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.
Warning: There will be spoilers.
It seems counterintuitive to kick off a season of ostensibly action-packed television with a slow-burning, heartbreaking tragedy, yet that is exactly what The Walking Dead did last week. Following through on episode 8’s shocking ending, in which Carl Grimes revealed an inevitably fatal walker bite to the stomach, Rick’s teenage son went out in style last week. Not only did he recruit a potentially critical new member named Siddiq and help buy Alexandria enough time to escape the Saviors’ firebombing, but Carl also imparted some wisdom to his father that just might change the tide of the war with Negan and the Saviors. Carl told Rick he wanted him to find another way, to find a solution without succumbing to the cycle of violence that seemingly won’t stop until everything is destroyed and there’s nothing left to rebuild.
Going into the 10th episode, “The Lost and the Plunderers,” the outstanding issue was what Rick would decide to do after the loss of his son. Carl’s death is a huge departure from the plot of writer Robert Kirkman’s comics, so there’s no guidance to be had there, and given how Rick has seen the world historically it’s hard to understand why he would keep fighting for a better world knowing that he can’t save those who will inherit it. How will Carl’s departure affect Judith, who’s too young to defend herself from any of the post-apocalyptic threats? And what to make of the boy’s dying wish for peace — and how unrealistic is that dream, given the threat Negan represents? These questions get explored at length in “The Lost and the Plunderers,” making for perhaps the best episode The Walking Dead has delivered in quite a long time.
Not coincidentally, there’s plenty of Negan this time around.
Rick and Michonne say goodbye to Alexandria
Just moments after Rick and Michonne lay Carl to rest in Alexandria, the zombie horde proves too much for the duo to overcome, forcing them to abandon their home in the opening moments of the episode. It’s a tragic scene. We see Rick stifling his heartbreak to help a self-destructive Michonne get out, as the sword-wielding warrior chops down zombie after zombie in her attempt to salvage the gazebo Carl loved as a hangout spot. Unfortunately, the structure succumbs to fire, and Rick and Michonne are forced out on the road. The message is clear: Alexandria is gone.
The message is clear: Alexandria is gone
It’s easy to forget that the Alexandria of three seasons ago felt like a dream. It was a gated community, with running water and solar panels and fully furnished mansions. It was the kind of silly backdrop The Walking Dead loves to use as a contrast to its broader, post-apocalyptic setting. But Alexandria, even if it’s been the setting for some of the show’s most meandering episodes and subplots, proved important because it gave the main characters something worth fighting for. It reminded Rick and the rest of the group that normalcy is possible when you put down the guns, stop fighting, and try to rebuild.
On that note, a minor subplot of “The Lost and the Plunderers” has Enid and Aaron headed to Oceanside, where its all-female crew of survivors has holed up. The two groups aren’t on great terms: Rick confiscated all of Oceanside’s weapons when the community refused to fight Negan last season. But Aaron is convinced there’s a way to reconcile and join both communities against a common enemy, while Enid remains unconvinced. Unaware of Carl’s death, she then heads back to the Hilltop, where she’s poised to receive the tragic news alongside everyone else.
The rift between Negan and Simon widens
“The Lost and the Plunderers” pulls a bit of narrative somersaulting, showing a sequence of events out of order that starts with Rick and Negan establishing communication over walkie-talkies. How that scene comes to pass involves a complex chain of cause and effect, starting with Negan telling his lieutenant Simon to handle Jadis and the trash people for daring to try and double-cross them. While Simon’s bloodlust is apparent — he wants to kill them all — Negan again establishes his authority, raising his voice to a roar and lecturing Simon on the philosophy of the Saviors, who treat people primarily as resources to be used, not wasted.
The dispute, similar to one they had in the first half of the season on how to handle Rick, comes back to Negan’s worldview versus that of a more single-minded thug like Simon. At the first presence of real conflict, Simon’s response has always been to use violence, even if he has tended to be among the more cunning and quick-witted of the Saviors.
Negan, on the other hand, knows his way around psychological warfare. He tells Simon to perform a public execution and to confiscate Jadis’ firearms. Simon suggests wiping them all out and expanding the Saviors’ reach — to find more communicates to “save” — but Negan shuts the man down, setting up an interesting conflict between the show’s supposed villain and someone even more morally repugnant. It’s a telling moment for Negan’s character, as it seems the man is not interested in growing his reach and ruling over more of the post-apocalypse, but rather he seems to earnestly want to keep and maintain the stability the Saviors enjoyed before Rick.
The fate of Jadis and the garbage people
The episode’s fragmented structure jumps from Rick and Negan’s walkie-talkie conversation to Rick and Michonne, post-Alexandria escape, taking a detour to find Jadis. Instead, they discover that the entire trash heap has been overrun by walkers. It’s revealed shortly thereafter that Simon slaughtered the entire community, all over a petty disagreement about how Jadis chose to apologize to him for making a secret deal behind Negan’s back. His blatant disregard for Negan’s orders — paired with his penchant for savage violence — seems to be setting up Simon as a standalone villain that even Negan would find distasteful. (That sense is only bolstered when Simon lies to Negan’s face about what he’s done.)
Eventually, Rick and Michonne do find Jadis, who they learn was left alive by Simon’s firing squad. She pleads with them for help, dropping her cult-like, shortened syntax, and revealing that she used to be an artist who would use the trash heap to scavenge for canvas material. Rich and Michonne decline to give her any aid, and Jadis is eventually forced to lay a trap for the mindless zombies that roam the trash heap. One by one, she lures the walkers into the jaws of a giant trash compactor. It’s a humanizing scene for one of The Walking Dead’s more idiosyncratic characters, finally giving the audience a reason to empathize with someone who has always felt more appropriate for the world of Mad Max rather than the backwoods of Virginia.
The turning point for Rick
“The Lost and the Plunderers” culminates with the eventual conversation between Rick and Negan that was teased in the episode’s opening segment. It turns out, the entire conversation was instigated by a letter Carl had written to Negan, echoing the pleas for peace he’d already made to his father. The exchange between Rick and Negan is the most direct communication the pair have had in quite some time, and it’s a staggeringly powerful moment. Rick delivers the news of Carl’s death to Negan, who in a jarring twist, takes it quite hard, looking devastated for a moment before expressing what appears to be genuine sadness and empathy. Yet Rick isn’t swayed, and he makes it clear he still intends to kill Negan — no matter what Carl’s wishes were.
It’s rare for ‘the walking dead’ to acknowledge that Rick is a straight-up flawed character
Negan sidesteps the fighting words, however, and instead reveals his own affection for Carl. “I’m sorry,” he tells Rick. “I wanted him to be part of things. I had plans. That kid was the future.” It’s clear that Negan saw Carl as a surrogate son of his own, someone with the kind of steely resolve necessary to inherit whatever twisted future society he’s trying to build. Then, with Rick feeling vulnerable, Negan switches gears and goes in for the kill. He tells the grieving father that his son is dead because “you weren’t there to stop him from doing something stupid.” It’s here that Negan delivers a chilling condemnation of Rick’s character. “How many more of your shit decisions cost you to lose anyone else you love?” he asks.
It’s rare for The Walking Dead to acknowledge that Rick is a straight-up flawed character. Too often the show flirts with the notion that Rick’s judgment is poor and his arrogance too great, most directly back in season 5, when Rick first arrived in Alexandria and almost single-handedly destroyed the idyllic life there. But here, in very plain terms that are impossible to ignore, Negan makes a good point. Rick has made decisions that have time and again proved fatal for a number of his closest friends and family. He refuses to be subjugated, and it’s in his nature to fight back. But when facing a threat that feels unstoppable, Rick’s inability to outsmart his opponents — or, at the very least, negotiate a favorable armistice — has almost always resulted in unneeded bloodshed. Hershel’s farm back in season 2, at the prison against the Governor in seasons 3 and 4; it’s not just a one-off misstep or accident. It’s a fundamental flaw in who Rick Grimes is as a man and as a leader.
So while it’s easy to despise Negan and the Saviors for the way they hurt other people, it is undeniable that in the context of the post-apocalypse, the strong exploiting the weak may be a viable path to safety and prosperity. At least, that’s the bleak message the show sends to both Rick and viewers, as the episode closes with Negan uttering the words, “Just give up.” It’s not clear that Rick has a rebuttal to Negan’s pronouncement, and the question of whether he’s fighting now out of vengeance, or because of genuine and pure intentions remains unanswered.
Evaluating the villain:
Pragmatism: One of Negan’s most strategically utilized skills is his ability to clearly and calmly assess situations and determine what outcome is most practicable and favorable. Only when he’s intent on making an example out of people does Negan seem to act out of impulse or anger. Take, for instance, the murder of Spencer by the pool table or when he threw a man into a live furnace. While he seems to outwardly live and act according to a set of theories and beliefs about humans in the post-apocalypse, in reality, Negan seems to handle every obstacle as a unique problem to be solved in its own way. We see this clearly in his testing of Simon, where he gives the man enough rope to eventually hang himself with, and in Negan’s handling of Rick, to whom Negan talks bluntly and without any misdirection or misplaced aggression. Knowing how to handle different people, by understanding what makes them tick and what they might actually want, is why Negan always seems to prevail.
Empathy: Negan’s ability to empathize with others’ pain and suffering is what helps the villain take on a more multidimensional scope than past TWD villains. He seems to genuinely feel the loss of Carl as a tragedy, and for a moment, it seemed as if he was planning on actually consoling Rick — before Rick threatened his life, that is. This works to Negan’s favor, as he prefers his enemies bend the knee and serve the Saviors rather than fight bitterly to the very end. And what better way to achieve that, and convince everyone you’re not a sociopathic maniac, than to show you actually do care about and value human life when it is tragically lost?
Aggression: Negan wouldn’t be where he is if he weren’t capable of instilling fear. Simon, who seems only to find pleasure in hurting others and exerting his authority, is shown to defer only to Negan. When he does try and defy the Saviors’[ leader, Negan’s rare flash of anger shuts Simon up in an instant. This subplot, with Simon boldly undermining his boss by killing Jadis’ people, seems likely to culminate with a severe punishment when — and not if — Negan discovers Simon’s transgression.
Negan-o-meter™: 8 out of 10
Moving the needle:
It’s hard to nitpick an episode that finally delivered on the promise of Negan’s character as a philosophical foil to Rick. But if there is any form of constructive criticism to levy at AMC and TWD here, it’s that they need to lean into this narrative approach as much as possible. It is, without a doubt, the beating heart of the show: Negan’s strongman, totalitarian worldview is the distorted, oppressive version of Rick’s more merciful, collaborative conception of leadership.
Both men understand mercy, and both men wield violence. It’s even easy to see how the Rick of two or three seasons ago may have turned into a version of Negan, had he descended further into the take-no-prisoners mindset that helped him and Carol thwart the cannibals at Terminus. But now the show has the golden opportunity to take these two ideas and put them through the paces, both thematically and philosophically.