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The Walking Dead Villain Watch season 8, episode 12: The Key

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The Walking Dead feels fresh, original, and truly open-ended for the first time in years

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.

You can point the finger at a number of inadequacies plaguing The Walking Dead these past few seasons, but among the most frustrating and visible missteps is the show’s pacing. A season of The Walking Dead basically consists of a premiere and a finale, with a lot of meandering and lopsided water-treading between those two points. (For the audience, it’s been made even worse by AMC’s edict to chop each season into two halves, forcing the tortured cycle to repeat itself twice a year.)

But in the back half of its eighth season, the show feels like it’s starting to mix it up at last. The death of Carl — happening not in surprise finale fashion, but drawn out into the midseason opener — has set off a series of events that feel both organic and unpredictable in ways that The Walking Dead hasn’t embraced since the arrival of Negan. Carl’s death itself was a major deviation from the comics, and that change seems to have dictated the overall direction of the season at large. In last night’s episode, “The Key,” major players make critical choices, ending up in situations where anything was possible — making The Walking Dead feel fresh, original, and truly open-ended for the first time in years.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

The mysterious traders

With the Hilltop still reeling from Carl’s death, it’s not quite clear what move Rick, Maggie, and the others should make. The Kingdom has been claimed by the Saviors, and Alexandria was firebombed to ashes. Now, the survivors of both places have collected at Maggie’s fast-growing community, which includes an entire makeshift prison of Savior POWs and all of Ezekiel’s leftover forces. What is clear, however, is that Maggie is now in a leadership position that is far more complex — and frankly meaningful — than Rick’s, who seems mostly interested in filling the role of general, along with Daryl and Carol. “The Key” drives home the point that Maggie’s level-headed diplomacy and sound decision-making represents a way out of the group’s spiral of misery, primarily through a test of Maggie’s resolve when meeting some of the show’s most mysterious and intriguing characters to date.

Maggie, Michonne, Rosita, and Enid catch sight of a signal on the outskirts of the Hilltop containing an invitation to meet with a group of traders who promise to deliver “a key” to the future. The group heads out to the specified coordinates and meets a woman in a suit, flanked by stoic female guards, who goes by the name of Georgie. She asks for food and vinyl records, of all things, in exchange for this “key,” explaining that the entire exercise is a way to establish trust with the Hilltop. (Georgie appears to have been keeping her eye on the group from afar.) In the wake of Carl’s death, the members of the Hilltop struggle with how to respond. Michonne wants to honor Carl’s dying wishes by being more willing to trust others and find peace. Enid and Rosita, on the other hand, are too jaded at this point and don’t believe anyone would want to act in such good faith anymore.

Maggie makes the crucial decision to trust Georgie, and the woman reveals that she has a copy of a guidebook on how to rebuild society, quite literally named A Key to a Future. The book lays out how to build windmills and aqueducts, how to refine grain, and other skills essential to modern-day society, and she gifts a copy to Maggie alongside crates full of food. Georgie only asks that the Hilltop repay the debt by following the guidebook and establishing itself as a diverse trader for potential future exchanges. It’s clear this is the start of a grander story arc — and, to be honest, it’s invigorating to see that TWD has a long-term plan that goes beyond the grueling Rick vs. Negan competition. At this point, the prospect of there being a sprawling network of communities overseen by Georgie and her people with the task of rebuilding society is the kind of revelatory change that could signal TWD is stepping away from its worst impulses. But first, there’s a war to finish.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

Simon takes up the mantle

While Maggie is inheriting knowledge that will allow her to rebuild society, Rick goes off on a solo vendetta mission to kill Negan, whom he spots traveling with a small army of Saviors. They’re hellbent on catapulting zombie guts over the Hilltop’s walls. Rick can thank Eugene for that half-baked plan, which he came up with in a moment of desperation in last week’s episode. When Rick spots Negan’s vehicle, he drives off on his own to track the man down. He successfully sideswipes the Saviors’ boss and flips his vehicle, initiating a rather tense one-on-one encounter.

Meanwhile, Simon gets Dwight alone in his own vehicle to question the man’s loyalties. It’s clear Simon doesn’t trust Negan’s approach anymore; after wiping out Jadis’ people, Simon thinks the only way forward is to use violence and wipe out all their enemies. He doesn’t believe in the philosophy of the Saviors anymore, and honestly, it’s not clear he or any of the other Saviors ever did. They all just seem to follow Negan because he’s the strongest presence in the room, and has basically bullied his way to the top of the food chain. Recognizing how Rick and the others don’t back down from Negan, Simon confides in Dwight and vents his frustration.

It’s a fantastic scene, giving Steven Ogg a chance to show off his acting chops as Simon, and making viewers rightfully wonder why his character has always played second fiddle to Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan. The character Ogg has crafted feels more real than any of the other Saviors. He’s sadistic and hot-tempered, sure, but he’s also deceptively clever and even goofy at times, a complex combination that makes him truly come to life.

When the duo breaks off from the rest of the Saviors to find Negan, they find his vehicle overturned and on fire, with their leader nowhere to be found. In a critical moment, Simon asks Dwight whether they should just assume Negan is dead and carry on without him. Dwight agrees, but it seems only to be an insurance policy against his alliance with Rick going south or failing to pay dividends. When Simon then informs the other Saviors that Negan is likely dead, he anoints himself the new leader and marches the group onward to the Hilltop with a plan to wipe the whole community out. Dwight is understandably worried, thinking he may have just enabled an even more violent and unchecked personality to take on the leadership role without necessarily thinking through all the consequences.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

Negan and Rick’s fire-filled zombie showdown

Rick is out for blood in “The Key,” and his hand-to-hand showdown with Negan is one of the show’s best action sequences. With Negan’s vehicle out of commission, Rick chases Negan into a zombie-infested building where the two eventually find themselves falling through the floor into utter darkness. What ensues is a rather interesting back-and-forth, where Negan tries to cut a deal with Rick, promising him the Saviors will take a smaller cut of their food and supplies every week if the Hilltop agrees to surrender its weapons and “become saved,” as the saying goes. Of course, Rick declines the offer, but in doing so he inadvertently reveals to Negan that Simon killed all of Jadis’ people. Negan realizing that Simon has lied to him will only further aggravate the already-deteriorating relationship between the two Saviors.

Beyond that moment, the scene also gives Rick an opportunity to interrogate Negan’s worldview. He rightly calls Negan out for pretending to care about people and their well-being, openly calling out the man’s treatment of women and saying all he cares about is the baseball bat. Yet when Rick confirms to Negan that he’s commandeered his beloved baseball bat, Lucille, Negan becomes enraged — tackling Rick right into a room full of walkers. It wouldn’t be TWD if there weren’t flaming zombies at some point, so Rick uses a lighter to turn the entire room into a double-threat, with flames engulfing the walls, floors, and the flesh-eating undead. Negan ultimately gets his hands back on Lucille and bashes his way to freedom, and when Rick finally races outside to give chase he finds that Negan has mysteriously vanished.

Nightmare for Negan, Part 2: Jadis’ Revenge

As if being nearly defeated by Rick wasn’t enough, in the final scene of the episode, it’s revealed that Negan didn’t actually escape. Instead, he wakes up in the front seat of a pickup truck with a gun to his head, having been kidnapped by Jadis in all the furor. While the logistics of how Jadis was able to knock Negan out, haul him into a vehicle, and drive away before Rick could spot them are all too unclear, it’s easy to forgive because this is the first episode all season where the show has dared to leave every major player’s fate utterly up in the air.

So often with TWD, the character’s episodic journeys are circular, sending them into some type of danger within the show’s 45-minute time frame, only to resolve it by the end and leave them right back where they started. It can feel like Zombie Apocalypse: The Sitcom at times, but with “The Key,” the whole chessboard has been upended. Simon now leads the Saviors, Negan is a captive of Jadis, Rick has failed in his big opportunity to end the war, and Maggie now finds herself in the profound position of having to plan the Hilltop’s long-term future. For the first time in years, anything is possible — and everything is uncertain.

Photo by Gene Page / AMC

Evaluating the villain:

Menace: Negan is mostly on the defensive all episode and shows true terror when Rick is hunting him down. But TWD does want viewers to know that Negan didn’t get into a position of power without demonstrating brutality, and Negan’s penchant for melee combat and his almost borderline psychotic relationship with his baseball bat shine brightly in “The Key.” The man goes to great lengths to reclaim his favorite weapon from Rick and then uses it to deftly break his way through a flaming zombie horde. Rick had the edge with an automatic weapon and his trusty revolver, but even then, he couldn’t handle Negan when the fight moved to close quarters.

Cunning: Negan is not one to put up a fight when the odds are against him out of a misplaced sense of arrogance or pride. So when Rick disarms him and starts hunting him in the dark, Negan instantly tries to reason with the man and cut a deal — anything to resolve the situation without risking his life. It’s not the bravest approach, but it’s the smart one, as Negan makes it clear he understands Carl’s death is weighing heavy on Rick. In the absence of that unforeseen situation with Jadis, Negan may just have been able to actually reach a compromise.

Composure: Since his arrival back in season 7, Negan has repeatedly demonstrated that he’s perfectly at home in the post-apocalypse. Nothing seems to faze him, and he seems willing to tackle any scenario. Granted, Negan was basically running for his life this episode, knowing full well that Rick could land a shot on him. But beyond the normal state of tension that implies, Negan never once seemed to lose his cool, and he kept cracking jokes even amid a room full of fire and zombies.

Negan-o-meter: 7 out of 10

Moving the needle:

TWD has managed to do some course-correcting with Negan, especially now that it’s really tossing curveballs at comic readers who don’t know where things are headed now that Carl Grimes is out of the picture. With “The Key,” we got to see a different side of the villain, as he ran scared from what feels like the first viable threat on his life since his introduction. He also now finds himself a captive of Jadis, a circumstance forced upon him solely because of Simon’s bloodlust and lack of loyalty. It will be fascinating to see how he handles himself here, as the easy way out would be to kill both Jadis and Simon. But that doesn’t seem like Negan’s style.

In a grander sense, it finally feels like Negan is being integrated into the ensemble, rather than treated as an amorphous threat our protagonists struggle against to give the show its needed conflict. Yet more than ever, the show needs to better articulate his motives and end game here. For as smart as he is, Negan seems unreasonably intent on subjugating Rick and his people and for reasons unrelated to what they can provide them in terms of food and supplies. Further fleshing out Negan’s reasons for waging the war and refusing to compromise with Rick would make the villain an even more realized character.