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 due 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 a new episode of The Walking Dead 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.
AMC’s description for last night’s episode, “Monsters,” is punctuated by the closing line “Morality proves tricky in wartime.” That a TV listing would have to remind viewers that full-blown human conflict leads to ethical murkiness is, on its face, comical. But for a show about living in a zombie apocalypse, the statement is both a reiteration of the show’s overarching theme, and a glimpse at how the writers may handle the messy Negan storyline. This season, Rick and the other groups have Negan on the run, and they’re hunting down every last Savior they can to end the threat once and for all. But that involves making hard choices, beyond just “kill or be killed.”
The Walking Dead has spent years with Rick Grimes and his friends slowly working toward something resembling stability. They’ve cycled through the deterioration of societal norms, relationships, and personal boundaries, before finally exploring the restoration of those concepts. The show is now at a point where the remnants of society are trying to rebuild, and The Walking Dead wants us to believe that Negan is absolute evil, while Rick and the others are righteous and good. But in “Monsters,” the show instead gets more serious about blurring the line between the two — even while lacking any on-screen appearances from its big villain.
Aaron pays the price of war
When we last saw Aaron, he was shepherding his boyfriend Eric — bleeding profusely from a bullet wound in his stomach — away from the battlefield. With no medical help in sight, the two say their goodbyes in “Monsters.” It’s a tender moment for a duo that has spent much of the show on the periphery. Yet for Aaron, who’s always deserved more screen time than he gets, it’s an especially tough loss. Later in the episode, he breaks down while watching a zombified Eric stumble off into the distance to join the ranks of the undead.
Aaron has trusted Rick throughout the many ups and downs of their shared journey, ever since the native residents of Alexandria were first recruited to turn the struggling city around — to admittedly mixed results. Now, having fought alongside everyone else, Aaron is paying the same price as Maggie and so many others before her. Returning to his comrades a bit later in the episode, Aaron discovers the battle has been won. He volunteers to relay the outcome of the fight to Maggie — and to look after the child Rick discovered. In a way, he’s accepting a new presence into his life just as the person closest to him exits it. But little does he know that another group is marching dozens of captured fighters toward the Hilltop, setting up a potential conflict between the mourning Aaron, who just lost his partner to the Saviors, and the merciful Jesus who wants to keep them safely imprisoned.
Jesus and Morgan get physical over philosophy
Jesus and Morgan’s disagreement over the treatment of the Saviors boils over when the group is swarmed by a zombie horde. It gives a group of prisoners — including a Savior that Morgan’s had a long-running feud with — the opportunity to run off into the woods. Morgan chases them with a rifle, stopping the group at gunpoint before executing one of them with a shot to the head. Before he’s able to shoot anyone else, Jesus steps in.
What ensues is a bit of well-done fight choreography, in which Jesus deftly dances around Morgan, deflects his staff swings, and redirects his aggression toward the real issue at hand: the execution of unarmed prisoners. Morgan eventually concedes that his lack of empathy may make him unfit for the kind of war Jesus, Maggie, and others seem intent on waging. But he does get in one final verbal jab. “I know I’m not right, but I’m not wrong,” Morgan says before walking away, momentarily pausing over the prisoner he executed.
Back at the Hilltop, a wounded Gregory manages to convince Maggie to let him in, telling her he’s finally realized the error of his ways. Jesus and the others show up shortly thereafter, and Jesus successfully lobbies Maggie to lock up the prisoners in two trailers out back with round-the-clock guards, despite Gregory’s insistence that they not be let into his home.
The show’s moralizing feels so hopelessly shoehorned in and inconsistent
I understand what the show is going for here. It’s all part of a gradual build toward Rick and the group’s grand moral realization that only through fair justice and mercy can they rebuild a normalized society. But this righteousness feels hopelessly shoehorned in and inconsistent, devoid of any narrative logic. What are they going to feed the prisoners? Will they be tried for their crimes, and locked up (in a prison that doesn’t even exist yet)? Or will they be forced to assimilate into the Hilltop community? The Walking Dead wants to put on a grandstanding display about right and wrong in the post-apocalypse, but there seems to be no true motivation behind it, other than the fact that various characters need something to argue about to fill screen time.
That Jesus is stepping in to play judge doesn’t make it all that different than the half-dozen other shouting matches about moral complexity that the show has tossed in over the last few seasons. Now, I don’t doubt that there would be serious ethical debates in these types of scenarios. But it’s unclear why this has to be the moment everyone decides to hash out the post-zombie Geneva Conventions — rather than before they decided to murder more than a hundred of Negan’s fighters in brutal first strikes.
Daryl’s brutality and the Morales cop-out
Last week’s episode, “The Damned,” reintroduced a character from the first season named Morales. Now a Savior aligned with Negan, Morales trapped Rick at gunpoint in the final minutes. The decision to bring Morales back proved controversial: jokes with the punchline “who?” flooded Reddit and recap comment sections, even while some diehard fans rejoiced at the idea of revisiting the two men’s different paths through the post-apocalypse. Given the precedent set with Morgan, who also pulled a similar disappearing act, it nevertheless provided an opportunity to see a character that could perhaps offer an intriguing counterpoint to the journey Rick Grimes has been on.
Instead, “Monster” throws all of that potential out the window in a mind-boggling sequence that pairs some of the best dialogue in The Walking Dead’s history with a jarring narrative cop-out. Even after Rick pleads with Morales to understand his position, his former ally is unwavering, calling Rick a “monster” — and giving the episode its name. Morales tells Rick that Negan has instructed the Saviors not to kill him, “the widow” (whom we know to be Maggie), or “the King” (a reference to Ezekiel).
Morales was used as a cheap cliffhanger, only to die moments later as a teachable narrative lesson
Rick then asks Morales if “he’s Negan too,” referencing the cult-like mentality the Saviors adopt to keep order. “I lost my family, I lost my mind… the Saviors, they found me,” Morales tells him. “So yeah, I’m Negan.” He then proceeds to draw a comparison between himself and Rick’s own cutthroat actions in the name of survival. And though Rick disputes the idea, Morales cuts even deeper, calling the both of them “assholes who will do whatever it takes to keep going.” In fact, Morales notes how the situation would be no different if Rick was holding the gun.
Before viewers even have a chance to relish in the direct condemnation of Rick’s character, a shadow appears in the background. Rick yells out, but it’s too late: Daryl puts an arrow through Morales’ face, ending the scene, and any kind of deeper understanding between the two survivors.
Even for a show that shed its “no one is safe” tagline long ago, the death feels startling, and almost out of place. Showrunner Scott Gimple clearly wants to use Morales as a character-development stepping stone, with Rick distraught and conflicted over the man’s swift death. Later on in the episode, Daryl executes an unarmed man Rick promised not to hurt in exchange for information, only further cementing the feeling that these scenes are blunt character-building exercises for our main character. But it nonetheless feels cheap and unnecessary to use Morales as a cliffhanger, only to write him out moments later.
Ezekiel's false hope falls apart
Following last week’s interplay between King Ezekiel and Carol, in which the regal tiger tamer explained the reasoning behind his constant embellishments, it’s a little easier to see the impact of his methods. Ezekiel is turning Carol, still set in her cynical ways, into a believer. Could this theatrical goofball really have it all figured out? Is this the way to survive in a bleak world while keeping your humanity intact?
No sooner does the audience think Carol and Ezekiel may come out unscathed do they waltz into tragedy. In the closing minutes of “Monsters,” Ezekiel catches the faintest image of a muzzle in the window of a Saviors compound they plan to sweep, before telling his companions to drop to the ground. They do so, but only after three or four Kingdom members pile onto Ezekiel first, shielding him from the gunfire.
It’s a shocking scene — the show makes it absolutely clear that those shielding Ezekiel are peppered with bullets — but more importantly, it’s a tragic one. Ezekiel’s followers have such confidence in his abilities and worldview that they’re willing to sacrifice themselves to protect him. What had in one moment been a fun fiction designed to help people cope suddenly becomes a lie that gets people killed. That’s a burden any ruler has to contend with, whether they’re in Shakespearean England or zombie-strewn Virginia.
Evaluating the villain
These past two episodes have tried to make it clear that the real villain looming over The Walking Dead is the crumbling morality at the heart of the society everyone’s supposedly fighting to preserve. Negan brutalizes his victims, enslaves women, and operates a large-scale racketeering operation in the name of ensuring safety. His approach is implicitly bankrupt from an ethical perspective, yet Rick and his allies are just as willing to use violence as a means to an end. The more cold-blooded members, like Morgan and Daryl, find it all too easy to execute unarmed combatants to further their goals, and eliminate any possibility of a threat.
But as we said last week, another episode in which Negan didn’t appear, the show’s endlessly frustrating plotting serves as a fundamental disservice to viewers. The Walking Dead wants moral ambiguity and complexity, while at the same time refusing to move more than an inch in any direction. We’ve now spent around 85 straight minutes this season with the show just spinning around in its own private circle, waiting with baited breath for something to change, or for the show’s comic-book bad guy to show even a hint of nuance.
The equivalence between Negan and Rick will never hold up if the characters only move in jarring, inconsistent leaps that supposedly take place within the same 12-hour period. It takes time for characters to change and develop, and that means letting audiences spend time with them, as well. Instead, every single storyline of The Walking Dead this season feels segmented off; individual pieces of busywork filling space because the show’s not interested in moments of actual conflict or dialogue. Negan can work serving as just a symbol or an idea, but not if AMC wants to drag his looming threat out for years — something reflected in the fact that the show just hit a 5-year ratings low.
Charisma: If there is a defining characteristic of Negan, it’s that he is a sociopath in every critical way, allowing him to sway from charismatic leader to totalitarian maniac. That means he isn’t just violent and cruel, but also manipulative, and capable of manufactured emotions. That trait seeps into every interaction with the Saviors, whether Negan is present or not. Morales is swayed by the Saviors despite their brutality, because Negan gives men like him a purpose. Negan buttered up Eugene by playing to the man’s superiority complex, and keeps Dwight around as an example of the punishment for disloyalty. The charisma needed to switch between those gears shouldn’t be underestimated, and if Rick and the others are in fact able to eliminate the Negan threat, one of the biggest issues they’ll have to grapple with is giving his followers an equally compelling reason to side with them.
Negan-o-meter™: 1 out of 10
Moving the needle
The Walking Dead needs to put more of Negan on television screens, period. The show simply cannot sustain itself with a missing cardboard cutout serving as the counterpoint to what is supposed to be an emotionally complex hero. It not only hinders each episode; it actively diminishes the work being done by every other member of the cast because it hamstrings the central conflict driving the entire season.
On a grander level, AMC should have seriously reevaluated its decision to go all-in on Negan some time ago. Instead, here we are, with Gimple and the show’s writers trying to stretch what seems like a single episode’s worth of story into an entire season. The only solution is for the show to actually decide to deliver.