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The Walking Dead Villain Watch season 8, episode 9: Honor

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But can the show save itself from its worst tendencies?

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

The Walking Dead is back after its traditional midseason break, careening toward the conclusion of the “All Out War” saga and the end of the feud between Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his archnemesis Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Thus far, the show’s big bet on Negan has been a bit of a misfire, with ratings hitting staggering lows last year and Negan himself largely absent from the first half of the show’s eighth season.

But a midseason relaunch is an opportunity to start again, so in the weeks ahead, 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. Hopefully, in this next run of episodes, The Walking Dead can turn Negan into the big bad audiences have always wanted.

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Warning: There will be spoilers.

The Walking Dead headed into the second half of season 8 last night with two big issues to face. The main question hanging over the midseason premiere was how AMC and showrunner Scott Gimple planned to handle the death of Carl Grimes, a main character since the series began and a major player in the comic book to this day. TWD has often been criticized for its handling of character deaths, particularly since the brutal beatings of Glenn and Abraham in the overhyped season 7 premiere. But Carl’s pending death is clearly supposed to provoke some somber and existential reflection on the part of Rick, and the show couldn’t really afford to emotionally manipulate or head-fake its audience this time.

The other responsibility the show needed to deal with was Negan himself. The first half of season 8 couldn’t decide whether it wanted Negan to be likable, hated, shallow, or deep — and Negan didn’t get enough screen time for the writers to even attempt a nuanced combination of those qualities. It was a bad sign for the coming end of the “All Out War” saga, and the midseason premiere, “Honor,” didn’t do much to solve that problem. However, it did prove that The Walking Dead still knows how to pull heartstrings and give its characters proper send-offs, if given the right circumstances.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

Carl pleads with Rick to find another way

Much of “Honor” splits its time between a sickened, deathly Carl succumbing to his walker bite and the otherwise healthy, yet resigned, version of the character from a few days prior. We see Carl writing letters to everyone he loves and experiencing a revelatory moment basking in the sun outside Alexandria as he appears to be pondering what it means to live. It’s all set to Bright Eyes’ “At the Bottom of Everything” in a fitting montage sequence.

Carl has often been a punchline throughout TWD. Longtime fans are fond of the “Coral” meme, named for how Andrew Lincoln pronounces the boy’s name with his fake Southern accent, typically in desperation over his son’s safety. The character has grown up on-screen over the past eight years, but he has mostly served as a plot device with no agency of his own. (His role largely diminished in comparison to the comics. In the books, Carl is a more brutal killer.) “Honor” gives him the respect he deserves and paints the young adult as a morally righteous, idealistic survivor who only wants the best for his father and the community that Rick’s built.

To that end, the dying Carl decides that his sacrifice won’t be in vain, that he will influence his father and have an impact on the future. Carl reveals to Rick and Michonne that he was bitten while saving Siddiq, who, it turns out, has medical experience and may prove invaluable to the group’s ongoing survival. Furthermore, Carl says his dying wish is for his father to find a way to end the Negan conflict without mass bloodshed. He tells Rick to remember who he was in the past, calling back to the show’s second season when Rick vowed not to be violent and laid down his gun. “You can be like that again,” Carl says. “You can’t kill all of them, dad. There’s got to be something after.” In that moment, it appears Rick is finally ready to listen, instead of just instinctively trying to protect his son one more time from the cruelty of the world.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

Morgan continues down his path of violence

While Rick, Michonne, and the others hide in some underground sewers to avoid the Saviors’ firebombing of Alexandria, Morgan and Carol embark on a quest to free Ezekiel and clear a path to safety for the Kingdom. In short order, the situation devolves into another moral exploration of Carol and Morgan’s philosophies on violence, vengeance, and how to reconcile their past selves with their current ones. We’ve seen Morgan transform from a non-violent pacifist to a vengeance-seeking murderer. Meanwhile, Carol has boomeranged, going from a timid woman unprepared to face the post-apocalypse, to one mercilessly adept at maneuvering it, to one guilty over her violent ways, and finally to someone who’s found some sort of equilibrium between the diverging approaches.

Morgan hasn’t yet figured out how to face his demons and live with them, and so we see him ruthlessly murder every Savior that they come across. Even when Carol urges him not to give away their position, Morgan puts himself in danger just to secure another kill. Shortly thereafter, Morgan finds himself face-to-face with Gavin — one of Negan’s primary lieutenants — and he’s presented with another decision between life and death.

In a rather fantastic juxtaposition, we see Morgan grappling with the decision to kill Gavin intercut with Carl’s pleading to Rick to find a less violent way to end the war. Morgan appears ready to succumb forever to his thirst for revenge and retribution. Then, Henry, the preteen whose brother Benjamin was killed last season, appears and stabs Gavin through the neck. Benjamin’s death was what set Morgan down his path of violence in the first place, and as he realizes how vengeance has turned Henry, he begins to grapple with how cycles of violence can reverberate through younger generations.

Morgan doesn’t seem to find true clarity in the moment — or at least the episode doesn’t say anything definitive about his mindset — but he does appear to be on the path toward a solution that may save his conscience.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

Carl’s choice and the secret of the flash-forward

In the last minutes of “Honor,” Carl describes his vision for the future to Rick: one in which his sister Judith can grow up in a peaceful community and his father and Michonne can age gracefully, without having to continuously fight for survival and risk losing their own lives — or those of the ones they love. In this moment, the episode shifts into the dream-like haze we first saw at the beginning of the season, and it becomes clear that the flash-forward TWD has been teasing for months is, in fact, the idyllic future Carl hopes his father can build by following his advice.

It’s here that we see the bearded version of Rick, holding a cane and walking with a limp, as the leader of a cohesive community bridging the Kingdom, Hilltop, and Alexandria. And in a jarring twist, Judith approaches a new member of that group at the end of the sequence: Negan himself. The villain is shown as a jovial farmer, someone who’s on a first-name basis with Judith, and seemingly at peace with Rick and the others. “This is how it could be,” Carl says to father. (For comic readers, the scene is quite telling about how TWD will handle the “All Out War” conclusion.)

The final sequence of the episode is tough to watch, packing an emotional punch that proves TWD does know how to deal with elements like grief and suicide with both subtlety and respect. Carl tells Rick and Michonne that he has to be the one to take his own life and that he refuses to let himself turn. The show handles the moment masterfully, focusing on Rick and Michonne outside the cabin where they’ve laid Carl to rest, while a silenced pistol shot breaks an unnerving 10 seconds or so of dead air. The sound sends unsettling spasms through Andrew Lincoln and Danai Gurira, who both remain in shocked silence afterward.

Carl is laid to rest in Alexandria, while the closing shot of “Honor” brings us back to another mystery flash-forward that’s been percolating throughout the season: one featuring a bloodied Rick in circumstances unknown.

Photo by Jackson Lee Davis / AMC

Evaluating the Villain:

Presence: There is literally one glimpse of Negan throughout all of “Honor,” but it is an important scene. The dream sequence, in which Carl imagines Negan as a productive member of the Alexandria, Kingdom, and Hilltop communities, is meant to be a mind-bending tease to non-comic readers, many of whom have probably already guessed that Carl’s sacrifice will inevitably manifest with Rick developing a sense of mercy. So while this wasn’t a true narrative flash-forward, it’s designed to somewhat act like one.

Menace: Carl seems to think Negan would be capable of just assimilating into the community as if nothing happened, but of course that’s not possible given his sociopathic nature and penchant for cruelty and violence. If Rick does take his son’s words to heart and spare Negan’s life, it’s unlikely Negan would ever relinquish his role as a leader, which necessarily means incarcerating him. In a grander sense, it’s not clear what Negan actually wants, as either a villain or as a human being. That makes Carl’s idea of reconciliation between his people and the Saviors — and any kind of meaningful role for Negan in the post-war period — unrealistic at best, naive at worst.

Violence: For Negan, the closest thing he has to an ideology is his self-proclaimed savior complex: the idea that he, and he alone, is strong enough to keep people alive, fed, and working toward a shared goal. However, he is sadistic, immature, and retrograde with regards to punishment and his relationships toward women. But if the Negan we know now was able to somehow become the Negan Carl imagines him to be — a man who can warmly greet children and perform manual labor for the greater good — then perhaps there’s a chance that the show could do some of the heavy lifting required to transform Negan’s character.

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Negan-o-meter™ score: 3 out of 10

Moving the needle:

The only way for The Walking Dead to wrap things up in a satisfying manner and give Negan some semblance of an arc will be to make the villain a central focus of the plot throughout the remaining episodes. He’s a character that simply needs more exploration to feel like anything more than a misguided stunt. That’s a tall order for a show obsessed with filler, subplots, and drawn-out narratives, but directly incorporating Negan is truly the best — if not only — way that the series can bring its disparate narrative threads together. With Rick now carrying the responsibility Carl has given him to find a peaceful resolution to the war, we can only hope that his relationship to Negan will take center-stage the next seven episodes.