Nobody likes a cowardly man. When faced with danger, or heck, a man is supposed to stoically stare it down, jaw set, accepting his fate with a grim determination. But what if you’re just not that kind of guy? As much as we’d like to believe we’d have the resolve of a Rick or a Carol or a Morgan, the truth is most of us would be more like Eugene, who demonstrates true survival skills in Hostiles and Calamities. His transformation from trembling abductee to enthusiastic collaborator was inevitable and some of the best character work The Walking Dead has done in a long time.
Eugene has never made any bones about the fact that he’s a coward, but despite that, he’s consistently done his best to contribute to the group. He figured out how to make bullets. He drove the RV as a decoy when Maggie was sick. He tried to learn how to fight with a machete - which was a bit of a disaster, true, but he tried. He’s been honest about his limitations and still tried to push past them, but he’s never garnered much respect. Rosita does have reason to bear him a grudge, and she’s not exactly Miss Congeniality on the best of days, but she’s flat-out mean to Eugene. Is it really so very surprising that when he’s confronted by people praising him for his cleverness, he decides he’d rather hang with them?
After being ushered into the Savior camp, Eugene is hooked up with his own comfortable room, furnished with books, an Atari 2600, and a fridge full of goodies. He mentions he likes pickles and is given an entire jar of them on the spot. He shows off a few basic science tricks, comes up with a very clever way to enhance the Savior camp’s defenses, and suddenly everybody respects him. Nobody is making fun of him, or ignoring him, or telling him he’s useless. Quite the contrary - suddenly he’s a big man on campus, and when he takes that bedpan and stuffed animal, you can see the realization come over him that for the first time in who knows how long, he has power.
When Negan comes calling later, Eugene is more than ready to take the “We are Negan” pledge because he’s finally in a place where things make sense to him. He’s not a cruel man at all, but he’s a very smart coward; he knows how to read a room and adapt accordingly. He’s figured out how Negan thinks, and he can work with it. But most importantly, the most terrifying man in the new world tells him “You don’t have to be afraid anymore.” You can see everything clicking into place in Eugene’s head as those words sink in. Pickles and games of Yars Revenge are great, but not waking up scared every morning was the best possible thing anyone could ever offer Eugene, and Negan is serving it up with a side of appreciation. Small wonder Eugene flips.
Quick shout out to the scene where Negan’s talking to Dwight through the cell door, because the lighting is exceptional. It’s a pretty standard scene in most respects; Negan’s trying to figure out who helped Daryl escape, and given that Sherry has fled, it seems reasonable that it was her. As far as we know at that moment, the dynamic on display isn’t anything we haven’t seen between Negan and Dwight before. Regardless of how well Dwight’s served the Saviors, Negan can still snuff him out at any moment, and they both know it. But the way Dwight is lit as he sits in that cell shows us there’s something more going on. The play of light and shadow on his face hints that maybe he’s more than just a cowering toady after all, and idea that’s borne out through the rest of the episode.
The Walking Dead has been starkly ‘good versus evil’ recently, to its detriment, but Hostiles and Calamities provides a well-crafted look into how people become what they are. Dwight’s the guy who abused Daryl, and we hate him because he’s a bad guy picking on our good guy. But in the aftermath of Daryl’s escape, we learn a bit more about Dwight as a person, not just as an emotion. He was a decent guy, once upon a time, and still is, really. His journey to recover his wife, who helped Daryl escape, is painful, sweet, and his final farewell to the man he used to be. Setting up the doctor was a pretty damn smart way to sell the story that he killed his wife when he found her, too. There’s more than one way to be a survivor in this awful dead world, it seems.