Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review The Walking Dead each week in a series of letters.
I come to you with mixed feelings. Once again, I’m delighted to have spent time with Dwight, who continues to be one of the show’s most compelling character. Austin Amelio is a better actor than this show (and possibly even this character?) deserves, and he brings a level of depth and pain that I sorely needed while surrounded with a cast of survivors that have slowly but surely transformed into caricatures over the course of the show. Amelio, as Dwight, resists that in every scene, and instead gives us a story of a guy who is actually torn, halfway into a transformation that could turn his heart cold, but with one foot back in a more hopeful world for which there is scant evidence. It feels real, it feels familiar, and while watching it, I feel like it matters.
The story of Dwight and his wife is not incredibly complex, and its power speaks to a lesson that the TWD writers either don’t know or have forgotten, which is that capturing real emotion doesn’t require elaborate plots or shocking twists or reinventing the narrative wheel. They got caught in a tough place, they chose survival, and everything that’s happened to them since starts from that formative incident. And even though she’s absent except as a presence in this episode, they both come to the interesting realization that no, living as slaves is not better than dying, and they made a big mistake by giving into Negan originally.
Of course, it doesn’t quite make sense why Sherry let Daryl go and fled without telling Dwight—she had to know he could get killed because of it, right?—but that’s the kind of quibble that I’ve gotten used to. It’s more important to me that we’re watching their thread unfold into disaster, as a lesson that compromise isn’t always the best course of action, and, in fact, you can compromise too much. Sherry is broken, and she’s making a desperate play for some kind of last-minute independence, even though she knows it might kill her. Dwight is broken too, but he has almost settled into his brokenness, which Sherry blames on herself. He’s not completely gone, though, and you get the sense that Sherry’s departure may fulfill a second purpose—the spark that brings Dwight back. I get the feeling he’s going to have a huge role to play in the fight that comes.
Now, sadly, I move on to Negan. I know you don’t feel as extremely as I do about this, Josh, but to me the character is just a theatrical embarrassment. The word I keep coming back to is “goofy.” These dumb, stilted monologues, the annoying way he’s constantly leaning back to emphasize his point, and the cartoonish way he tries to “menace” friends or enemies, wears so thin, so fast. Every time the guy comes on screen, I react like one of his wives: Just sigh and wait for it to be over. There’s no part of him that’s realistic, and therefore he’s not believable as a real villain. By constantly trying to give us that chill of “oh my, this guy’s evil!, the writers have plunged into an abyss of cliche and caricature, and neither they nor Negan is ever coming back. There have been some good characters on this show, and there have been some bad ones, but I can’t recall a failure quite like Negan.
The third member of this show’s focal trinity is Eugene, and at the risk of sounding like an inveterate hater, I’m sick of him too. I never understood the point of Eugene—he’s like a dumb person’s idea of a smart person. Vaguely clever with his dialogue, but at heart also a total coward. Last night, we were supposed to see him become empowered, but even at the climax, when he found his self-confidence in front of the poor woman running the commissary, it felt forced and shallow. I guess I just don’t like Eugene, so the question of whether he’s been seduced by Negan appreciating his genius or whether he’s going to be a deep-cover mole who eventually gets revenge for Abraham doesn’t matter to me. This character has no depth, and no soul.
Meanwhile, the plot meanders on. For someone that’s supposed to be so smart, Negan gets hoodwinked into killing the doctor pretty easily, which, as usual, makes very little sense from a plot standpoint. Why did Dwight set him up, and why did Negan so blindly accept that his lieutenant hunted down and killed his wife? I’m sure there’s some half-cocked explanation, but it won’t be convincing or satisfying.
I’ll send it your way, Josh—how did you feel?
I’m with you on Dwight. I thought Sherry’s letter was one of the best pieces of writing we’ve seen from the show—the way she blamed herself for corrupting Dwight and the way that she didn’t trust the man he’d become with her life. That’s why she didn’t tell him about releasing Daryl or wait for him at the house. The fact that she could have—symbolized by the pretzels and the beer—made it all the more heartbreaking. Dwight, realizing that she’s right, that he’s become a person she could no longer love, resigns himself to a life being Negan, but he hates the doctor as much as he hates himself—the doctor’s cold truths hit too close to the mark. There’s a depth to this storyline that’s been lacking since Tyreese struggled with his humanity (a theme which has been beaten to death at this point with Morgan and Carol now) or The Governor’s flirtation with redemption. And I’m looking forward to see where it goes from here.
That said, unlike you, I really liked Eugene’s arc this episode. He’s always been more comic relief that dramatic lead, but he never felt more real to me than in New Best Friend. We knew he was a coward, and Josh McDermitt plays it up well in every scene where Negan and his bat appear. But just because someone is part of Rick’s gang doesn’t make him a hero, anymore than being captured and coerced into joining the Saviors makes someone an irredeemable villain. We haven’t really seen anyone turn traitor in this world, and Eugene, who has a history of lying and using others to survive is a perfect candidate. But he’s also shown moments of uncharacteristic bravery, including admitting to Negan that he was the one who made the bullet. So maybe he’s just playing the part for now. Or he may just decide in the moment where his loyalties lie. But the intrigue doesn’t feel forced, which is refreshing.
So I thought this was a much better episode than I would have guessed from one that takes place completely in the Sanctuary. This place is starting to feel lived in and real, and Eugene’s suggestion for pouring molten iron over the walker sentinels was a cool touch on a night where there wasn’t much action.
So we’ll have to split the difference in our rating. But tell me, after this failed assassination plot, who do you think will finally be the end of Negan (if it’s not the obvious choice of Rick)?
You’re absolutely right that the sanctuary has never felt more real. I always enjoy when villains get humanized, at least a little, and we’ve seen TWD do that before—the best example, of course, being the Governor’s solo episode. It’s unfortunate that Negan is at the top of the food chain here, but the world-building was solid this week, and it’s nice to see the enemies as something other than evil caricatures, or future dead people.
Negan’s death…now that’s a great question. You have to think we’re going to get it this season, right? I can’t imagine the outrage if they make the mistake of cliff-hanging us again…forget the zombie apocalypse, that would be the nerd apocalypse, and I’d help lead the charge. So who gets the big kill? As you said, Rick would be the obvious choice, and I don’t think it’s going to happen that way. You could make a great argument for Maggie, with the Glenn revenge storyline, and certainly Carl has a lot of motivation after that weird eye-reveal humiliation scene. Even Dwight would make sense—why are we spending so much time with him unless he’s going to make a big move at the end, possibly after his wife dies? But I’m going a different way:
They’re leading us here by our noses, and I think it’s going to become more obvious as the season goes along. Right now, we’re meant to think that he’s on the path to going full Negan, as he claimed at the very end last night. Negan recognizes his gifts, gives him whatever he wants, and also scares the shit out of him once in a while for good measure. Furthermore, he had a chance to assassinate him by proxy through the wives, and he didn’t take it! The implication is clear—Eugene’s a traitor.
Except, he’s not going to be. He’s going to earn Negan’s trust, and when things go wrong in the final battle and the baddest man at the Sanctuary is on the run, he’s going to turn to Eugene for some kind of special help. Except, uh-oh, Eugene’s been playing possum this whole time, and really what he wants is to bury the man that bashed his boy Abraham’s head into oblivion. He’ll have some quippy line, and then he’ll kill. And that’s how Negan will go.
Or else, Maggie will give birth at the start of the final episode, and 55 minutes later, the baby will be capable of fighting and will take revenge on the man who killed his or her father. That would be cool too.
Okay, your turn: Who’s going to strike the mortal blow? And since we’re pretty far away from Glenn and Abraham dying, I think it’s time for another power ranking of who we’re most likely to lose of the remaining characters from Team Rick. Your contestants are: Rick, Michonne, Tara, Carl, Aaron, Maggie, Rosita, Morgan, Sasha, Daryl, Eugene, and Father Gabriel.
Let me go on record to say that there’s no way Negan gets killed this season. The battle is just getting started, Shane, so the sooner you end this blood feud with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, the better off you’ll be.
Someone will eventually put an end to his monologuing, though, and while my money is on Rick, I’m hoping for either Maggie or Michonne to do the honors.
And I do think we’re going to lose someone big before the season is over. My money is on Eugene, and now is good time to bring back up the T-Dog Effect, which states that an oft-ignored minor character who gets sudden character development better watch his or her back. I don’t think Eugene kills Negan directly, but I think he eventually sacrifices himself to that cause.
Until then, please don’t die, Daryl Dixon
Shane Ryan is a staff writer at Paste and author of Slaying the Tiger: A Year Inside the Ropes on the New PGA Tour. Josh Jackson is founder and editor-in-chief of Paste.