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.
The Walking Dead has managed to pick up the pace over the last few episodes, charting its own unique path out of the Negan storyline. It’s been a promising turn of events, particularly given how derivative the show has felt since the villain’s arrival. While it’s likely that the show’s version of the “All Out War” saga will ultimately end in the same way that it did in Robert Kirkman’s comic, the journey has become its own unique beast, making the show feel refreshingly open-ended.
However, on “Do Not Send Us Astray,” viewers are forced to contend with one of TWD’s silliest, campiest, and most illogical plot lines: the infected weapons that Negan and the Saviors have been talking up for a few episodes now. It’s well-known within Walking Dead fandom that in the comic, Negan concocts a plan to dip the Saviors’ weapons in walker guts in order to infect his enemies — even those with just minor nicks or cuts. But on the show, it was established back in season 1 that people can safely cover themselves in those same walker entrails to move through the zombie hordes without detection. Characters have repeated the trick numerous times since, including situations where it’s all but impossible to believe that they didn’t have broken skin somewhere.
So when showrunner Scott Gimple and team pull Negan’s comic book trick and place it right at the center of the episode, they create what can only be described as a glaring continuity error. And in a show where the rules around how the zombie infection spreads are foundational, it’s a critical one, undermining what is an otherwise tight and tense series of action sequences.
Maggie leads the Hilltop into battle
Following Simon’s proclamation last week to end the Hilltop and assume Negan’s spot as leader of the Saviors, it appeared a bloodbath was imminent. Instead, “Do Not Lead Us Astray” highlights Maggie’s leadership skills, particularly her ability to anticipate her enemy’s strategic moves. Simon and the rest of the Saviors barrel headfirst into the Hilltop, only to find themselves pinned down from both sides: Maggie expected the assault and put Rick and the others in place to attack the Saviors from behind. The scene plays out in exhilarating and realistic fashion. Rick’s charge from the rear felt like a proper scene of war, with tight choreography and intense exchanges of gunfire. The moment stands in stark contrast to the first half of the season, in which every character seemed to have an unlimited store of bullets and the worst possible aim.
Numerous Saviors go down, and as the fighting intensifies, the group is fractured and sent scattering. It’s then that Dwight finds himself hunting with Simon, just as they spot Tara. It’s a pivotal moment for the double agent. Dwight doesn’t actually want to hurt Tara at all; in fact, he is eager to reestablish trust with her, Daryl, and the rest of Rick’s allies. Of course, the challenge of playing multiple sides is that Simon thinks he and Dwight are actually on the same page in his plans to overthrow Negan. And as far as the audience is aware, Negan still trusts Dwight. The scenario puts Dwight in a complicated triangle of allegiances, to say the least.
At the Hilltop, Dwight faces a crucial moment when Simon goes in for an attack on Tara. Knowing that Simon’s knife is covered in walker blood, and just a scratch could be lethal, Dwight hits Tara with a non-lethal crossbow shot from afar. It halts Simon’s attack and saves Tara’s life — but unfortunately, Daryl sees Dwight take the shot, making it unlikely that the Hilltop will ever be able to trust Dwight, despite his intentions. There is the possibility that Dwight’s ultimate fate will hinge on Tara not turning into a zombie — thus proving he was trying to save her, rather than kill her. Still, for a show that rarely dabbles in these kinds of high-level mind games, it’s rather shocking to see a character as nuanced as Dwight remain so integral to the direction of the plot.
Revenge destroys even the young
While the Hilltop erupts in battle, one of TWD’s more insufferable subplots is brought to the forefront when Henry goes looking for revenge. Henry is the younger brother of the Kingdom fighter that Morgan failed to protect back in episode 13 of last season, and he defies Carol and Morgan’s orders to stay put. Instead, Henry grabs a semi-automatic firearm that’s nearly as large as he is, and goes wandering into the prison cell where about three dozen POWs are locked up. He asks which one killed his brother, only to be immediately disarmed and knocked out, allowing the Saviors to escape. Some join Simon, others flee outright, while a third faction somewhat surprisingly stick around to help the Hilltop, having developed a sense of respect and loyalty for Maggie after her level-headed decision-making in earlier episodes.
But the whole scenario feels manufactured and far-fetched as if the writers were so desperate to give more screen time to the prisoner Alden — who is clearly being groomed as a potential love interest for Maggie — that they decided to give an elementary school-aged kid a death wish in order to pull it off. Ostensibly, viewers are meant to believe that Henry’s thirst for revenge can be traced back to Morgan, who spends the entire episode elsewhere, stabbing Saviors with his spear while hallucinating the walking corpse of Gavin. But it’s not clear how the audience is actually supposed to feel about either Morgan or Henry at this point, or why the show is even spending time with these characters in the first place.
The Walking Dead seems to treat these kinds of storylines less as the ongoing adventures of people the audience cares about, and more like clunky delivery devices for rather obvious themes. The idea that anybody watching the series would still be confused about the show’s stance on the price of violence or its unintended consequences is laughable at this point, and it’s hard to ignore the feeling that the show would just be better off if it culled these sideline stories from the narrative entirely. (Then again, perhaps it’s all just a matter of AMC keeping Morgan in play in anticipation of his jump to the spinoff series Fear the Walking Dead.)
The infected surprise attack
As the fighting dies down, the various groups take their respective positions for the surprise third act. Simon and the Saviors are forced out of the Hilltop, while some of the prisoners Henry freed help secure the gate, earning Maggie’s trust in the process. Meanwhile, Siddiq helps treat the wounded, which includes Carol’s long-lost love interest Tobin from however many episodes ago. (Don’t worry, I barely remembered him either.)
Of course, like our tragic friend Morales, Tobin has been brought back into the fold only to die. It turns out he was struck by an infected weapon, and he perishes and turns so quickly after his reunion with Carol that nobody even notices until it’s too late. Quickly, the situation spirals out of control, as the wounded Hilltop fighters succumb to their infections and start attacking their own in the dead of night. Suddenly, Rick, Daryl, Maggie, and Michonne are fighting off a dozen zombies while trying to figure out where the outbreak originated from.
When the dust clears, they’re hit with the somber realization that what first appeared like a sound victory for Maggie was actually another moment where they were outsmarted by the Saviors. The audience may know that Simon failed in his larger mission to exterminate the Hilltop, but from Maggie and Rick’s point of view, Negan just looks more intimidating than ever. Rick realizes in the final moments of the episode that the enemy used a dirty and unprecedented trick, and Maggie is left picking up the pieces of her shattered community.
Evaluating the villain:
Cunning: We still don’t know how Negan came up with his plan to infect the Saviors’ weapons using zombie guts or why in the world it suddenly works out of the blue without any explanation or past story-world evidence to support it. But putting all that aside, Negan was able to effectively develop what amounts to a post-apocalyptic bioweapon, demonstrating his sharp, military mind.
Strategy: While this episode didn’t actually feature Negan in the flesh, “Do Not Send Us Astray” did illustrate the fruits of his master plan to infect the Hilltop without having to resort to all-out warfare. Even with him absent from the fight, the Saviors were able to fall back on their infected weapons when confronted with armed resistance. And it was a relative success, causing casualties and striking fear as the dead turned and attacked their former comrades. Still, it seems like a rather counterintuitive strategy when the whole point of not using outright force was to keep casualties down.
Negan-o-meter: 5 out of 10
Moving the needle:
Without having Negan on-screen to explain his plan or to even carry it out himself, the audience is largely left in the dark when it comes to his motivations. Why does he feel the need to keep Rick, Maggie, and the others alive, instead of following Simon’s path and just trying to wipe them out? Why keep fighting when he could easily compromise with his enemies, or pack up and leave Virginia altogether? The Saviors certainly have enough firearms and vehicles to relocate. At this point, it looks like Simon (even though he was bested in this particular battle) has a better idea of what it takes to lead a totalitarian post-apocalyptic cult than Negan does. At least the show has made it clear how Simon thinks. Negan, even after all this time, often remains a frustrating cipher.
To get back on the rails and cash in on some of the momentum the show built over the last few episodes, The Walking Dead needs to establish Negan’s end game — and do it in a way that feels motivated by the legitimately satisfying web of relationships the show has established — rather than relying on the crutch of it being something Kirkman did in the comic years ago.
As it stands right now, the plot feels all-too-easy to predict: Rick will corner the Saviors by capitalizing on Dwight’s double-agent status and Simon’s betrayal, only to let Negan live so as to abide by Carl’s dying wish to find peace and forgiveness. But if that conclusion is going to have the emotional payoff and long-standing narrative consequences it rightfully should, the show needs to earn it. It can only do that by further digging into Negan — and the feelings each of these characters have about the truly calamitous destruction he has wrought. Maggie and Rick both faced wold-changing losses because of Negan — losses that the audience felt as well. Unless The Walking Dead is able to effectively deliver on the emotional promise of the situation, both Glenn and Carl will have died in vain.