The Walking Dead faced a tough time following the addition of Negan, an injection of unpredictability that should have been a certified ratings-puller. Instead, the opening half of season seven saw the series suffer its first ratings decline in years, many failing to buy into Jeffrey Dean Morgan's melodramatic portrayal of the often-sickeningly violent yet no less beloved comic book character.
Since returning from its midseason break, the series has seen a distinct rise in popularity with many praising showrunner Scott Gimple's decision to go off the beaten track set out by the source material. This week, however, proves the real test - Negan has returned for an episode solely dedicated to The Saviours and their new prisoner, Eugene (Josh McDermitt). Fortunately, it's one of the most pivotal episodes of the season thus far.
Sure, many might slap their palms to their heads upon realising that - for one episode, at least - The Walking Dead is returning to its 'bottle episode' formula. But it's all for good reason: 'Hostiles and Calamities' occurs concurrently with the past two, showing viewers what Negan's faction have been up to while Rick's been busy building an army. There is no Alexandria, no Kingdom and, thankfully, no Hilltop. There's no mention of last week's mystery new group led by Jadis (Pollyanna McIntosh) either. No, this week saw The Walking Dead thrust a character rarely given major screentime into the spotlight - Eugene Porter.
It's to the writers' credit - not to mention McDermitt - that, by episode's end he has coalesced into one of the series' most interesting characters aided by a pretty major revelation that may leave viewers staring at the screen in subdued disdain: Eugene becomes a Saviour.
This development may not come as a huge surprise when considering Eugene is a character built on cowardice, yet when he submits to Negan - without much coaxing - it stings. The warning signs are there: at one point, Negan's wives brand him a coward afetr refusing to aid in their plot to murder their husband. "That is a correct assessment," he replies, without even flinching. Eugene is a fickle creature of habitat - he's done trying to appease others and, in a world without his trusty compadre Abraham (Michael Cudlitz), nothing or nobody can prevent him from taking the easy route - even if that does mean falling in line under the very man who took that friend away.
The polar opposite is happening to Negan's once-loyal aide Dwight (Austin Amelio), a character so destined for brutal death his screen time hurts. While the character's disillusionment with Negan is a less staggering turnaround than the Eugene twist, it's quite astounding to discover how much your heart bleeds for Dwight, a character who nobody could have expected to enjoy watching this time last season. This episode savvily permits viewers to spend time with The Saviours, fleshing them out in a way we've not yet seen. Take, for example, Lindsley Register's tattooed Laura who guides Eugene - well, "Haircut" to her - around the compound in the opening. She's handed more humanity than any other faceless Saviour - if only so you can be invested in both sides when the all-out war rolls around.
The most shocking Walking Dead moments
The most shocking Walking Dead moments
1/10 Sophie's a walker (season 2, episode 7)
Much of season two's opening half is spent looking for Sophia, the missing daughter of Carol (Melissa McBride). Turns out she was locked up in Hershel's barn as a zombie all along.
2/10 Shane reanimates without being bitten (season 2, episode 12)
When Carl (Chandler Riggs) guns down a deranged Shane (Jon Bernthal) to protect his father, the shock arrives when he manifests into a walker despite not being bitten; turns out everyone's infected with the virus and will turn whichever way they die.
3/10 Axel's bullet to the eye (season 3, episode 10)
A character introduced in the show's prison arc, Axel is a reformed prisoner who strikes up a friendship with Carol - until he's gunned down mid-sentence.
4/10 Carl kills Lori after she gives birth (season 3, episode 4)
Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) goes into labour at the very moment a zombie siege breaks out at the prison. Unfortunately, she doesn't make it through the procedure with her son Carl being the one to put a bullet to her head.
5/10 The Governor slays Hershel (season 4, episode 8)
The Governor makes his dramatic return for a showdown at the prison after he captures Michonne (Danai Gurira) and Hershel (Scott Wilson). Rick reaches out, attempting to reason with him - but The Governor starts a war when he proceeds to decapitate poor old Hershel instead.
6/10 "Look at the flowers" (season 4, episode 14)
In a standout episode from the show's fourth season, Carol is forced to take drastic measures when young teenager Lizzie murders her sister Mika in the belief that she'll live on as a zombie. Realising Lizzie's depraved mind would endanger those around her, Carol puts a gun to the young girl's head and, telling her to "look at the flowers," pulls the trigger, fighting back the tears.
7/10 Carl's bullet to the eye (season 6, episode 9)
Season six returned from its mid-season break in typically dramatic fashion when an iconic moment from the graphic novels came to life: Carl takes a bullet to the eye.
8/10 Beth is killed (season 5, episode 8)
Upon being kidnapped, Beth (Emily Kinney) is taken to Grady Memorial Hospital managed by Atlanta Law Enforcement. Forced to reside there against her will, the group - including Rick and Daryl (Norman Reedus) - eventually find her - only for her to be accidentally shot in the head by her captor. The worst thing? Her sister Maggie (Lauren Cohan) had just arrived outside.
9/10 Negan kills Abraham
Season seven opened in brutal form as we discovered it was Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) at the opposite end of Negan's baseball bat. "Suck my nuts," the soldier growls as the Saviours' leader brings Lucille raining down on his head until nothing remains but a pulpy mess.
10/10 Negan kills Glenn
Negan decides to punish the group once more after getting clocked round the face by Daryl. Without expectation, he thwacks Lucille round the head of poor Glenn. With his eyeball popping out of his head, he manages: "I'll find you, Maggie before Negan proceeds to finish the job ending the former pizza delivery boy's life.
The final scene between Negan and Eugene could be the greatest of the season so far. "You don't have to be scared anymore," Negan tells the quivering mess stood in front of him - somebody who has been waiting to hear those words ever since the apocalypse began. “I am Negan," Eugene says instantaneously when the baseball bat-wielding maniac asks him to join them. "I have always been Negan." Could the scholar be tricking The Savours' leader? It seems unlikely. Whichever way the bat swings, it's a showstopping transformation - and refreshing to see The Walking Dead can still shock without mercilessly bashing anybody's head in.
The Walking Dead airs in the UK tonight (27 February) at 9pm on FOX