“Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” —Winston Churchill
The season-long civics lesson continues on The Walking Dead, and the state of the union at the Sanctuary is not good. Things look fine—the perimeter is intact, the economy is chugging along and the pickles are delicious—but the blindspots inherent to authoritarianism are becoming more visible to those who know where to look.
Earlier this season, Negan recognized the threat posed by Rick & Co. in Alexandria and took away most of their arsenal. In the midseason finale, after Rosita’s attempted assassination of Negan, crafty Eugene admitted that he had forged the bullets. This week’s “Hostiles and Calamities” picks up from there, with Negan taking the petrified (to be honest, the always petrified) Eugene back to the Sanctuary.
But instead of getting tortured and murdered as he fears, Eugene (Josh McDermitt) is put up in a nice apartment with an Atari 2600, clean clothes and a stocked refrigerator. “Welcome home, haircut,” the mulleted man’s handler tells him. Eugene has value to Negan because he convinces Negan that he knows how to do things, and the episode marks his transition from cowardly lion to guy who knows his value and the security it brings him.
More important, the Eugene arc serves as an outsider’s-eye view of the Sanctuary’s veiled vulnerabilities:
When we see him with the same handler touring a busy retail village—hair salon, bakery, etc.—Eugene sees a man steal something off one of the tables and hide it in his jacket. “You want something, you take it, haircut,” the handler says, giving him a gigantic jar of pickles. She explains that there’s a point system blah-blah-blah, but the whiff of corruption is unmistakable.
In his first scene with Negan, Eugene returns to the lie he had once told Rick & Co. and adds some new bells and whistles: “I have Ph.D.s in biochemistry as well as immunology and microbiology, and I have completed my doctorate, which makes me a doctor. Prior to the collapse, I was part of a 10-person team at the Human Genome Project working under Dr. T. Brooks Ellis to weaponize diseases to fight weaponized diseases.” None of that is true. Negan is a dictator who only wants to hear good news, and Eugene is giving him some. Dwight does the same later in the episode by framing the doctor as an accomplice in Daryl’s escape from the Sanctuary to throw Negan off his own scent. Negan is trapped in a bubble of bad information that will no doubt lead to bad decision-making in future episodes.
During the time he spends with Negan’s “wives”—a gift for good behavior—it’s obvious that one of them hates Negan. (Less obvious: The others hate him too.) When they enlist Eugene to develop a poison to help the aggrieved wife end her own life, he correctly intuits that they are scheming instead to use the poison pills to kill Negan. The people closest to Negan are completely transactional. They’re taking full advantage of his favor, but they’re ready to kill him as soon as that makes more sense than not killing him.
In his last encounter with Negan near the end of the episode, Eugene discovers how easy it is to ingratiate himself. “You don’t need to be scared,” Negan says to a visibly shaking Eugene, the show’s cowardly lion. “You just have to answer me one question, and it’s a big one. Who are—” And Eugene interrupts; he knows the answer. “I’m Negan,” he says, repeating what he’s heard other followers say throughout the episode. “I am utterly, completely, stone-cold Negan.” Eugene made the pragmatist’s choice, but loyalty that’s based on self-preservation is necessarily fleeting. It will last only as long as it benefits Eugene.
From everything The Walking Dead has shown of the Sanctuary, Negan rules by fear alone. There are no true believers. The Sanctuary provides security from the dead, and Negan provides creature comforts—pickles and kettle chips—but we have yet to see a Sanctuarian whose loyalty comes from a sense of common cause or moral calling. Negan’s “wives” want to kill him, Dwight wants to kill him, Eugene has the means to kill him and Rick is building an army to kill him.
In “Hostiles and Calamities,” we see an authoritarian regime rotting from the inside. We see loyalty based on fear alone. We see corruption. We see Negan getting bad intel. Regardless of whether Eugene is pulling a con or has flipped to the dark side, the view he gives us of the Sanctuary shows Negan in a lot more peril than we knew this time a week ago.