with information that implicates Dwight as the turncoat. Eugene threatens him, telling Dwight he’ll turn him in if he does anything else to jeopardize lives in the Sanctuary. At Negan’s request, Eugene then embarks on a plan to lead the zombies away from the compound using a RC plane with an iPod strapped to it.

In a subtle but telling way, Eugene has developed a savior complex, not unlike the one that has made Negan such an appealing leader to the Saviors. The villain himself may not actually believe his own hype, instead using the rhetoric as a strategic form of psychological manipulation, but it appears Eugene has truly convinced himself that only his smarts can save the Sanctuary’s innocent bystanders. Beneath that veneer there’s a more obvious truth, however: Eugene always puts himself first, and he’s just desperately trying to prove that he’s valuable enough to keep alive.

In a pivotal scene, Eugene forces a standoff with Dwight, who holds him at gunpoint and explains that only Negan has to die for the entire conflict to end. Eugene doesn’t seem to believe him, or at the very least thinks his chances of survival are higher by siding with the Saviors boss. Perhaps knowing that Dwight can’t kill him without raising suspicion, Eugene flies the RC plane into the zombie horde, only to have Dwight shoot it out of the air before it fulfills its mission.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

Daryl transforms into a full-fledged anti-hero

Daryl Dixon has always been a wild card in The Walking Dead, primarily because he doesn’t exist in the comics, which lets AMC and Gimple do with him as they please. This season, that’s meant turning Daryl into a bit of an anti-hero, with a thirst for revenge and a disregard for the ethics of armed conflict. When we catch up with him in “Time For After,” he’s aligned with Tara — still heartbroken over the death of her lover, Denise — and Morgan, who has given up on redemption over the course of the season. After rescuing Michonne and Rosita in the previous episode, Daryl and his gang drive to the Sanctuary to kill the remainder of the Saviors.

Quite suddenly, Michonne and Rosita are torn. The two don’t think they can go through with murdering dozens of innocent workers, seeing Daryl’s ends-justify-the-means mission as morally out of line. Despite being directly related to some of the larger themes explored this season, the disagreement nevertheless feels shoehorned in, and highlights the show’s reliance on characters that turn on a dime whenever the plot demands it. It’s not clear why Rosita was okay with firing an RPG at someone she’d never met in last week’s episode, but has qualms about unleashing zombies inside a warehouse full of other people she’s never met in this one. Philosophical questions like like these are supposed to be the beating heart of the show, but character inconsistencies reduce their impact whenever they arise.

It’s not like Rosita and Michonne are instrumental to Daryl’s plan, either. They simply walk away from the scene, and things carry on as planned. Of course, when Dwight shoots down Eugene’s RC plane, he inadvertently sets Daryl’s strike into motion. Thinking they’re being shot at, Daryl drives the truck into the building with cover fire from Morgan and Tara, blowing a hole into its side and letting zombies flood in. It ends up adding another violent punctuation mark to a scene that is ostensibly concerned with the idea of non-violence.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

Eugene and Negan have a bonding moment

Just when the audience starts to question Eugene’s motives — why, for instance, he is going so far to earn the approval of Negan — his mental state is laid bare. As he watches the Saviors take up arms to fend off the zombie horde, Eugene starts outright losing it. He’s terrified and distraught because he doesn’t want to die, and says as much when he storms in on Father Gabriel (who’s been bedridden due to an infection we’re told may be from donning zombie guts alongside Negan a couple episode back).

Eugene lambasts the priest for asking for his help in smuggling out Maggie’s doctor, with actor Josh McDermitt giving perhaps his best performance to date. Effectively, Eugene will do whatever it takes to survive, no matter what the cost or what it says about his moral standing. He tells Gabriel that he’ll never help him, and that he will aid Negan any way he can — even if it results in the total annihilation of Alexandria, the Hilltop, and the Kingdom. Later, in a last ditch effort to make himself essential, Eugene pitches a plan to direct the zombie’s away by rewiring the Sanctuary's loudspeaker system. Negan lavishes him with praise. “How does it feel to be the second most important person here?” Negan asks him, and it’s all too clear that Eugene’s path has been set.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

Rick and Jadis redux

Last week Rick found himself trapped again by Jadis and her group of garbage dump-dwellers, and “Time for After” checks in with the pair throughout its running time. Rick is routinely trotted out half-naked from a shipping container to be photographed by Jadis for “sculpting” purposes, and is flatly ignored when he offers her a deal. The situation comes to a head when Jadis finally decides to execute Rick by putting him up against another gladiator-style walker with a spike-ridden helmet, similar to the battle he faced last season. It’s another effective Mad Max-style sequence, building on Jadis’ cult-like ritualism and offbeat linguistic quirks. Rick, of course, manages to turn the walker against Jadis to coerce her into negotiating, and she finally agrees to help — on the condition that she get one-fourth of the Saviors’ supplies.

While his gambit was successful, I was left scratching my head as to why Rick would go to such great lengths to add Jadis’ group to his coalition when it’s clear they cannot be trusted and will likely only betray him again. It would seem easier to enlist Oceanside’s all-female militia instead — something that may very well happen in the future. But Jadis, who has long since overstayed her welcome on the show, has become another novelty character with a nonexistent backstory that can no longer really be excused.

Whatever the show has planned for her and Rick, it may not matter much. In the final scene of “Time for After,” Rick leads Jadis and some of her people to a water tower to scout out the Sanctuary. They discover Daryl’s truck smashed into the building, with the walkers nowhere to be found. Whether Eugene succeeded and Negan is now free, or if this is just the aftermath of Daryl’s plot, is left unclear. But in the final close-up, it’s obvious Rick is not happy, as actor Andrew Lincoln looks like he has just seen the world end.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

Evaluating the Villain:

Although “Time for After” did contain a few snippets of Negan here and there, it was largely an episode about Eugene, and to a lesser extent, Rick, Daryl, and Dwight. This is at the very least a step up from the four episodes this season that have completely skipped over the Saviors’ boss. But it’s disappointing to be praising the show for incorporating its main villain for five minutes every week, when it could instead slim its storylines down and build a much more concise and powerful narrative utilizing the characters that matter most.

Charisma: Negan’s few appearances showcased some of his most insidious behavior — his ability to recognize specific weaknesses and fears in people, and exploit them. Negan praises Eugene not because he likes Eugene, or even because he thinks he is all that intelligent. Rather, Negan seems to know Eugene will do whatever it takes to save his own skin, and uses accolades and the promise of protection as a weapon. As a result, Eugene pushes his limits, works to foil Dwight’s plans of an overthrow, and is eager to stand by Negan, even it results in the death of all of his former friends.

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Negan-o-meter™: 3 out of 10

Moving the Needle:

In a not-so-surprising turn of events, viewership ticked back up last week, presumably because the prior episode actually focused on Negan for once. It was a Walking Dead object lesson: focus on the character that audiences have been waiting for, and they will come back. Why Gimple and the writing team aren’t putting all of their efforts on doing that exact thing is beyond me.

At around 8.5 million viewers per episode, The Walking Dead is facing the kind of numbers it hasn’t seen since its second season. Unless some serious changes are made to how it tells its stories, the way it adapts comic book material, and how it handles Negan’s character and the “All Out War” arc, it’s not likely viewers will race to watch the show every week. This could simply be the new normal, with AMC content to see these numbers decline given that The Walking Dead is still a hugely successful show despite the drop-off. At this point, it’s doubtful any mid-season payoff would be able to lure those lost viewers back for another eight-episode stretch, anyway.

However, over the past few seasons The Walking Dead’s mid-season finale has served as a bellwether; an episode that reveals the kind of tactics and approach that the second half will likely utilize. After half a season’s worth of treading water, next week’s episode could give an indication if AMC, showrunner Scott Gimple, or anyone else involved with the production has realized that their current approach isn’t working. That episode, more than anything else this season, may end up setting expectations both for what fans should expect, and whether they should bother watching at all.