The Walking Dead is back, and for us here at The Verge it’s an opportunity to examine just how effective the show is at creating a complex villain. As played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, big bad Negan has always been violent, but thanks to his man-baby antics, he’s stubbornly remained a comic book thug, never truly 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 jokes and threats, and most importantly, how his character develops in contrast to our supposedly virtuous heroes. We’ll look at all the traits a villain is supposed to 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.
Warning: There will be spoilers.
Last week’s season premiere gave us a lot to think about. Did Rick’s group and the other communities really succeed in taking out the Sanctuary, trapping the Saviors via zombie roadblock? What would happen to Negan and Gabriel, who were left stuck in a cramped trailer? What did it mean for Negan’s reign that he didn’t see this coming, and failed to negotiate the safety of his people?
Unfortunately, “The Damned” isn’t interested in answering any of those questions. The episode unpacks the aftermath of the assault on the Saviors, but avoids the characters that arguably matter most. In fact, Negan doesn’t make an appearance at all. But if The Walking Dead is adept at anything, it’s taking fleeting moments that other shows would gloss over, and turning them into entire episodes. Thankfully, this one still has plenty of action to dig into.
Aaron leads a surprise attack
Based on the final moments of last week’s episode, we knew that Alexandria, the Hilltop, and the Kingdom had all split up into four distinct groups after the attack. “The Damned” tracks the exploits of each one as they try to prevent remote groups of Saviors from saving Negan and his people from the zombie horde. First up on that list is Aaron and a group of Alexandrians who storm a group of Saviors as they clean and prep firearms.
The resulting showdown is a fun and exhilarating exercise in zombie-based wartime strategy, as Aaron and the other group members decide to not push forward on the Saviors. Negan’s cohorts think they have the upper hand as a result. Under the leadership of a mysterious woman with an imposing attitude and some seasoned combat grit, the Saviors continue to advance on Aaron, overlooking the fact that the men and women who’ve already been shot are littered behind them.
It’s only when it is too late to alter course that the Saviors realize that Aaron’s plan all along was to let those downed men and women turn, creating a zombie threat within their own lines of defense. Unfortunately for Aaron, his boyfriend Eric takes a bullet in the stomach while displaying some surprising heroics during the firefight. It undercuts the tactical victory, and is particularly sad given that Eric spent so much time trying to convince Aaron to not get involved with the larger fight two seasons ago.
“That’s not who we are.”
The Walking Dead’s primary thematic focus has always been on the challenge of rebuilding and upholding a moral code in a lawless world. That is on full display in “The Damned,” which shows a number of the more mindful characters struggling with the principles of nonviolence and mercy as they plan to clinically neutralize the Saviors’ remote outposts. These are traits that Negan supposedly lacks, and they’re what Rick and his allies hope will redeem them — and the world they’re fighting for.
Yet, that resolve has been tested time and again — primarily for Rick, Morgan, and Carol, but now for the others, as well. In “The Damned,” we see Jesus and Tara butting heads over whether to kill an unarmed Savior who claims he’s “not one of them.” Jesus defaults to trusting strangers, even potentially murderous maniacs, while Tara appears to be succumbing to the cycle of violence and self-doubt that once plagued Carol. Tara is ultimately proven right when Jesus is taken hostage by the man, who reveals he was just pretending in an attempt to trick the duo into letting him go. Yet even after disarming the Savior, Jesus’ faith in his ideals remains unwavering.
Morgan, who last season transformed from an almost militant non-violent actor into a brutal killer, has a struggle of his own that plays out more in his mind than against another member of the group. Having been taken by surprise by a number of the Saviors in the satellite compound, Morgan finds himself left for dead next to two fallen companions. He then proceeds to stand up, arm himself, and meticulously gun down more than a dozen men and women — some unarmed — in a surprise attack from the rear.
All throughout, Morgan replays a critical conversation he had with Rick a couple of seasons ago, in which he argued against the strike-first mentality that kickstarted the war with the Saviors in the first place. Morgan is only freed from his violent fog when he finds Jesus and the rest of the group holding the remainder of the Saviors at gunpoint. When Morgan very nearly kills a cruel Savior he recognizes from a previous encounter, he and Jesus clash. “It’s not what we do,” Jesus tells Morgan, who eventually decides to back down.
“Then what do we do, huh?” Morgan shoots back. It’s a good question, and a reminder that even though Negan and the Saviors have given Rick and friends more immediate concerns, the larger ethical questions behind The Walking Dead will still need to be answered after the bloodshed ends.
Carol learns a lesson in make-believe
Carol, looking more comfortable than ever in the Kingdom’s combat armor, spends much of “The Damned” helping Ezekiel track a runaway Savior to prevent him from radioing in the threat to a larger remote outpost. The plot point here is secondary, however; this sequence mostly serves as another opportunity for Carol to absorb more of Ezekiel and his worldview.
“Do I feel the supreme confidence, or is my job to simply project such certainty?” Ezekiel ponders with Carol at one point. As it becomes clear they might lose the Savior they’re tracking, Ezekiel keeps the enthusiasm high. “No and yes. Yes and no. And then finally, yes to both,” he adds. At first it plays like his standard Shakespearean nonsense. But Ezekiel's willingness to show Carol his true face — “fake it ‘till you make it” he tells her at one point — makes their dynamic much more interesting, as Ezekiel realizes Carol has forgotten what it means to pretend or even engage in something as innocent as theatrical make-believe.
“I am king because I have provided a light to lead my people forward in the darkness, and they have turned my fictions into realities,” he declares. In the face of Carol’s doubt about the mission, Ezekiel says his boundless enthusiasm and refusal to accept failure is the source of his power — and the reason residents of the Kingdom are willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. The Savior ultimately does succeed in warning his others about the threat — he is shortly thereafter mauled by Ezekiel’s tiger Shiva — but the King rallies his troops nonetheless.
In a small but pivotal way, Ezekiel is teaching Carol about something she thought she had abandoned: hope. The trick to persevering in this world isn’t to run away, afraid of accepting responsibility, and it isn’t to submit to nihilistic violence and give up on humanity altogether. Instead, Ezekiel is helping Carol find a third way forward toward their shared goal, even if it is through an bit of elaborate role play.
Rick finds a familiar face
While everyone else largely succeeds in their respective missions to stop the Saviors’ rescue efforts, Rick and Daryl have a tougher time. The two start by making their way up a multi-story building that they believe contains guns that will be used to break Negan out, but the duo inevitably split up.
That leads Rick right into a one-on-one showdown near the roof with a Savior who very nearly murders our main character with his bare hands. After failing to coerce the location of the weapons out of him, Rick brutally impales the man on a piece of metal. It’s a grim scene, and more proof that our supposed hero is still more at home dishing out extrajudicial murder than he is negotiating or convincing his foes to find common ground. This point is only further highlighted when Rick discovers that the man was protecting not a weapons cache, but an infant child.
In a display of raw emotion, actor Andrew Lincoln renders Rick’s inner torment as he sees a child that clearly reminds him of his own daughter Judith — while realizing that he likely just murdered her father. He barely has time to think before he’s caught at gunpoint by another Savior, revealed to be a character named Morales from all the way back in the show’s first season. (Morales split with Rick’s group when they decided to travel to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.) The man is now apparently a member of Negan’s crew, and tells Rick that he’s already called in backup to capture him.
On one hand, this feels like an unnecessary blast from the past: an old character audiences barely remember coming back, forever changed, to conveniently help the main character realize how different he’s become, too. It’s especially frustrating knowing the airtime could have been used to, say, flesh out Negan’s character. But perhaps The Walking Dead has something more meaty in store for Morales and Rick’s reunion. It wouldn’t be unprecedented. Morgan himself was a first-season character that disappeared early in Rick’s travels, only to show up later — and become a vital part of the ensemble.
Evaluating the villain
This is a tough one because, well, Negan doesn’t ever show up in “The Damned.” It’s bizarre, but not entirely out of character for the show. The Walking Dead is known for segmenting its storylines, spreading them out across many episodes in what often feels like an unnecessary refutation of traditional narrative structure.
Game of Thrones has set the gold standard for interweaving storylines, and many shows in the post-Breaking Bad world employ breakneck plotting to appeal to our binge-watching tendencies. The Walking Dead, on the other hand, has made a habit of hanging entire storylines out to dry for weeks — something that’s particularly frustrating given how much water-treading the show has indulged in during recent seasons. We’d love to evaluate the villain for this episode, but the biggest enemy of “The Damned” is the show’s gimmicky, keep-away plotting — which seems to continually confuse tension with simply pretending certain characters don’t exist. Chalk it up to AMC’s hunger for ratings, which has trapped The Walking Dead into 16-episode seasons its story simply can’t handle.
Menace: Despite his disappearance, we do feel it necessary to give Negan some points for menace here, considering how vigorously Rick and the others fight to prevent him from having any hope of escape. (And for potentially turning Morales into a bloodthirsty Savior.) Of course, as viewers, we know this isn’t the end for Negan. So it’s also troubling to think what violent act the writers will give him to bounce back with.
Negan-o-meter™ Score: 2 out of 10
Moving the needle
It’s difficult to have a dynamic, complex bad guy if he isn’t given any screen time. So the most obvious thing that showrunner Scott Gimple and his team could do to solve the show’s villain problem in the next episode would be to actually show the villain. Perhaps we’ll get a Negan-specific episode that delves into what he did leading up to Rick’s assault on the Sanctuary, or maybe an entire episode dedicated to the philosophical sparring between him and Father Gabriel.
But the decision to remove him from this episode entirely doesn’t bode well. The biggest problem with the way The Walking Dead has handled Negan is that the show hasn’t focused on making him a strong character unto himself. It’s instead relied on the idea that fans are so enamored with Negan from the comic books that the show doesn’t have to do any heavy lifting at all. That’s why audiences have had to deal with seasons full of teases before Negan finally arrived, and hyped-up cliffhangers instead of self-contained stories.
“The Damned” seems to indicate that the show is still interested in playing those same games — despite the promise that this season will focus on the “all-out war” between Rick and Negan. Even just a few small scenes in every episode would go a long way toward transforming Negan from a dad-joke plot device into an actual character. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until next week to see if The Walking Dead is interested.