It’s probably inevitable that a show so committed to indulging a single character’s nihilistic fantasies about his own self-importance would eventually start to get lost in its own hollowness.
That’s where “Hostiles and Calamities” — the 11th episode of The Walking Dead’s seventh season — leaves us: with Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) once again strutting around threatening people at the Saviors’ compound, while both Dwight and Eugene arrive at simultaneous moral crossroads.
“Hostiles and Calamities” is a strange combination of slapstick comedy and dark cynicism, lighthearted fun and horrific sadism. Director Kari Skogland imbues this balance with thematic weight, lending solidity to a flimsy script. The episode thus feels sinister even in its airier moments — like it’s trying to make you laugh solely in order to yank out all your teeth.
Eugene “joins” the Saviors, and Negan immediately tests his loyalty the way he does best — through horrific torture
“Hostiles and Calamities” picks up immediately after Daryl’s escape from the Saviors’ compound. A horrified Dwight (Austin Amelio) realizes that not only has Daryl escaped but that Sherry is also nowhere to be found. Not only that, but Daryl has left behind a note which Dwight recognizes as Sherry’s handwriting — implying that she aided in the escape.
At the same time, Eugene (Josh McDermitt) arrives at the compound, terrified he’s about to be executed or tortured after his assistance in Rosita’s failed plot to kill Negan. Instead he’s shown to a clean, well-stocked room and given a jar of pickles as a housewarming present.
Eugene proves his importance as a scientist by telling Negan how to basically smelt a zombie into an armor-plated, unkillable terminator by pouring molten metal over it to permanently fuse its decaying structure into place — a clear callback to his fight with a molten-headed zombie from last season.
“I feel like I should give you some kind of signing bonus,” Negan comments.
“Well, I was gifted these pickles,” Eugene stammers, in one of the episode’s only truly funny moments.
After the women of Negan’s rape harem get a whiff of Eugene’s skills as a chemist, they ask him to make a pill that will help them painlessly poison Amber. She’s the “wife” of Negan whose family was threatened and whose real husband recently had his face ironed because she tried to have a secret tryst with him. Now, the women tell Eugene, Amber just wants to end it all. After confirming that such a pill could be made by combining the right pharmaceuticals, Eugene agrees to make it for them, but it’s clear he has reservations.
Meanwhile, Negan sends Dwight to find Sherry. Dwight immediately heads to his and Sherry’s former home, where he discovers Sherry has gone to live alone in the woods. In a farewell letter to him, she explains that although she had originally agreed to “leave” Dwight and join Negan’s harem in order to save Dwight’s life, she now realizes he’s becoming an unrecognizable shell of the man he used to be. She urges Dwight to resist.
Instead, when Dwight returns, he tells Negan that he saw Sherry get killed by zombies and frames the camp doctor for aiding in Daryl’s escape by leaving him with a handwritten note from Sherry that matches the note from Daryl’s escape. The note is a transparent attempt to make it look like the doctor let Daryl go at Sherry’s behest, and even by Dwight’s standards of cowardice, it’s low. Negan clearly knows it’s a setup; still, as the members of the compound are forced to watch, he burns the doctor alive.
Rattled by the gratuitous sadism he’s just witnessed, Eugene tells the women of Negan’s harem he’s seen through their ruse to try to kill Negan and refuses to let them have the pill he made. Later, he swears his loyalty to Negan in a scene that’s straight up chilling.
“I am completely, utterly, stone-cold Negan,” Eugene says, referring to Negan’s habit of making the men under his command answer to his name as if it were their own. “I was Negan before I even met you. I just needed to meet you properly to know.”
We know that Eugene is an excellent liar who plays the long con with ease. Still, in all the many times we’ve seen Negan demand loyalty from his men this way, this is the first time all season that “Negan” has managed to feel like a stand-in for a tangible universal evil, or just anything other than ridiculous bully posturing.
Despite this moment of seriousness, “Hostiles and Calamities” is yet another wheel-spinning episode, mostly concerned with tracking Eugene and Dwight through the Saviors’ compound on very different trajectories. But especially compared with the emotional richness of the character interactions that occurred in last week’s episode, these separate storylines do nothing but try our patience, despite Eugene’s quirkiness and funny redneck-savant shtick.
In the final scene, the two of them finally come together for a strange, abortive conversation (Eugene tries to apologize for biting Dwight’s penis that one time). They cautiously sound one another out, arriving at a mutually agreed-upon false display of loyalty to Negan.
How far each of them are pretending at this point, it’s difficult to say; but Eugene at least seems to be completely self-aware. Dwight’s self-knowledge, on the other hand, seems cloudier than ever.
Daryl and Sherry’s absence makes Dwight’s awfulness especially obvious
When Eugene tells the women he won’t give them the pill, he adds that if they’re caught, Negan will believe any story Eugene makes up to deflect blame from himself. Why?
“For the same reason he believed Dwight’s story over the doctor’s,” according to Eugene. “You’re replaceable. I’m not.”
This is true in Eugene’s case. But even if Eugene could determine, from his brief interactions with Dwight, that Dwight is more irreplaceable to Negan than the lifesaving camp doctor, I have no idea what Dwight’s value is.
Until The Walking Dead reveals how Dwight will become important to the plot, he seems to exist solely as a punching bag, a psychological torture experiment, and a tool through which Negan manipulates Sherry. So now that Negan believes Sherry was killed by zombies, it seems inexplicable that he’s keeping Dwight around for any other purpose than sadism.
Dwight isn’t even a particularly interesting victim. His actions are consistent, predictable, trending toward evil, and boring. With Daryl and Sherry both gone, the narrative seems eager to suggest that he’s embraced submission, obedience, and amorality for the sake of safety and survival.
Without their dramatic texture, his hollowness of character is clear. For as much as the show has stressed that we’re supposed to care about Dwight and his plight to survive in the face of Negan’s oppression and face ironing and “theft” of Sherry as his wife, it’s never been clear to me what he adds to the narrative beyond extra pathos.
What’s worse, in contrast to The Walking Dead’s explorations of the damage done by rigid gender roles and masculinity in the show’s early years, Dwight's character seems to reinforce the idea that impotence is code for masculine weakness. He seems to have been entirely broken by his cuckolding by Negan, growing weaker and more treacherous as Sherry has grown stronger and more independent.
There’s no evidence that any of the lives Dwight has taken or the painful choices he’s made have done anything but hollow him out further. And because Negan’s arc of continual violence has left us numb already, Dwight’s presence has added little meaning to the series except to suggest that perhaps he was stronger when he was fully masculinized.
The Walking Dead is spending too much time on deeply boring characters. Why not pay more attention to the women?
There are so many more interesting stories at the periphery of The Walking Dead than the ones on which the show has wasted most of its recent screen time — like Amber’s barely present but harrowing choice to sacrifice herself to Negan’s harem so that her family would have medicine and be spared the worst of the workhouse.
Meanwhile, the story of Dwight and Sherry has been continually framed through Dwight’s point of view rather than Sherry’s — even though her struggle to lead a group of battered rape victims and ensure their survival while caring for her broken husband, delivering secret messages to Daryl, and helping him while plotting her own escape sounds like one hell of a hero’s arc. (Can you imagine Sherry and Carol teaming up together to fight zombies by themselves in the woods?)
It would have been nice to see Sherry do all that stuff, rather than mainly hearing about it. But The Walking Dead has rarely focused on deep plots revolving around women, much less given them the kind of close-up, introspective character arcs it’s been trying and failing to give Dwight.
So instead of watching Sherry kick ass and save Daryl and fight zombies, we have to watch her mopey husband mope around in his misery and then screw over yet another character. Multiple innocent people have died this season through Dwight’s weakness and cowardice. The latest death of the camp doctor feels particularly pointless, because Negan clearly knows Dwight is lying, and Dwight seems to have become so fully Stockholmed into Negan’s vision of himself that even seeing a man burned alive due to his own treachery doesn’t seem to faze him.
Austin Amelio’s acting emphasizes Dwight’s increasing trauma and numbness, and that makes sense. What I don’t understand is why The Walking Dead’s screenwriters seem so insistent that Dwight’s misery is more interesting than, say, any other character arc we could be following.
Eugene may be a trickster in training
Eugene is an exception to my complaint about which characters The Walking Dead is focusing on. He’s a down-home eccentric, and he’s more interesting in this episode than he’s been in a while. But even though I had fun watching him make bombs and improvise zombie melting, his actions felt oddly out of sync with each other.
In one of the episode’s quirkiest scenes, Eugene stands in a line. There are seven people in front of him. Even though by DMV line standards it would have amounted to a pretty short wait, Eugene breaks the line and then decides to declare authority over the factory worker who orders him back into it. He even steals a stuffed animal! It’s cute.
The Walking Dead presents this scene as a breakout moment of badassery for Eugene. But it’s also really weird. Everyone at the Saviors’ camp is living in abject misery; did he really have better things to do than stand around, briefly not being oppressed? Like the assisted suicide he’s been asked to plan couldn’t wait another 10 minutes?
I’m choosing to believe that this moment is also part of Eugene’s long game — his realization that he has to make a foray into pretend authoritarianism in order to make himself indispensable to Negan. At least, I’m hoping that’s what’s going on here.
Because if the parallel between Dwight and Eugene ultimately turns out to be that they’re both addicted to the taste of what Negan’s given them — pain in Dwight’s case, power in Eugene’s — there won’t be enough pickles in the world to make up for the hour of my life this episode stole.