Last year, AMC’s The Walking Dead sparked an outrage. The gory season 7 premiere threw away beloved characters in the name of archvillain Negan and audiences followed suit: by the time the midseason finale rolled around, ratings had dropped 40 percent. Now the show has returned for the second half of the season. It’s an opportunity to chart a new course, to correct the mistakes it’s made, and convince viewers that the story of Rick Grimes is still worth following. The only question is whether the series can pull it off.
Welcome to The Walking Dead Redemption Club.
Nick Statt: The biggest issue facing The Walking Dead right now is how it chooses to spend the audience’s time. In the first half of season 7, the plot moved so slowly — and said so little in the process — that the show began shedding viewers by the millions. It’s unclear what’s driving everyone away, but it’s almost surely a combination of TWD reaching the end of its life and the poor handling of the series’ big bad villain. And probably some of that gratuitous violence, too.
Now, two episodes into the season’s second half, it’s clear TWD is picking up the pace. And without Negan in sight, it’s been a far more enjoyable and dynamic affair that has Rick and crew doing more plotting and bonding than standing around and wringing their hands. But the real test comes now, with “Hostiles and Calamities,” which brings us back to the Saviors, the Sanctuary, and Negan. How the show continues to integrate Negan’s storyline with the greater narrative will be the audience’s most critical test of faith. Because why bother watching when the inevitable conclusion isn’t even worth waiting for?
Nick: Dwight remains one of the few redeeming aspects of the Saviors storyline. So it was interesting to see the show dial back to the moment after Daryl’s escape in episode 8 from Dwight’s perspective, rather than Negan’s. We get to see his panic as he scrambles to find Daryl’s empty cell, as well as his resolve as he patiently waits for Negan’s more brutish henchmen to bust his door down and beat him into submission.
Despite that, Dwight gets himself out of solitary confinement and earns a complimentary visit to the doctor by pledging his allegiance to Negan and swearing to find Sherry, who it turns out must have let Daryl escape before running away herself. Drawing straight from the comic book source material, The Walking Dead is clearly building Dwight up as the cunning member of Negan’s inner circle who just might be bold enough to break rank.
Instead of having Dwight spontaneously decide to jump ship, however, TWD is actually giving viewers a fleshed-out and engaging look at his journey. It all started when Sherry “married” Negan to spare his life, as the doctor so kindly reminds Dwight, and his future might hinge on her sacrifice as well.
Bryan Bishop: Along with Dwight, the other main storyline in the episode is the fate of Eugene. As you’ll recall, he was hauled off by the Saviors last year after they discovered he could make bullets. Given what he witnessed last year, Eugene is expecting the worst, and is surprised to find out that he’s being subjected to… a comfortable bedroom with books. Negan wants to keep Eugene happy, so he’s immediately put into a higher social strata than the other common workers — in fact, he gets to actually keep his name, rather than just being turned into a number like so many others.
Of course a bully can’t let a moment pass without taking some sort of potshot, so pretty soon Negan is calling Eugene “Doctor Smartypants” and baiting him to see how useful he can actually be. Dr. Pants comes up with the idea of pouring liquid metal over some slowly decaying walkers that the Saviors use as sentries. Negan likes the idea, bellowing that “Not only is that practical, it is just bad ass!” which I suppose is funny if I thought Negan was an awesome character that I enjoyed watching, instead of a disgusting violent sociopath whose very presence makes me want to turn off the show.
Did I mention that I didn’t love the fact that Negan returned this episode?
Nick: Sherry, Dwight’s wife and now one of Negan’s many miserable mistresses, had the potential to be a powerful player. She was Dwight’s connection to his past, before Negan burned his face and robed him of his family. Her virtuousness, her need to help Daryl because he once helped her sister, had the potential to redeem her husband. But she’s now gone, having given up and run away. Seeing Dwight read her letter after he heads to their secret meeting place, knowing he still understood her and held their memories dear, is definitely enough to turn him into a sympathetic character worth rooting for.
I have mixed feelings about Dwight’s transformation and whether it will play out as successfully as it does in the comics. Yes, he did what he did to help his wife’s sister (who ultimately died). But at the end of the day he’s still a willing participant in Negan’s society, so much so that he lets his wife give up her personhood just as a means of surviving and carrying on. It’s hard to think that he could believably come around to betraying Negan after having gotten this far and earning this much good will and trust. And why bother now, that Sherry is gone?
EUGENE TAKES WHAT EUGENE WANTS
Bryan: Part of the charm of the character of Eugene has been his total and complete lack of self-awareness. A lot of us are geeky, but Eugene is written as a comic book parody of geeky people — the kind of guy that is so clueless that he thinks a bunch of Negan’s wives would be entertained by watching him play video games. Which, of course, is what he does in this episode — but then things get interesting when some of them ask him to build capsules to help one of their friends commit suicide.
It’s a strange and awkward request, but Eugene decides to help them, and when he tries to pick up some cold medicine for his concoction, he learns how intoxicating power can actually be. Eugene asks for the cold medicine from a women in the Saviors’ marketplace, and is told to get in the back of the line like everyone else. But Eugene doesn’t have to wait — he’s Dr. Smartypants after all, not somebody that simply goes by a number — and he demands to be taken care of right then.
He’s actually quite terrible at it, and in an effort to demonstrate just how “at ease” he is with taking things he basically steals everything he can from the woman in the marketplace. The “making medicine” montage that follows, set to They Might Be Giants’ “Everything Right is Wrong Again,” keeps that semi-comedic tone going, and while it’s not entirely successful, it’s a welcome counterpoint in an episode that’s otherwise full of sadness and regret.
NEGAN’S WEEKLY DOSE OF BRUTALITY
Nick: It wouldn’t be a Saviors episode unless someone got a piece of hot metal pressed on their face, or a baseball bat to the head, or some other form of nonsensical and unnecessary violence. This go around, the victim is the doctor, who Dwight has spitefully framed for the crime of letting Daryl escape. Instead of burning him with an iron, however, Negan decides that he no longer needs the doc because he has Eugene. And so Nehan tosses the poor man face first into the fire.
At this point in the show, every scene with Negan is treated as a binary and shallow form of character development. Either he’s going to do something bad to remind you he’s bad, or he’s going to crack jokes to remind you he’s a poorly drawn sociopath. As a villain, Negan works better in the comics. His psychopathic tendencies and cult-like following blend more successfully on the page with the vulgar locker room talk of a high school gym coach. That’s because in the comics, he used to be… well, a high school gym coach with a penchant for doling out sadistic abuse and crappy nicknames.
Negan is supposed to be both a villain and an example of how people with fringe personality traits could reasonably give in to their darker impulses under the right circumstances. Could you imagine your high school gym coach as the leader of some murderous cult of zombie apocalypse survivors? I can, and it’s terrifying! But the show fails at every turn to let that characterization shine through, which results in me constantly wondering why Negan hasn’t been killed by one of his own men yet. The only thing that could really save these dull exercises is having Negan recount some of his backstory, which the show senselessly seems adamant about concealing.
EUGENE THE COWARD
Bryan: If Eugene’s journey this episode had thus far been about learning what it’s like to have power, it ends with him trading his soul to keep it. After witnessing the doctor’s death, Eugene meets with the women that asked him to make the suicide pills — which he refuses to hand over, because he’s realized the women actually want to use them to kill Negan. They threaten to rat Eugene out, but he doesn’t relent… and then Negan himself comes calling. Eugene is terrified, sure he’s going to face the business end of Lucille, but instead Negan wants to invite Eugene into his inner circle. He’s got just one question to ask him, first.
The question, of course, is “Who are you?” and the loyal answer “I’m Negan.” But Eugene is such a frightened coward that he doesn’t even let Negan finish asking, pledging fealty almost immediately. It’s played for laughs — Eugene says “I was Negan before I even met you, I just needed to meet you properly to know.” — and that lapdog behavior pleases his new master. Eugene is alive, and he’s maintained his status. He’s just lost his soul in the process.
But as the episode ends, it’s not that clear. Eugene ends up sharing a moment with Dwight: two men who know for very real, and very personal, reasons that Negan is evil. That he must be stopped. And that very few individuals are in a position to do so. They’re a pair of discarded misfits, neither taken seriously nor looked to as standard bearers of courage. There’s no mention of uprising or revolt, and Eugene actually seems quite happy in his newfound safety. But it is nevertheless a moment that is pregnant with possibilities, and I won’t be surprised in the slightest if later this season Eugene discovers that courage within himself when it is needed most.
THE ROAD TO REDEMPTION
Bryan: Last week was The Walking Dead finding the groove of its older, better self. This week was a slightly different riff: a more thoughtful version of the show that disappointed viewers during the first half of the season. It had the never-ending dread of every Negan episode ever made, but at least this time it reveled in the pathos behind Dwight, a character that I used to hate, but now feel incredible sorrow and empathy for. Eugene still feels a like one-trick pony to me, but at least in this episode he actually had an arc and something to do while spouting his tiresome Eugene-isms.
There’s one other thing that I’m totally comfortable saying: Negan as a character is a non-starter for me. For a long time I didn’t know if it was the way the storytelling of The Walking Dead transformed in order to accommodate him that turned me off, or if it was the gore unto itself. Maybe it was Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s performance; I’ve always enjoyed him as an actor, but these things happen. But during last night’s episode I realized that it’s the very idea of Negan as a character in this world; the dumb, cruel, ‘50s greaser sadist full of dad jokes and self-congratulation. He exists in the show to do only one thing — piss the audience off — and as a result he’s remained as one-dimensional and irritating as he was the day he showed up.
We all know on some level that eventually Negan will die, and that moment will come as a great relief. But no matter how satisfying his death will be, I doubt it will change my mind on this important point: Negan as depicted in this show was simply a mistake. While I can be drawn into Eugene’s story and Dwight’s backstory, the more time the rest of these episodes stay away from Negan, the happier I’m going to be.
Nick: Ruining Negan’s character may very well be The Walking Dead’s most critical error. And this is a show that spent its entire second season on a farm looking for a girl located literally on the premises. Not to spoil anything — especially now that it’s clear the show intends to follow Kirkman’s source material more closely — but Negan is supposed to have a grander, more complex relationship with Rick. He’s supposed to be the main character’s foil, representative of everything that Rick is not and emblematic of the most vile and deplorable acts of cruelty. What ultimately plays out between the two men is perhaps the comic books’ most defining statement on the humanity of its characters.
As you point out, Bryan, what we have on the show instead is a character who feels out of place in every scene and despised by enough of the fanbase that ratings are plummeting. It’s not because Negan is sadistic and violent, but because he’s incapable of functioning outside those villainous traits. We don’t know anything about him or his motivations, and his presence never says anything interesting. TWD has spent so much time trying to craft an elaborate situation that would see multiple communities band together that it forgot to do the fundamental and simple act of defining what it is Rick and the others are actually fighting against. Is it leather jackets or bad jokes, perhaps polygamy? Who knows.
What’s keeping the show alive at this point is the smaller moments, like Eugene’s science experiment in the parking lot and his casual exchange with Dwight, a man whose crotch he once bit in the middle of a hostage crisis. Sure, these moments tend to rely on cheap stunts, like the cliché humor of Eugene, or on staged reunions between characters the audience actually cares about. But at this point, if you can manage to wring out any fun or feel-good moments from an episode of The Walking Dead, that can be considered a victory.