"Being there isn't better than being dead. It's worse."
Spoiler Warning for Season 7, Episode 11 of “The Walking Dead.”
We’ve got video games, polygamy, a suicide/assassination plot, a goodbye letter, science experiments, a crispy doctor, a stuffed animal and a jar full of pickles. What the hell is going on? The latest episode of “The Walking Dead” is by far one of its strangest, but also one of its best in terms of character development. That isn’t to say that this episode is without problems, but it does serve as a necessary progression of the plot with several unexpected twists. Have we just lost one of our beloved survivors to the dark side?
I’ll be honest, this episode didn’t blow me away like many of the others this season. While many have criticized this series for relying too heavily on its use of “bottle episodes,” (episodes in which a limited number of locations and main characters are featured) I have been one to voice my appreciation for these “spotlights” on characters that aren’t always in the forefront; Morgan’s “Here’s Not Here” and Tara’s “Swear” are proof to me that episodes with a small number of characters can work when they’re done right. This episode, however, leaves me with mixed feelings, although it is full of great moments. Things begin as the story jumps back to the immediate aftermath of “Hearts Still Beating,” as Negan returns to the Sanctuary with Eugene and Dwight panics after realizing that Daryl has escaped from his cell and killed Fat Joey. Dwight also finds the mysterious note that someone slipped to Daryl with a key, allowing him to flee. Savior Laura leads a terrified Eugene through the halls of the Sanctuary to his new room, a cozy and private apartment area with a bed, a television, a stereo with the cringe-worthy “Easy Street” song and a refrigerator filled with beer and food. Laura questions Eugene about Daryl’s disappearance, but he denies any knowledge about it. Laura asks Eugene if he wants something to eat, showcasing the fact that he will be treated completely different than Daryl was; he may not have gotten the lobster that he asked for, but canned pasta is a satisfying substitute, right? Over in his room, Dwight is overpowered when a group of Saviors barge in and beat him up as Negan manically watches on with Lucille in hand. Established loyalties are already beginning to fall apart.
The tables are turned as Dwight is thrown in the cell that Daryl was previously held in. Negan arrives and notifies him that Sherry is missing, something that makes Negan incredibly suspicious considering the close timing to Daryl’s escape. Dwight stands up for Sherry and agrees to go out and search for her. Before leaving, he stops by Dr. Carson’s office to have his wounds treated; there’s a bit of dialogue from Dr. Carson about Sherry’s kindness and humanity, furthering their suspicions that she helped Daryl escape. On the main floor of the Sanctuary, Laura leads Eugene around and explains the point system that the lower-class Saviors live on. She states that the upper-classes, herself and Eugene included, do not have to worry about basic necessities and can take whatever they want. He is given a large jar of pickles, one of his food requests from earlier in the episode; I just have to point out how absolutely hilarious it is to see him carry this jar around, holding and protecting it as if it were a child.
Out in the main yard area of the Sanctuary, Laura leads Eugene to Negan and a group of Saviors. Still carrying his jar of pickles, Eugene introduces himself, using his own name, which prompts the Saviors to state that they are “Negan.” Citing his bullet making skills, Negan asks Eugene if he is a “smarty pants.” This causes Eugene to switch gears and revert back to his old self, speaking the same line of dialogue that he used to convince Rick’s group that he was a scientist; holding multiple PhDs and working for the Human Genome Project were all part of his big lie about being a scientist and holding the cure to the walker virus. Negan is very much impressed after Eugene explains a way to cover the Sanctuary walkers with liquefied metal to prevent them from decaying and therefore making them a bigger threat; this is similar to what the Scavengers did last week with the crazy Winslow walker that Rick was forced to fight. As a token of his appreciation, Negan offers Eugene a night with a few of his wives; no sex, just some microwave popcorn, video games and beer. Quite a difference from how Eugene has been living since the start of the apocalypse.
At night, Tanya (Chloe Atkas), Amber (Autumn Dial) and Frankie (Elyse Nicole DuFour) join Eugene in his room for a fun night of video games. This is purposefully awkward and hilarious as Eugene clearly has issues communicating with others, specifically women. Tanya and Frankie seem to be far more excited to be with Eugene as opposed to Amber, who sits away from the group as she drinks alcohol. She is clearly crumbling under the weight of life under Negan, especially after seeing her boyfriend Mark having his face burned a few episodes ago. Tanya and Frankie ask Eugene about his intellect, leading him to have a science experiment display outside. Using a variety of household supplies, Eugene makes a “bomb” much to the excitement of the wives. These scenes in particular feel extremely out of place and rather unnecessary to the plot, other than to show that Eugene is smart and resourceful, which has always been obvious. This scene does demonstrate a dark fact in relation to the wives; their lives are so depressing and controlled that a middle of the night chemical reaction is basically the highlight of their apocalyptic lives.
The standout part of the episode is Dwight’s emotional journey that serves to further the fact that he is a tragic character. Leaving the Sanctuary on his motorcycle and traveling to the home that he shared with Sherry, likely before the apocalypse, Dwight finds himself transported back to simpler times. He discovers a picture of himself and Sherry, as well as a letter written by her explaining her reasoning for leaving. The heartbreaking note is read to viewers by Christine Evangelista and states that the house was their meeting place if they ever found themselves separated; he would show up with pretzels and beer and everything would be okay. Sherry claims in her letter that she likely will not survive on her own, but that death is better than living under Negan at the Sanctuary. She points out that she freed Daryl because he reminds her of what Dwight used to be. He takes a moment to inspect her wedding ring, which she included with the letter, before leaving behind pretzels and beer; their happy ever after may have been possible if it weren’t for Negan and Dwight’s collapsing humanity. This detour serves to shed some light on the fractured relationship between Sherry and Dwight, while developing their characters and allowing the viewers to feel some sympathy for them. This flips my opinion on Dwight, however, this changes again before the episode is over.
Back at the Sanctuary, Eugene is visited by Frankie and Tanya, who explain that Amber is having a difficult time and wishes to end her life to escape Negan’s rule; he agrees to concoct some pills for her that will allow her to drift off to sleep and not wake up, but warns that this could cause problems if she is allowed to turn. Making his way into the marketplace, Eugene cuts in line and takes cold medicine and random knick knacks from the vendor as he displays his new sense of superiority and confidence. In the infirmary, Dr. Carson checks on Dwight’s wounds while listening to him explain how he killed Sherry. Later, Laura brings Eugene to the floor area where the Saviors have gathered as Dwight heats up the Iron; Negan arrives as everyone bows down. He points to Eugene and orders him to pay attention to what’s about to happen. Negan then hits Dr. Carson with Lucille repeatedly before presenting a farewell note from Sherry and accusing him of releasing Daryl and covering for Sherry. As Negan threatens him with the Iron, a confused and clearly innocent Dr. Carson falsely confesses as the camera focuses on Dwight. This is a shocking turn of events as it seemed as though Dwight was beginning to turn his back on the harsh ways of the Saviors, but by framing Dr. Carson, he is shown to be just as despicable and manipulative as everyone else at the Sanctuary. Dr. Carson seems to have escaped the burning, but in another twist, Negan grabs him and throws him right into the furnace. Doctors are in short supply, so it is incredibly odd that Negan would murder the Sanctuary’s only medical expert. However, he mentions the deceased Dr. Carson’s brother Harlan, who resides at the Hilltop; could he be in for a relocation, wherein Maggie would lose her medical lifeline?
The episode comes to an end as Tanya and Frankie pay Eugene a visit to collect the pills for Amber, however, he refuses to hand them over after deducing that the wives plan on using them on Negan. This is a smart move as an assassination attempt could be easily traced back to Eugene. Later, Negan stops by Eugene’s room and tells him that his fear is no longer necessary before asking the loyalty question, “Who are you?” Before Negan can even finish, Eugene interrupts and states that he is Negan, he always has been Negan. Afterwards, Eugene is shown outside ordering the Sanctuary workers to properly execute his plan of fortifying the fence walkers with metal. Dwight arrives and there is a brief moment where this unlikely pairing seems to be on the same terms; “we are Negan” Eugene states. This is a far different interaction from the previous time that Eugene and Dwight shared the screen; has Dwight put Eugene’s crotch-biting incident behind him? Has Eugene switched his allegiance to the Saviors or is he simply playing the game of survival, much like Carol when she meets new people? It’s a little hard to tell at this point, but Eugene’s intelligence and self-preservation skills lead me to believe that he has placed himself on the great chess board of war.
As I mentioned, this episode left me with mixed feelings, mostly due to the strange pacing and the number of clunky scenes. While I absolutely appreciate the strong character development, part of me feels as though this episode could have been condensed and included in the previous two episodes rather than being a stand-alone story. This is mostly due to the fact that this is essentially our third tour of the Sanctuary, repeating many of the rules that the Saviors live under, specifically the point system; we’ve seen a lot of the inner-workings of the Sanctuary, but very little of how the Hilltop operates. This episode does have several positives, especially in regards to Eugene and Dwight’s changes. Eugene is a character that I have always been incredibly defensive of; he may not be the most physically strong character, but his intellect and resourcefulness make him a valuable asset and Negan’s clearly understands this. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how Eugene adapts to life at the Sanctuary and whether or not her will betray the Alexandria group or if he will relay inside information to them, creating a strategic advantage. Regardless, it is clear that Josh McDermitt is perfect in this role, still managing to blurt out quotable lines such as “I was gifted these pickles.” The growth of Dwight is another highlight, even though I am still hesitant to feel any real connection to his character, mostly due to his general shadiness and lack of care for others. The emotional scenes do serve their purpose of opening up the possibility of him turning over a new leaf and becoming a better person, but his decision to frame Dr. Carson proves that he is still far from that point. In any case, Austin Amelio delivered a powerful performance as this morally gray and conflicted character. Will Sherry return and shake things up for him and Negan or have we seen the last of her? Next week’s episode looks to focus in on the Alexandria team as they search for supplies to fulfill their obligations. Be sure to tune into “The Walking Dead” next Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.