The gods must have heard my prayer. Tonight's episode of The Walking Dead, “Hostiles and Calamities,” takes a break from the hatchet-faced military strategizing and obligatory slicing and dicing that's lately dominated the show to look at Negan's (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) Sanctuary, that Dantean dystopia with an Orwellian name. The death count isn't quite zero in this episode, but Dr. Carson's (R. Keith Harris) Holocaust-evoking demise feels anything but titillating or gratuitous. And, for the first time I can remember, not a single walker is whacked, though one does lose its bottom half, along with some gooey innards, as part of its slow slide toward total disintegration.
“Hostiles and Calamities” opens with Dwight (Austin Amelio) realizing that the Sanctuary has lost one high-value hostage, Daryl (Norman Reedus), just as another, Eugene (Josh McDermitt), is unloaded from one of Negan's trucks. The episode keeps cutting back and forth between Dwight and Eugene so as to compare the equally disturbing, though very different, ways each man earns his privileged perch in Negan's totalitarian dictatorship, and the ways each one metabolizes his adjustment to that sinister system.
The episode's director, Kari Skogland, keeps Dwight in the foreground and the focus on his face in key scenes like the one where he studies the note urging Daryl to escape, recognizing Sherry's handwriting, or when he heats up the branding iron for Negan, whose torment of Dr. Carson plays out as a backdrop to Dwight's carefully camouflaged reaction. Dwight's seething deadpan and occasional murderous side-eye reveal the ominous tension of living in a surveillance state, where the wrong expression could cost you your freedom—or worse. His iron-ravaged face heightens that tension, reminding audiences of the price he's paid for rebellion while deadening his expression even more. When the harsh light of the hallway hits him as Negan releases him from the cell, that burned flesh looks like raw meat.
David Leslie Johnson's script delineates the sometimes fine line between coercion and compliance, cluing us into important facts like the detail-rich goodbye letter that Sherry left for Dwight while leaving key questions about the motivations and feelings that Negan's followers have to conceal intriguingly unanswered. What was Dwight thinking as his plan to frame the good doctor played out? What he satisfied? Guilty? Afraid Negan would uncover his lie? I suspect all of the above, but there's no way to be sure.
The episode takes a break from the hatchet-faced military strategizing and obligatory slicing and dicing.
Dr. Carson's demise illustrates the dangers of a society where anyone may denounce anyone else at any time, and the punishment for denunciation is trial by Negan. Carson was such a douchebag that it's hard to feel too sorry for him, but nobody deserves that kind of punishment—and he was trying to help Dwight, even if he had no idea what he was talking about. Sherry's goodbye letter proves that Carson's observations about her being a “selfless, tender soul” and therefore “exactly the kind of person who isn't expected to be around any more” were dead wrong. I wonder if he was also wrong to assume that Dwight is a committed Neganite.
Between all the abuse Dwight has suffered at Negan's hands, what we learn in this episode about his spotty memory, which means lost memories of his pre-Negan life might flare up at any moment, and the fact that he's still lying to Negan to protect Sherry, it's easy to imagine Dwight joining the fight against Negan—if he ever gets that chance. Especially since Dwight is Daryl's doppelganger, another quietly competent, leather-tough, long-haired country boy whose fierce loyalty to the people he loves makes him seem honorable and trustworthy. Maybe that's why the camera pans down to Dwight's shadow in a pond when he sets off to look for Sherry, his silhouette evoking all those shots we've seen of Daryl barreling off on his bike on behalf of his group.
Eugene's story is a lot more straightforward than Dwight's but even more unsettling because he adjusts so quickly and easily to Negan's rules. When Negan asks him to repeat that sick variation he loves on the heart-swelling moment in Spartacus where all the slaves say they're Spartacus, Eugene doesn't just say it; he elaborates on it. “I was Negan before I even met you,” he exults. “I just had to meet you properly to know.” He also admits to being a coward, presumably the flaw that makes him attach himself to the closest strongman he can weasel into protecting him. And he tells two of Negan's “wives,” Frankie (Elyse Dufour) and Tanya (Chloe Aktas), that he's not the good man they mistake him for, adding: “I'm not lawful, neutral or chaotic.” In case you were as baffled by that reference as I was, Google informs me it's from Dungeons & Dragons. It's also a warning: Eugene is capable of doing a lot of damage, and he doesn't care who he hurts as long as he keeps himself safe.
That means he's probably going to advance Negan's agenda in terrifying ways, starting with the idea he hatches in this episode: smelting metal to create a troop of armor-clad walkers, who will no doubt get unleashed against the Alexandrians and their allies when they go to war against the Saviors. He could cook up some serious biological damage, too, if he isn't lying about having been part of the human genome project team that was studying ways of weaponizing diseases before the world fell apart. The bomb he makes to impress three of Negan's wives is another bad omen, a sign of chaos to come.
Skogland cannily plays out the bomb scene as a drunken parody of childish fun. She also features two songs—a repetition of the bouncy, jingle-like “Easy Street” that was blasted at Daryl when he was in captivity and They Might Be Giants's “Everything Right Is Wrong Again”—that hit the same note of creepy, unbalanced cheer. They make a great soundtrack for a world whose narcissistic leader insists that everything will be just swell, as long as everyone does exactly and only what he says they must do.
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