Outside of Judith Grimes (Cailey Fleming), no character has changed as much in The Walking Dead Season 9's time jumps as Dr. Eugene Porter (Josh McDermitt). In "Who Are You Now?," the man we knew for years as the coward with the mullet used knives to put down walkers like he was born doing it, proved willing to sacrifice himself so someone else could live and was honest with Rosita (Christian Serratos) about his feelings for her. None of these are things that the old Eugene would have been capable of doing. He's much more confident now. He's grown as a character, and his highly symbolic hair has grown with him. After Eugene sabotaged the Saviors' bullets and caused their guns to malfunction, handing victory to the coalition led by Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), Eugene wasn't the man who lied about knowing a cure for the plague to get people to protect him anymore. He was a courageous survivor. And so he needed a new look to reflect that. In the shorter time jump that opened the season, he had a ponytail, and when we saw him after the six-year time jump in 906, he was sporting a long, luxurious braid.
Last year, McDermitt -- who is now the longest-tenured male actor on the show after Norman Reedus -- told TV Guide that "the man is the mullet and the mullet is the man," and if a script called for a haircut he would fight against it. He told TV Guide about how new 'do came about.
"Technically we didn't cut the hair, we just let it grow out longer," he said. "So now the man is the pony and the pony is the man." The braid is an extension, so offscreen McDermitt now gets to have a normal haircut instead of "a definite mullet," which he is grateful for. "I still wear a hat all the time, just because I like wearing a hat, I guess, but it feels good to have the option of combing my hair and not have as many people look at me and go 'Uh, does this guy know he has that haircut or should we tell him?'" he said.
Eugene grew his hair out in the comics, too, so the new hairstyle has precedent. "We're always looking for ways to bring elements from the comics into the show, and even though we remix and tell different versions of stories, when it's something easily doable like a braid I think we're all onboard to do that."
One thing in Eugene's story that's changed from the comics is his relationship with Rosita. In the comics, the traveling companions who have known each other since early in the apocalypse get married, and then something really, really bad happens to one of them. Something bad might still happen, but right now on the show Rosita is in a relationship with Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam), and Eugene is jealous. First he tried to insinuate that he was a better choice as a romantic a partner than a one-eyed priest, and then when he thought he was going to die he tried to tell her how he really felt. He had injured his knee while fleeing the herd, and was slowing Rosita down. So he told her he'd cause a distraction to let her get away, but before he died he had something to tell her. "Don't make this weird," she said, refusing to either let him die or tell her his sappy true feelings.
"If you think about it, that's growth in the character, too," McDermitt said. "He's not saying 'protect me, protect me,' he's saying 'Here we go!'"
"I think we'll definitely see more play out in their relationship," he added. "But the task at hand is figuring out what the hell is going on with these walkers, because they're starting to talk."
That trailer included the scene that closed Sunday's episode, where Eugene and Rosita are hiding from a walker horde and hear the walkers say, "Where are they? Don't let them get away." Fans know that these are the Whisperers -- survivors who wear skin suits and live among the dead -- but Eugene is going to think that these are evolved walkers, and he's going to use science to try to figure this confounding problem out. Of course, it's not a problem science can solve. So he'd better make sure his knives are ready to go.
The Walking Dead airs Sundays at 9/8c on AMC.