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 Neganometer™. 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.
After last week Negan-centric episode, The Walking Dead was in the best shape it had been all season. By finally delving into the character’s backstory, the show had given audiences a glimpse of a more nuanced and complex villain. As a result, the war between Rick’s group and the Saviors felt poised to turn a corner and enter a more complex stage, focusing less on the show’s silly trigger-happy shootouts, and more on the strategic thinking and subversive tactics that should rightfully define a conflict of this scale.
Last night’s episode, “The King, the Widow, and Rick,” unfortunately falls back on the show’s obsession with fragmented storytelling, and that means no Negan in the episode. It’s a shame, because it suggests The Walking Dead‘s creative team is unwilling to even address Negan short of devoting an entire standalone episode to him. It’s hardly the most satisfying experience for a series that is ostensibly an ensemble show. That said, there is still plenty to dissect in “The King, the Widow, and Rick.” As its title suggests, the episode focuses on the three community leaders and their struggles to maintain a strategic edge over the Saviors, but there is still room for a couple of surprise — including the introduction of a new character pulled straight from the comic book.
Learning to trust again
Now that The Walking Dead has largely transitioned from the wartime combat of the season’s first few episodes, there’s room to explore more meaty issues, like the struggle of upholding a moral code in the face of ethically-murky decision making. The tension plays out with both Carl and Maggie in a pair of scenes that speak to the show’s larger themes of maintaining humanity in the post-apocalypse and striving toward an idealistic future.
Carl, discouraged by his father’s guarded approach to strangers, seeks out a man he ran into at a gas station a few episodes back. He finds him in the woods, and befriends him after using Rick’s infamous three-question test — the one that asks a stranger to own up to how many of the undead and how many of the living they have killed — to ensure the man’s trustworthiness. Named Saddiq, the survivor is a character from the comics who played an integral role in recruiting the all-female Oceanside community into the fight. So it’s easy to see how crucial he might prove to be here in the show, though I’m curious how long it will take for Siddiq to move beyond his role as a plot device for Carl, who’s clearly trying to emulate his father’s more virtuous traits.
Maggie, on the other hand, struggles with Gregory and Jesus in the episode over how to treat the Saviors they have shackled together at the Hilltop. Gregory, spineless to such a degree that almost any scene he’s in becomes unbearable to watch, suggests keeping the Saviors outside and starving them. In response, Jesus takes matters into his own hands and gives out fruit to the prisoners. Unhappy with either solution, Maggie eventually decides to let the prisoners live, and moves forward with the development of a Hilltop prison that will be built within the community walls.
The compromise could quite easily go south in a violent and predictable way, but I’m desperately hoping showrunner Scott Gimple proves me wrong and actually uses the moral exercise to say something about the human condition beyond “doing the right thing comes with necessary risk.” The Walking Dead talks a big game about the moral quandaries of a post-apocalyptic world, but it rarely follows through. Hopefully this subplot will be different.
Learning when not to trust
“The King, the Widow, and Rick” brings back last season’s quirkiest character when Rick returns to visit Jadis and her legion of garbage dump-dwelling fighters. He wants to enlist her to fight against the Saviors, despite how poorly that went last time. In a clever callback to a minor scene from episode two of this season, in which Rick is seen using a Polaroid camera, he hands Jadis a stack of photographs showing clusters of dead Saviors from the outpost strikes to appease the woman’s demand for evidence that they are in fact winning the war against Negan.
It’s nice and subtle display of strategic thinking, the type of plotting characters on this show do not often employ, because it’s both a ploy to trick Jadis into aligning with Alexandria while also being a nice tip of the hat from Rick to Negan, who loved taking photographs of the deceased Lucille victims’ smashed-in skulls. On a deeper level, immortalizing his victory against the Saivors also suggests something more about Rick. We’re led to believe he’s nothing like Negan but, increasingly, Rick comes across as a win-at-all-costs general who will do whatever it takes to survive, so long as he can tell himself a convenient enough story to justify the violence.
Things don’t exactly go as planned, however, as Rick is hauled away and tossed into a dark, sweltering prison cell at the base of a trash heap. It’s rather confounding why Jadis would rebuke his offer and decide to imprison the man who showed up with an olive branch. It’s also not clear what Rick thought was going to happen, given that Jadis has never been the most consistent ally and Rick’s only leverage amounts to threatening Jadis and her people with extermination if they don’t pick the winning side. As a result, it all feels a bit manufactured, as if Gimple and his team were just desperate for a way to bring the idiosyncratic Jadis back into the fold while giving Rick yet one more meaningless hardship to overcome in the next episode.
The king is dead, long live the king
Of all the characters this season, Ezekiel has undergone the most dramatic and meaningful transformation. He’s gone from a tiger-taming monarch with a small army of loyal soldiers to a washed up former actor-turned-zookeeper. He lost his penchant for showmanship, his most beloved companion, and proclaimed the end of his reign altogether. But in “The King, the Widow, and Rick,” Carol attempts to walk some of that back, trying to convince Ezekiel to lead what remains of the Kingdom in the ongoing war. Like Carol last season, he is disillusioned and lost, incapable of making sense of his place in the world and what kind of person he’s meant to be.
With an impassioned plea — the most emotional performance we’ve seen from Melissa McBride in many episodes — Carol tells Ezekiel to make believe for the good of his people. “If you can’t be the king, then do what you do best and play the part,” she says. The show cuts away before he makes a decision, but it’s clear Ezekiel is going to come out on the other end of this personal struggle a different man. He may no longer serve the silly, pseudo-comic relief role he once did, but it’s nevertheless refreshing for a character journey to come across as this genuine and believable.
Michonne and Rosita’s mind-numbing, nonsensical day trip
In perhaps the show’s most perplexing sequence in recent memory, a third of last night’s episode was dedicated to Michonne and Rosita randomly gallivanting across the Virginia countryside. In the show’s internal logic, the two are ostensibly upset they had to stay home for the big assault on Negan’s compound, and Michonne wants to examine the Sanctuary firsthand o confirm the building is surrounded by zombies. In reality, it plays as nothing more than a contrived reason to put two neglected characters on-screen for more than 30 seconds at a time.
The duo end up running into a pair of straggling Saviors which does inject some real purpose to the escapade. The Saviors are trying to rig a truck with a giant pair of speakers in order to lure the zombie horde away from the Sanctuary, buthe ensuing firefight feels silly and pointless. It’s made even worse by some sloppy CGI employed when Rosita fires a random RPG at one of the men, and he disintegrates in a bloodless explosion that looks spliced in from a B-movie action flick. When one of the Saviors escapes in the truck, there’s a momentary sense that there’s some real gravity to the situation — perhaps it’s Michonne and Rosita’s failure that sets Negan’s comeback into motion! — but even that justification is tossed aside when Daryl and Tara miraculously appear to sideswipe the vehicle and save the day.
There’s no point in sugar-coating it: this is The Walking Dead at its worst. It’s not that every action scene needs to feel as visceral and realistic as possible, or as high-quality as a Hollywood film production. But this whole side quest reeks of contrived conflict and cheap special effects. It’s as if the show’s management knew they wanted an RPG explosion and a car crash, and simply ad libbed the rest on the fly. Given what a poor job the show has done this season addressing the entirety of its cast, there is no doubt that Gimple and his team owed Michonne and Rosita some valuable airtime. But this is worse than remaining offscreen.
Evaluating the Villain:
As in previous weeks, it’s hard to measure Negan’s growth as a villain if he doesn’t show up for work. It’d be one thing if actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan were only a supporting cast member, contracted for a certain number of episodes per season and playing a diminished supporting role. That would explain the mind-boggling choice to have him in only two episodes this season so far. But as the biggest, baddest villain in the series, his absence is inexplicable. It’s also befuddling after last week’s episode. “The Big Bad U” proved that TWD can do better, and the only takeaway from “The King, The Widow, and Rick” is that the show is choosing not to. Perhaps it’s related to budget constraints or adaptation issues, but whatever the reason it makes for frustrating television.
Menance: We have to give Negan some minor menace points here because it still seems like every single Savior in all of Virginia is willing to lay their life on the line just to set him free. You’d think some of the more craven cronies would hightail it out of there and just move on with their lives, but we’ve now seen a number of men and women die in failed attempts to assist their leader, suggesting Negan is ruthless and formidable enough to warrant self-sacrifice.
Negan-o-meter™: 2 out of 10
Moving the Needle:
It can’t be said enough how severely The Walking Dead suffers by Gimple’s insistence on telling stories with tunnel vision, as if viewers can’t possibly digest a complex, interconnected narrative. It’s not that we need to check in on every character every week, but the show would be better served by focusing on theme and concept, and weaving the most vital characters around those concepts into something that feels like a coherent tapestry. What we have now is grab-bag TV, with far too many storylines and far too little focus resulting in a show that varies wildly from week to week. The only thing consistent about The Walking Dead is the theme song, and the fact that viewers have no idea whether it will be worth tuning in on any given week.
It’s not clear what other signals AMC needs. Viewers are fleeing, with last week’s episode — despite being the best of the season — hitting a six-year low in viewership. For a show that’s just seven years old, it is hard for the news to get much worse.It’s no surprise that The Walking Dead is probably best enjoyed these days as either a premiere or a finale. Why bother with anything in between? The show itself certainly isn’t.