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The Walking Dead Villain Watch season 8, episode 1: Mercy

The Walking Dead Villain Watch season 8, episode 1: Mercy


In desperate search of a character to love, hate, and fear — all at the same time

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Photo by Gene Page / AMC

The Walking Dead is back, kicking off its eighth season with a bloodier, more political story arc that will likely track the comic’s “All Out War” saga. For us here at The Vergeforever critics of big bad guy Negan and his man-baby antics — it’s an opportunity to examine just how effective the show is at creating a complex villain. As played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Negan has always been violent, but otherwise, he’s stubbornly remained a comic book thug, never entirely becoming the nuanced character the show so sorely needs.

Each week, I’ll be analyzing the show through its presentation of Negan: how he acts, how he delivers his bad jokes and menacing threats, and most importantly, how his character develops in contrast with our supposedly virtuous heroes. We’ll look at all the traits a villain is supposed to exemplify and excel at, including those we detest, and boil it down into one single score on what we are calling the Negan-o-meter™. A score of 10 means he’s the best, most complex villain we’ve ever seen; a score of 0 means he’s pretty much the same ol’ Negan he’s always been.

We’ve had it bashed into our skulls that Negan symbolizes the dysfunction and depravity of the post-apocalypse, while Rick embodies humanity’s hope. But while we’ve glimpsed the many faces of our main character, Negan has thus far remained hopelessly shallow. Let’s see whether The Walking Dead can turn him around.

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Warning: There will be spoilers.

In last year’s season 7 premiere, The Walking Dead delivered perhaps its most jarring and controversial episode, “The Day Will Come When You Won’t Be.” Showrunner Scott Gimple had to deliver on the cheap, and still unforgivable, cliffhanger ending of season 6, in which viewers were told to wait half a year to find out who Negan would kill. We know how that ended: the show closely followed the comics, as it does with most of its weighty choices, by killing off Glenn in brutal fashion, alongside the more inconsequential murder of Abraham.

It was a tough pill to swallow. The violence was over the top, the delivery was awful, and Negan’s ham-fisted introduction sent the entire show into a narrative and ratings tailspin it’s never recovered from. (It also made my colleague Bryan Bishop quit the show. For a while, at least.) So here we are, one year later, with “Mercy,” the season 8 premiere and the beginning of what we’re told is a brutal war for the future of this small slice of post-apocalyptic Virginia.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

Preparing for war

Much of “Mercy” revolves around carefully arranged shots showing Rick, Maggie, and Ezekiel helping their respective groups arm up to “end it once and for all.” Meanwhile, Carol, Daryl, and Tara prepare to entrap and herd a zombie horde. It’s a bit confusing at first, because The Walking Dead doesn’t make it clear whether any time has passed since last season, or whether tensions with the Saviors have actually diminished. Eventually, after a telling scene where Dwight feeds Daryl intel via messages tied to crossbow bolts, the context is set: events are happening not long after the season 7 finale, but the state of the world hasn’t really changed.

It eventually leads to an assault on Negan and the Saviors, but the time issues make the 30-minute buildup feel a bit disjointed. Even weirder is a jingoistic speech from Rick, claiming everything around them is “theirs, by right.” Why that’s somehow better than Negan’s pitch, which boils down to “because I’m the strongest,” isn’t clear. But conversations between Rick, Maggie, and Gabriel convey that Rick leads not by force or authority, but through collaboration focused on a common goal.

The relationship between the Saviors and the rest of the communities clearly hit its breaking point at the end of last season, yet it still feels uncharacteristic for The Walking Dead to immediately jump into a sequence that plays like the conclusion of a story arc when the season is only beginning. It ends up watering down the inevitable climax before we even get there, because no matter how many times Jesus, Maggie, and Rick tell one another it’s just “one last fight,” viewers know better.

Photo by Jackson Lee Davis / AMC

Old man Rick and the mysterious flash-forwards

Making the timeline even more confusing are the flash-forwards, both featuring Rick. The first is mysterious: we see Rick with a long gray beard, lying in a bed that looks a lot like a coffin. The moment closely mirrors the very first shot of the entire series, only here, old Rick wakes up peacefully, and needs a cane to walk. When he arrives downstairs, he’s met by Michonne and Carl, looking only slightly older than they do in the present day. Some time has passed, sure, but how much? The audience can’t tell. We don’t see a teenage Judith, and it’s not clear what the scene is communicating other than the possibility of a relatively safe future in which Rick has succeeded against Negan. To get even weirder, it’s set to… Weird Al Yankovic's "Another One Rides the Bus.” Yes, really.

Rick’s flash-forward suggests ‘The Walking Dead’ may stick closely to the comic

Maybe the makeup artists didn’t feel like artificially aging three people, but having Carl and Michonne look nearly identical to their present-day selves definitely reduces the impact of the scene. For comic readers, it also feels like a punch in the gut, suggesting that Gimple and the show’s writers may stick closely to Kirkman’s comics. That would be a shame, as some serious departures from the source could really spice up the “All Out War” story arc.

“Mercy” delivers some additional head-scratching in the form of a second flash-forward, in which a clearly distraught present-day Rick stares out at the world with bloodshot eyes. It feels a lot like the flash-forward from the infamous season 4 finale, “A,” directed by Michelle McLaren. In that episode, the flash-forward paid off when it was revealed as Rick’s reaction after brutally murdering two gang members to protect Carl.

The show could be attempting a couple things here. The first flash-forward could be a relatively straightforward hint at what’s to come years down the line, when Rick has achieved the lasting peace he longs for, and his loved ones have miraculously been spared. More realistically, The Walking Dead is toying with the audience by using some bold comic references — the time jump, a limping old-man Rick — while at the same time drawing a stark contrast between Rick’s idealized future, and the violent, devastating path that likely awaits. At the very least, these narrative devices are keeping things interesting and injecting some much-needed mystery.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

Rick counts to 10

As the episode’s drawn-out setup makes clear, Rick and the others have a pretty bulletproof plan to take on the Saviors, and it falls into place almost too perfectly. Daryl and Carol’s group manages to intercept and toast the Saviors who get sent to check on the radio-silent (read: dead) lookouts, while at the same time leading a giant horde of walkers toward Negan’s compound. Not only that, but Alexandria, the Hilltop, and the Kingdom conveniently roll up to Negan’s front door safely guarded inside armor-plated vehicles.

We’re momentarily led to believe Negan has a surprise plan when he comes out to confront Rick, but in reality, it’s a bust, as he tries to use Gregory to convince the Hilltop faction to run away and save themselves. It doesn’t work, as Maggie convinces her fellow members to hold their ground, and the sadistic Simon (an always-enjoyable Steven Ogg) kicks Gregory down a flight of stairs.

The showdown makes for some tense television, and some lazy writing

But before the shooting really starts, Rick decides to count to 10, echoing Negan’s sadistic behavior in the season 7 premiere. When the hail of gunfire finally rains down, Negan manages to get away, of course — while a mind-boggling number of supposedly invaluable bullets are wasted shattering every window of the Sanctuary’s warehouse exterior. In the final moments, Gabriel breaks from Rick during the retreat to try and save Gregory, only to wind up left behind and trapped, of all places, in a trailer with Negan, surrounded by the zombies Daryl led there via motorcycle.

The showdown itself makes for tense television, but the ease with which Rick and his coalition of fighters amassed a small army and a mountain of firearms for their assault feels utterly out of step with last season. Whatever happened to that arms deal gone wrong with Jadis and the trash folk? Why, if Rick and crew had Negan and his lieutenants in plain sight, did no one try to take a surprise sniper shot? These questions plague the entire setpiece, which ultimately ends up being the only meaningful sequence of the episode. It’s also a particularly poor showing for Negan, who apparently never saw anything like this coming.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

Evaluating the villain

Cunning: It’s not clear whether Negan had any backup plan when Rick’s group pointed 50 firearms in his direction, and he almost gets himself killed by failing to negotiate with any kind of savvy while in the moment. His weak ploy to remove Hilltop from the equation by relying on Gregory, never a beloved leader, ultimately just served to prop up Maggie as the community’s rightful leader. It was a failure on all accounts, making Negan look foolish and misinformed in the process.

Menace: Negan is at his best in one-on-one encounters, where his smarminess contrasts cleanly with his unpredictability and vicious temper. The only glimpse of this dynamic in “Mercy” happens right at the end, when Gabriel finds refuge from the zombie horde in a trailer — only to discover Negan waiting in the shadows. Even though Gabriel has a firearm and the apparent upper hand, he’s terrified to find himself face-to-face with Lucille’s wielder. We won’t know how this will play out until next week, but the scene is prime Negan, and the one bright spot for the villain throughout the premiere.

Dad Humor: Negan barely cracked a joke this episode, so he earns pretty low marks in this category. He does tell a scared-looking Gabriel that he will “shit his pants” at one point, but that’s just more of the same tired comic bookiness that’s made him so unengaging to watch thus far.

Strategy: We’re supposed to assume that Negan’s extraordinary vulnerability this episode is due to Dwight playing double agent. But “Mercy” doesn’t grant us an inside look at the Saviors’ day-to-day operations, so we really have no idea whether Negan engages in any mind games with his subordinates to weed out subversives, or whether he runs his shop purely on trust and fear like a thuggish dolt. This episode certainly didn’t do him any favors by painting him as a narcissist who can’t fathom that one of his own would ever spy for the enemy. It’s hard to believe we’ve spent two seasons fearing the wrath of a supposedly vicious sociopath, only to see Rick and friends corner him with ease.

Final Takeaway: This was supposed to be a blockbuster season premiere, but Negan came away with one of his most underwhelming performances yet. Not only did he walk away from last season’s showdown naively thinking he still had the upper hand, he seemingly did not anticipate his biggest rivals planning a first strike and marching to his doorstep. Then, when faced with real opposition, Negan failed to demonstrate any strength or smarts, and essentially just ran away.

Negan-o-meter Score: 3 out of 10

Moving the Needle

The fluctuations in Negan’s portrayal — from frightening maniac in one episode, to easily defeated schoolyard bully in another — are a big part of why he’s felt like such a consistently disappointing character. That happened yet again in the season premiere, and it’s not clear how The Walking Dead plans to make Negan more of a threat when Rick won such a clear victory.

One strong step forward would actually be to embrace that sense of fallibility, and give Negan a backstory where some personal, human weakness led to the black-and-white moral certainty he follows in the post-apocalypse. Audiences learned that the Governor, for example, had a daughter. He eventually kept her chained up as a zombie in his bedroom, but that choice did demonstrate he had a softer side, and made his other displays of cruelty harder to dismiss as the random acts of a madman. Even the cannibals of Terminus were painted in a somewhat sympathetic light, doing to others what was once done to them in the interests of extreme survival. Negan, on the other hand, is portrayed as a pure sociopath, with nothing beyond his tired greaser schtick and thirst for power. But even sociopaths come from somewhere, and if Gimple and his team took the time to flesh out Negan’s backstory, and give him some real flaws, it would make him that much more sinister — and satisfying.