Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched episode 11 of season 7 of “The Walking Dead,” titled “Hostiles and Calamities.”
How many points does one need to accrue to leave the Sanctuary? Surely, after the slog that was the first half of season 7, we’ve gone through enough to avoid returning to that tedious exhibition of dominance and misery. But for all the hope that last week’s episode offered, “The Walking Dead” is right back where it was last fall, emphasizing Negan’s power and cruelty in exhausting fashion as the story makes little progress.
The entirety of “Hostiles and Calamities” is spent with the Saviors as Eugene is brought into the fold, and Dwight must prove his loyalty to Negan once again. And save for a brief exploration by the latter, the episode is confined inside the walls of the Sanctuary, a place that may just be more despairing for us viewers than the actual inhabitants.
Blame for Daryl’s escape, which left Fat Joey dead and a perfectly good sandwich wasted, has fallen upon Dwight. While being held in the cell that’s now Daryl-free, Dwight learns that his ex-wife fled the Sanctuary just hours after Daryl’s flight. Negan suggests that both events, surely not coincidental in their timing, were masterminded by Dwight. “You were supposed to break him,” Negan says through the door. “Did he break you?”
Here, faceless, Negan is more menacing than he’s been for the duration of his time on the show. Throughout the episode, when we actually do see his face, Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays the character just a little bit less animated than usual. If there’s one light of hope from this chapter, it’s that Negan may remain more believable as the end-all villain he’s supposed to be.
Dwight is silent for long enough for us to believe he may be out of Negan’s good graces permanently, but he eventually returns to the company line and says he may just know where Sherry would have ran to. He hits the road toward his old home with Sherry, in search of confirmation that she let Daryl escape with more than a sense of duty for Negan. Homegirl is long gone, but she did leave a note saying she let Daryl free because he reminded her of the person Dwight once was. But that person is gone now, and she blames herself. By agreeing to marry Negan so Dwight’s life can be spared, she created a monster: a murderous, sadistic right-hand man who believes being inside the Sanctuary is better than being dead. She can no longer believe that, or in Dwight, so she had to dip.
Upon returning to the Sanctuary, Dwight says he was forced to kill Sherry and frames the doctor for Daryl’s escape. The Doc’s punishment begins as a familiar scene, with the iron being prepared for another facial appointment, but Negan offers him an out. Admit what you’ve done, and you will be spared. The doctor lies to quite literally save face, only for Negan to toss his whole damn body inside the oven.
Eugene, watching on, is horrified. And the display sets up yet another act of cowardice from the show’s resident coward. In fact, his entire storyline in the episode reinforces what’s been long reinforced: He will lie and grovel; he will do anything to save his life.
For some reason Eugene has to prove his worth after Negan already knows he can make bullets, so the mulleted autodidact brings back his phony resume as a member of the Human Genome Project. Now dubbed “Mr. Smarty Pants,” further proving Negan’s penchant for grade-school bullying tactics, his first task as the Saviors’ new “doctor” is to figure out how to prevent the walkers guarding the fences from decomposing. Eugene suggests coating them in molten metal, shadows of the gladiator walker last week, and he’s rewarded with a night with Negan’s remaining wives—but no sex.
The quartet spends the night awkwardly playing video games until the wives urge him to conjure up a science class experiment “bomb” using standard household objects. Later on, this emboldens two of the wives (are we supposed to know their names?) to request a suicide pill—make that two, just in case—for Amber, who can no longer live under Negan’s thumb. Eugene pushes back but eventually caves in. That is, until he witnesses the events at the oven. Realizing the second pill is intended for Negan, Eugene backs out and garners another chorus of “you’re a coward.”
The problem with spending so much time with him is that he’s one of the least interesting characters in a show crammed with dull players. Besides comic relief, he’s not good for much else besides making others look stronger by comparison. Consistency is important in a character, but the common thread of his cowardice alone doesn’t warrant a Eugene-centered arc.
For all of the efforts of “Hostiles and Calamities,” the only real development was Dwight lying to Negan. But even that is little more than foreshadowing what eventually has to be an even larger betrayal. The rest of the episode pounded into us what we already know: Eugene is a frustrating coward, and Negan is a spectacular a–hole. If all an hour-long episode has to show is mild foreshadowing, that’s just not good television. And when such a folly follows up what was such an exciting installment in “New Best Friends” without building upon any of its strengths, that makes “The Walking Dead” that much more difficult to defend. No good episode, or even a string of them, can erase the expectation that the show will eventually regress to the mean.
Next week we’ll likely return to Rick and co. as they arm up for war, and it may just pick up the lost momentum. But does it even matter? Life as a “Walking Dead’ viewer can be just as nihilistic as being inside the show.