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.
Since the very first episode, The Walking Dead has been hamstrung by the comics it’s adapting. That wasn’t as noticeable in the first few seasons of the show. Smart, crucial decisions — not killing Judith alongside Lori, the introduction of Daryl Dixon, the reinvention of Carol — gave viewers a good idea of how The Walking Dead would chart its own path through the source material written by Robert Kirkman. That all began to change with Negan’s introduction and the killing of Glenn, after which the scripts began tracking Kirkman’s work more closely.
The show hasn’t been the same since, with the plot inching toward an unsatisfying and predetermined end game in which all the best moments feel overwrought, telegraphed, and better done in graphic novel form. “How It’s Gotta Be,” however, could be the start of an interesting turnaround. We may never see a return to The Walking Dead’s creative heights, which are admittedly long behind it, and ratings may well continue to slide as the Negan arc drags on. But at the very least, the latest episode shows that showrunner Scott Gimple is willing to take big risks, delivering the largest deviation from the source material in the series’s long-running history.
Negan begins his assault
“How It’s Gotta Be” is perhaps the fastest moving, most convoluted episode this season so far, pulling together half a dozen different threads, to dizzying effect. It raises a question: why didn’t the writers pack any of these peripheral interactions and details into earlier installments? As it stands, the episode is crammed with one too many one-off scenes featuring secondary characters like Enid and Aaron, who get captured by the Oceanside community while on the road, and Tara and Rosita, who question whether Daryl’s big deviation from the plan last episode, in which he drives a truck into the Sanctuary, may ultimately backfire. (It kind of does.)
There’s also a flashback scene with Carl and Rick, in which Carl questions his father’s use of violence, and expresses hope for a more democratic conclusion to the conflict. Flashing forward, we see Carl writing letters, including one addressed to “Dad,” which is some heavy-handed foreshadowing, if you ask me. Regardless, we know things have to go south at some point — the entire season has featured the good guys “winning” the war, leaving viewers wondering when the other shoe is going to drop.
It does when Negan shows up at Alexandria, having escaped the zombie horde, and equipped with what appear to be firebombs. Carl springs into action, taking up the mantle of his absent father, and has everyone start evacuating to the tunnels beneath the town. But he stays behind to stall Negan for extra time, making it that much more obvious that The Walking Dead has plans for Rick Grimes’ son, who has enjoyed no more than 15 minutes of screen time this season.
Eugene and Ezekiel wake up
The Walking Dead’s laziest writing crutch is using short, shallow scenes as an excuse to check in on characters, where faces most people have long forgotten about or don’t much care for are brought back into the fold just to tie up loose ends and remind viewers where ancillary subplots stand. Even though we got a full dose of Eugene in last week’s episode, we get another minor scene with the man in “How It’s Gotta Be.” He finally finds enough courage to help Father Gabriel escape with the Hilltop’s imprisoned doctor.
Over in the Kingdom, the Saviors have taken the entire community hostage on Negan’s orders, but Ezekiel is nowhere to be found. Just as it looks like his disappearance will get a number of his people executed, the King uses an explosion as a distraction to get his people to safety. Knowing he won’t be killed — Negan wants Maggie, Rick, and Ezekiel alive, to use their deaths as examples — Ezekiel sacrifices himself to get Carol and the rest of the Kingdom to safety, staying behind long enough to ensure the gates close behind them and accepting what may ultimately be his death in the Saviors’ custody.
Both storylines have neat conclusions, with the writers salvaging what little likability Eugene has left, and giving Ezekiel a valiant reason to stop his moping and act like a true leader. But these subplots still felt rushed and spread thin, stuffed between so many other scenes, and seemingly serving the purpose of letting both of the characters disappear for an unspecified amount of time when the show returns in February. Eugene and Ezekiel are perfect examples of how The Walking Dead’s pacing problem sinks its subplots in inadequacy, with entire episodes dedicated to single characters that don’t end up paying off, because those characters are only given five minutes in a finale.
A meditation on violence
The same criticisms that apply to Eugene and Ezekiel's arcs this season can be said of Maggie, Jesus, Daryl, and Dwight as well. The Hilltop crew believe they’re going to help Alexandria force the Saviors’ surrender, but they get stopped on the way by a large convoy led by Simon, who breaks the bad news that Negan is free. Simon forces Maggie and the others back to the Hilltop, senselessly killing one of her people. Probably no one watching this show remembers that character’s name, but the death leads Maggie to finally disavow Jesus’ pacifism, and shoot one of the Hilltop prisoners in retaliation. Not only is she making a point that she won’t tolerate Jesus’ tactics any longer, she also plans to use the imprisoned Saviors as a bargaining chip to keep Negan and Simon at bay.
The Walking Dead seems perpetually confused by the concept of morality and what it’s trying to impart on viewers about violence, and in this episode, it jumps from an extrajudicial execution to a lackluster reckoning for Daryl. The character has been built up this season into a kind of villain whose hunger for revenge has crossed a line. Yet instead of making him rethink his actions, the show gives him a pass. After storming a group of Saviors that happens to contain Dwight, Daryl finally asks the critical question: did his plan to sacrifice a bunch of innocent people for the greater good lead to Negan’s escape? Sort of, Dwight tells him, but it was actually Eugene’s quick thinking that saved the day. Daryl leaves vindicated, after snatching his vest back from Dwight, who stole it many episodes ago. Somehow, Daryl ends up painted again as the stoic lone-wolf hero, after the show spent half a season trying to convince us he’s the opposite.
Carl steps out of Rick’s shadow
Everything in “How It’s Gotta Be” comes to a head when Rick returns to Alexandria to find his home in flames and the fate of his son, his significant other, and his infant daughter up in the air. He goes straight for his house, where Negan ambushes him. They fight viciously, both trying to wield Negan’s barbed-wire baseball bat against each other, but they both escape with minor injuries. Rick finds Michonne violently stabbing a Savior and shakes her free from whatever murderous vision she’s having, and the two head to the sewers.
Carl has a rougher go of it this episode. After stalling Negan long enough to let Alexandria escape underground, finally realizing his potential as a leadership figure as strong as his father, Carl comes very close to getting caught up in the Saviors’ many fire-spreading explosions. Injured but alive, he evades capture long enough to get to the underground himself. There, Rick finds him, for a critical moment the entire episode has been building toward. Carl, sickly as if from a gunshot wound, explains that he saved the man Siddiq, who Rick also meets again in the sewers. But in the process, Carl explains, he suffered an injury. And he lifts his shirt to reveal a walker bite.
The episode builds toward a somber conclusion and it pays off with a big surprise
The surprise — that AMC and showrunner Scott Gimple have decided to write off actor Chandler Riggs after eight years on the show — doesn’t seem to be driven by the emotional connection viewers have with Carl, who’s always been a so-so character, incapable of escaping his father’s shadow. What’s important here is the massive deviation from the comics, in which Carl is still alive, and playing a much larger role in the show’s post-Negan storyline. (In an interview with THR, Riggs confirms this is the end for him, with one last appearance planned for episode nine next year.)
This is by far the TV series’s largest departure from its source material to date, and it raises all sorts of interesting questions about how the choice will impact the trajectory of Rick’s character. It even raises the possibility that the show could eventually move beyond Rick. For the first time in a long time, The Walking Dead has delivered a real surprise, showing that the writers still have the desire and the means to shock viewers with a well-timed, strategic character death.
Evaluating the Villain:
Brutishness: Negan shows off his fighting prowess this episode by giving Rick a run for his money in close-quarters combat. While the altercation felt painfully handcuffed by plot requirements that neither man actually murder the other, it was still a good excuse to show Negan as an imposing, capable fighter who would rightfully dominate most of his opponents in battle.
Empathy: Negan displays a softer side when Carl tries to negotiate for the safety of his people by offering up his own life. It’s clear Negan sees something in the boy, perhaps wishing he himself had a son after, as we learned earlier this season, he lost his wife to cancer, pre-apocalypse. Carl was just pulling a fast one on him, but we get a flash of Negan’s capacity for empathy, which typically lets him get inside his victims’ heads, as he originally did with Carl last season.
Strategy: It seemingly took only an afternoon for Negan to put together a plan to strike back at Rick, formulating a three-pronged attack to take over Alexandria, the Hilltop, and the Kingdom with minimal casualties. Negan, being the clever strategist he is, doesn’t want to waste any lives, as he’s explained in the past how distasteful he finds unnecessary killing when it’s much more resource-efficient to keep people in line and producing for the Saviors. It’s a testament to his wits when he manages to push back against his enemies while hardly wasting a bullet.
Negan-o-meter`™: 8 out of 10
Moving the needle:
While The Walking Dead has taken some generous liberties when adapting its protagonists’ stories, it’s often felt most rigid with regard to its villains. That’s made The Governor and his successor Negan feel one-dimensional, without any of the nuance required to make viewers truly despise, relate to, and even admire these characters all at the same time. The little development we’ve gotten so far with Negan this season has been a big step up from last year’s abysmal showing, in which Negan seemed to regress further into comic book stereotypes the longer he remained on-screen. But this season, Negan hasn’t gotten enough airtime to become the villain the show desperately needs him to be. More often than not, he’s been lost between the 10 different inconsequential subplots spanning the show’s three-dozen-person cast.
What’s required now is a Negan-focused departure from the source material that’s as significant as Carl’s death. Many viewers have started to get the inkling that The Walking Dead plans to keep Negan around as part of the ensemble, and that there won’t be a satisfying conclusion to the feud between him and Rick, at least not in the way viewers may be hoping for. The show’s steadfast adaptation of Kirkman’s “All Out War” saga thus far has only made that dreadful narrative decision feel all the more inevitable. Who really wants Negan to stick around until the series’s end? Gimple and AMC have shown they’re willing to go as far as writing off Carl. It would be even more daring to do the same to Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and retire Negan for good.