The Walking Dead is back, and for us here at The Verge that’s an opportunity to examine just how effective the show can be in 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 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.
Season 8 of The Walking Dead is shaping up to be one of the show’s worst, right up there with the roundabout, feet-dragging plot on Herschel’s farm back in the show’s second season. It’s not that there hasn’t been action. There’s been a lot of it. We’ve had shoot-outs and brutal, confined fistfights, and lots and lots of walkers. But the show is burning rubber at the starting line. We’re now halfway through the front half of the season, yet Negan is still trapped in a trailer, and every major character has remained relatively static. If this season is a chess match, then showrunner Scott Gimple is still fiddling with his pawns.
Now, on “Some Guy,” we’re getting yet another bottle episode (a standalone episode with fewer cast members and locations, usually to save on budget). The tactic is a favorite of both AMC and the show’s writers, because it keeps the plot from moving too fast, and avoids unnecessary spending. This one happens to be about Ezekiel, one of the few recently introduced characters worth paying attention to. Still, the fact that The Walking Dead thinks it can get away with a third bottle episode in a row is mind-boggling. It certainly doesn’t bode well for our villain Negan, who’s had less airtime this season than Ezekiel's CGI tiger and remains mysteriously absent yet again.
Ezekiel and Jerry press on
“Some Guy” opens on a gruesome scene, picking right up from the end of last week’s massacre: Ezekiel and his men are in a field littered with dismembered bodies. It’s clear immediately that every Kingdom fighter that shielded the king is now dead. Ezekiel, crawling out from under his fallen comrades, spends the first few minutes distraught over leading so many people to die, before realizing that he’s lying in a pool of soon-to-be walkers. With his leg injured, he hobbles away from the rising zombie horde.
Ezekiel is barely able to put some distance between him and the walkers before he is captured by a member of the Saviors. Intent on delivering the king to Negan alive, Ezekiel’s captor marches him forward. He skewers Ezekiel for his make-believe antics, calling a “con man” who’s responsible for the death of his people. When Ezekiel tries and fails to break free using a sword sheathed inside his walking cane, the Savior decides it’s too risky to keep him alive. But before he can kill the leader of the Kingdom, Ezekiel’s ally Jerry appears, charging the Savior with his axe, and cleaving the man in two. Ezekiel and Jerry then turn to face the walkers.
Carol in rare form
We’ve been told time and again that Carol is one of the savviest and most ruthless survivors on The Walking Dead. She began her transformation way back at the prison in season 3, and she’s come full circle these last two seasons to make peace with her innate ability to eliminate threats. However, we haven’t really seen Carol put those skills to use since the arrival of Negan, making her performance in “Some Guy” that much more enjoyable. It kicks off when Carol discovers the group of Saviors — and the high-caliber weapon — responsible for mowing down Ezekiel and his men in a building, having escaped the slaughter herself by running for nearby cover. After hiding in the ceiling of the first floor, she deftly takes out four of the men, but is chased off by the remaining Saviors before she can secure the gun herself.
Outside, Carol manages to take out three more men, before finding herself in the middle of an impossible dilemma. As Ezekiel and Jerry fend off a horde of walkers in the distance, Carol must choose between saving the king or securing the gun, knowing full well that the weapon could make its way to the Sanctuary and be used to free Negan. In a moment illustrates her well-rounded moral conscience, Carol chooses to save Ezekiel. But in a stroke of luck, she hears the sounds of a motorcycle in the distance.
Rick and Daryl hit the road
In a scene spliced straight out of a Hollywood action blockbuster, Rick and Daryl manage to intercept the Saviors’ truck just as Carol lets them get away, with Daryl on his bike and Rick in the jeep they commandeered in last week’s episode. Though Daryl is briefly run off the road by gunfire, Rick manages to get close enough to the Saviors’ car to jump out his vehicle, where he stabs the driver and sends him full-speed into the asphalt. He and Daryl proceed to take the remaining Savior, the one Rick tossed out of a moving vehicle, captive. The whole scenario is a nice bit of adrenaline-fueled action that makes the boring, poorly choreographed gunfights of the last two episodes feel stale in comparison.
Ezekiel loses his most faithful warrior
At the end of “Some Guy,” Ezekiel begins to crack with the realization that his Elizabethan persona not hasn’t saved those he leads, but actually gotten them killed. Ezekiel offers to sacrifice himself to the pursuing zombie horde so Carol and Jerry can escape, but they won’t have it. Jerry insists that he has to protect the king, and in a moment of desperation, Ezekiel screams that Jerry has no king and that everything Ezekiel has ever stood for was just an act to help people forget that they live in a nightmare.
Just when it seems that Carol and Jerry might actually leave the broken king behind, Shiva the tiger arrives — yet again, magically, at just the right moment — to fend off the zombies. The brief moment of triumph quickly turns to panic, however, as it becomes clear Shiva’s not going to make it out alive. As Carol and Jerry drag a screaming Ezekiel away, the tiger is overrun by walkers and killed, sacrificing herself for the king just as so many members of the Kingdom did before her. In the final moments of the episode, Ezekiel hobbles back into the Kingdom, a broken shell of his former self, leaving open the very real possibility that his regal persona might be retired for good.
Evaluating the villain:
Again, as was the case last week and the week before it, The Walking Dead seems incapable of telling stories with any kind of holistic momentum, choosing instead to tell various bite-sized stories around singular moments. However, this episode, unlike the others, took an already compelling character like Ezekiel and gave his arc a believable climax, shattering what we knew about the man and forcing both the audience and the character himself to reevaluate his role and purpose.
Ezekiel's journey these past few episodes is the kind of character transformation this show desperately needs for all of its major players, and particularly for Rick and Negan. We already know the show is setting up Rick for yet another return to normalcy as he begins reckoning with the notion of justice and mercy in the new multi-community society he wants to build. Negan, on the other hand, is nowhere to be found, no different today than when we first laid eyes on him more than 20 episodes ago.
But Ezekiel's arc gives us a faint glimmer of hope that the writers recognize good storytelling and character development. It’s also evidence that they can use the death of a character — in this case, a CGI tiger — intelligently. We didn’t see Shiva’s death coming, and yet it may prove to be the one tragic death that weighs most on Ezekiel and forces him to accept who and what he really is in the post-apocalypse. But until we get Negan back on screen and see some of this storytelling applied to the second-most important character, we can’t give the show too much credit.
Negan-o-meter™: 0 out of 10
Moving the Needle
It’s more clear now than ever before that AMC and showrunner Scott Gimple never intended to tell a grand story this season. The show’s leadership likely knows exactly when, contractually speaking, they plan on ending the war with Negan, and they’ve simply instructed their writing team to fill the time appropriately.
While these decisions have made for frustrating television, they’ve also resulted in some serious drops in ratings. We’ve observed for some time now how the introduction of Negan has affected the show’s viewership, by hamstringing its pacing and relying too heavily on the comic book source material while letting standard TV requirements — strong character development, pacing, and dialogue — fall by the wayside. Now, the show is paying the price: last week’s episode marked the lowest ratings in five years, at 8.52 million viewers. The Walking Dead still scores extraordinarily high in its key 18–49 demographic. But the show’s performance is a far cry from that 17 million turnout for the season 7 premiere and the double-digit viewership it’s enjoyed since season 3.
With a show this drawn-out and ratings-hungry, you can bet AMC is tracking the decline closely The network’s CEO, Josh Sapan, recently suggested the franchise could go on for decades, which means plans could already be in place for the series post-Rick Grimes. What that means for Negan is unclear, but the villain has definitively failed to breathe new life into The Walking Dead. In fact, the character has done the opposite. It won’t matter how much of a dramatic build-up the show constructs before ending the Negan arc if there’s no one around to watch it.