We get one, maybe two episodes per season of this show that involve real character development. Go figure that the first episode I’ve missed in years would be one of them.
It’s always a crapshoot when TWD gives a minor character a close-up. Sometimes it’s horrific, like when we spent an inexplicable hour last fall following Tara (who?) as she stumbled into the Oceanside community. Even if you find that detour defensible as a necessary set-up for Oceanside eventually joining Rick’s resistance movement, there was no reason to make Tara the protagonist. She’s too thin of a character to shoulder that load. Hand an hour to a minor character who’s been fleshed out a bit more, though, and the results can be engrossing (partly for the respite it provides from Rick’s endless nonsense). One shining example was Morgan’s journey from killer with a death wish to man of peace learning Aikido; he gets an asterisk since it was clear for awhile that he was destined to become a major character, but the point remains that TWD’s digressions from the main plot have produced some of the show’s most memorable drama.
Same goes for Sunday’s episode, I’d say. An hour devoted to Dwight and, um, Eugene sounds impossibly trivial but they turned it into a neat little study of how the desire for respect can motivate desperate people in different ways. Eugene, we learn, is ready to break bad (or so it seems) because Negan respects his intelligence in a way that Rick’s gang never seemed to. For the Grimes crew, Eugene was dead weight; for the Saviors, he’s on track to become their weapons mastermind. And the petty ways in which he exploits his new privilege are a terrific insight into how easily the bullied become bullies. When he mouths off to the woman rationing supplies about his importance to Negan and starts grabbing things from her — cold capsules, a bedpan, even a stuffed animal — it plays as comedy but it really isn’t. The point isn’t that he’s seizing silly things, it’s that he’s getting his first taste of power and behaving irresponsibly with it, an omen of things to come, perhaps. It’s a nice bit of writing. And the final scene, where the newly empowered Eugene abases himself utterly to his master, is a solid commentary on how self-respect operates in an authoritarian culture like the Saviors’. The line between ruthlessness and obsequiousness is an inch thin and purely situational. I hope the show continues to build out Eugene as a villain seduced by the cult of Negan, as it’d be fascinating to watch his dark side develop as it’s fed by power. But, this show being this show, he’s probably been dubbed a “good guy” indelibly by the writers and will end up sabotaging Negan with one of those poison pills he created. Admittedly, it’d be fun to see Negan die by the hand of the show’s least intimidating character instead of Rick’s. There’d be something poetic in that.
As Eugene’s self-respect is building, Dwight’s is eroding. The letter from Sherri lamenting that he’s no longer the type of man Daryl is feels like a turning point for his character. His life with the Saviors is premised on the belief that survival without respect is better than death: In the name of protecting himself, he was willing to become Negan’s toady and, worse, to let his wife become Negan’s sex slave. The fact that Sherri stayed put at the colony and went along with the scheme seems to have operated as validation for Dwight in the choice he’d made. Once she freed Daryl and ran away herself, though, the illusion was shattered. His wife wouldn’t put up with the subjugation he tolerates; in the end, she’s more of a man than he is. (So are Negan’s “wives,” who are ready to conspire with Eugene to poison him knowing the consequences if they’re found out.) His willingness to frame the doctor for Sherri’s escape feels like the final confirmation of his timidity. He could have taken responsibility for her absconding in a final act of defiance to Negan, knowing that it would cost him his life, but he’d rather let an innocent take the fall. Still, you can see a flicker of rebellion in Dwight in the closing scene as he and Eugene meet overlooking the yard. It’s Eugene who hastily offers “We are Negan” and Dwight who pauses before agreeing. They’re both cowards and they know it, they’re both uncomfortable with Negan’s dominance, and they’ve both recently rediscovered the value of respect — but for the moment they seem to be headed in opposite directions. Dwight won’t regain his self-respect until he challenges Negan while Eugene is gaining self-respect by submitting to him. Together, they account for the entire emotional life cycle of a henchman.
One last note: It was brilliant, I think, to set up Negan’s “wives” as the counterpoint to Eugene’s relationship with Negan. There’s a symmetry between him and Dwight there too. Dwight wants to be as respected by Sherri as Daryl is, but he can’t muster the courage that either of them have displayed. Eugene wants to be as respected by everyone as Negan is, but he can’t muster the courage shown by the wives in plotting to take Negan out. In each case, the character is left wanting to emulate a powerful man but behaves more like how we’d expect an abused woman to — highlighted by the fact that the actual abused women on the show display more bravery in defying Negan than either. The fact that they’re left alone together in that final scene, gazing out over a pitiful kingdom of chained-up zombies and human slaves, was perfect.