One of the questions The Walking Dead has interrogated from the very beginning is whether the end of the world and the ensuing social breakdown changes people, or whether it just reveals who they truly are. The show has often played around with the idea that the end of civilization and the lack of rules and order that otherwise keep people in line can forces those caught up in the unrest to become different in order to survive. But it also suggests that for others, the fall of society just gives them license to be who they were the whole time.
The centrality of that question in “Hostiles and Calamities” fuels the episode, a slower character piece, but also uses it to pay subtle tribute The Walking Dead’s network-mate. Breaking Bad. Fans of Vince Gilligan’s seminal drama know the significance of a character hanging onto a cigarette with a loved one’s lipstick still on it. We’re familiar with the notion of a former science teacher enjoying the spoils of war, formulating poisons, puffing himself up, and taking to his new role a little too easily. Most of all, Breaking Bad-watchers can appreciate the exploration of whether changed circumstances may change a person or if they simply let the beast out of the cage.
But despite those similarities, Eugene is not Walter White, and Dwight is not Jesse Pinkman. The key epiphany for Eugene in “Hostiles and Calamities” is that he is a follower, a coward, someone who understands what he has to do to stay safe, and will accept the path of least resistance in that effort no matter who will be misled, hurt, or even killed in the process. If there were only a handful of qualities that defined Walter White, they were his need for control, his demand for recognition, and his blithe self-denial about his own motivations. By contrast, Eugene knows exactly who he is and the reasons, however shameful, that he does what he does — namely kowtow to whoever has the courage and boldness to lead him.
So when Eugene finds himself enmeshed in Negan’s machine, he is both afraid and in awe. The episode plays off the expectations that he will be broken the same way that Daryl was, starved and isolated into compliance. But The Saviors are smarter than that, and quickly see that someone as weak-willed as Eugene is more likely to be persuaded by carrot than by stick. Eugene exults when he sees a refrigerator of food just for him. He is taken aback by the living space he realizes is meant to be his own. When he hears “Easy Street,” it’s not the signal of his torturers arriving, but a symbol of the creature comforts he will get to enjoy for the first time since the world fell.
And, like Walt, he changes. Initially Eugene is tentative and makes efforts to be moral. He is reluctant to take anything made by Negan’s workers. When Negan himself rewards Eugene for a walker-smelting plan with a visit from a few of his “wives,” Eugene treats them with respect, resisting their attempts at physical interaction because he knows they’re not there of their own volition. While Eugene’s motives may be a bit mixed, he’s only willing to make a poison pill for humanitarian purposes.
However, Eugene settles into his new surroundings and begins to adopt the attitude they cultivate. Rather than waiting in line for the tools he needs, Eugene switches on that Savior entitlement, dressing down the presiding bookkeeper and simply taking that which he desires (including a stuffed animal that, true to form, he gives a silly name). He begins to enjoy those creature comforts, indulge the attentions of those “wives,” and give in to the privileged position in which he’s been placed. Despite this, Eugene is still familiar to the audience, but he seems different than the person we’ve gotten to know over the last few years.
Dwight is the inverse of Eugene in “Hostiles and Calamities.” While Eugene has been a kind-hearted, if misguided individual, who’s slowly being tempted by what The Saviors have to offer, Dwight was introduced as a bad guy, one who seemed to buy into the cruelty of his position, but who’s quietly beginning to indulge the notion that he wasn’t always that way, with doubts and reservations bubbling to the surface.
Maybe that lipstick-ringed cigarette is a hint that there is some of Jesse Pinkman in Dwight. Perhaps Dwight had and has a moral compass, albeit a now stunted one, that gives him pause about the deaths that have left blood on his hands. He too may be under the thumb of a tyrant, one who manipulates him, uses the woman he loves against him, and makes him a party to things he wants no part of but which create stains on his soul that aren’t so easy to brush off.
The thrust of his storyline suggests that Dwight started out as someone else, and he’s slowly but surely remembering that. The chief reminder is his wife, Sherry, who we learn freed Daryl in the mid-season finale. It’s an obvious device, and a bit overly sentimental, but her letter to Dwight, read in voiceover, underscores that this life is something he didn’t want originally, that it was a last resort which he and Sherry paid dearly for. The glimpse we had of Dwight in his first interactions with Daryl doesn’t paint a pretty picture, but there’s the notion that under different circumstances, Dwight might have been a decent person, and with Sherry’s memory burning within him, he might be one again.
But Daryl also awakened something in him. When Dwight goes out in search of Sherry, he’s wearing Daryl’s vest, carrying Daryl’s crossbow, and riding a motorcycle in Daryl-esque fashion. As the shot where Dwight’s reflected in a pool of Fat Joey’s blood suggests, he is a dark mirror of Daryl here. Dwight may have once been a burnout going nowhere like Daryl used to be, only with the misfortune of ending up attached to someone more like Merle than like Rick.
Daryl represents something for Dwight — the idea that it doesn’t have to be this way. So much of Negan’s philosophy, his method of bending people to his will, is convincing them that there are only two choices: you either submit or you die. That’s the lesson of the (frankly kind of ridiculous) moment where he throws the doctor into the furnace. But Dwight pinned the escape on the doctor, ostensibly not just to cast suspicion away from himself, but because of the doctor’s embrace of that philosophy, of his statement that Sherry was too “tender-hearted” to last. Dwight is beginning to have doubts about who he is, about who he’s become, in the embrace of The Saviors, and once more, he seems on the precipice of resisting and standing up, the way Daryl did.
Eugene, however, has the opposite reaction to these events. Witnessing the doctor being so brutally (if ridiculously) disposed of is not a moment of pause for him to contemplate what he’s become and what he’s a part of. It’s a confirmation of his fears of that result, that he, unlike Daryl, can be cowed. He sniffs out the assassination plot of the “wives” who told him those poison pills were for assisted suicide and shuts them down, acknowledging that he is too afraid, too comfortable, too fated to this life to do anything but accept this destiny and the rule of the man who dictates it. Despite Eugene’s florid and boastful proclamations last season that he was self-sufficient, he has always been someone incapable of looking after himself. He has always lied and done what was necessary to attach himself to those who would protect him, whether it’s Abraham, Rick, or Negan.
To the point, while Dwight seems to be in a state of uncertainty, Eugene is clear-eyed. Eugene tells his captor, without real prompting or pressure, that he is “Negan,” that he was “Negan” before he even met the acid-tongued head of this operation, and deep down he always knew it.
Eugene has no illusions when he puts on that black jacket, surveys his plans in action, and bites down on the gherkin that represents his acceptance of The Saviors’ “take what you want” ethos. Dwight is in limbo, just as Jesse once was, unsure whether he can go on after all he’s done or if it requires something more from him to restore balance and make things right. But Eugene, like Walt, is discovering that his new circumstances have not forced him to become someone else, but instead exposed him for what he truly is, no matter how unpleasant, self-serving, and lacking in moral will that exposed individual may be. Eugene is a weak man, but he knows he’s a weak man, and his acceptance of what he is and what he’s a part of is as portentous and foreboding as Dwight’s growing reluctance to reaffirm the same.