The Walking Dead is back and careening toward the conclusion of the “All Out War” saga. That means the end of the feud between Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his archnemesis Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) — and perhaps that’s a good thing. 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 season-ending climax is an opportunity to bring all the threads together, so in these final weeks, 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 these final episodes, The Walking Dead can turn Negan into the big bad audiences have always wanted.
After a few episodes where the show had made some positive strides, last week The Walking Dead returned to some of its worst tendencies. Thankfully, last night’s episode, “Still Gotta Mean Something,” offered up an opportunity for a quick course-correction, with showrunner Scott Gimple and his writers focusing again on the core Rick vs. Negan dynamics that have fueled the overarching conflict thus far.
The curveball death of Carl Grimes, and the introduction of the Hilltop’s strange new benefactor, Georgie, have made it unclear just how closely the series plans to hew to Robert Kirkman’s comics’ storyline, adding an air of uncertainty for even the most fervent fans. But going into last night, a few things did seem apparent. Negan is very likely aware of Simon’s betrayal — not that he can do much about it while being held captive by Jadis. It’s also apparent that Dwight’s double-agent status makes him a crucial figure that could help swing the outcome of the war (though Daryl and the others would have to work through their trust issues before that could happen). With Rick and Morgan both out for blood — and young Henry missing altogether — all the pieces were in place for one of the most brutal and satisfying episodes of the season, and “Still Gotta Mean Something” did not disappoint.
The worth of a man’s word
The title of the episode is a direct quote from a morally compromised Rick, who leaves the Hilltop in the aftermath of Simon’s invasion, set on drowning his grief over Carl’s death with some vengeful violence. Michonne implores Rick to read the letter Carl left him, but Rick refuses, choosing instead to find Morgan and Carol, who have gone off in search of Henry. Morgan is in a similar boat, as he tells Carol that he doesn’t feel like he can ever shake the ghosts of those he’s murdered. Something is obviously deeply wrong with Morgan, and not even Carol knows how to fix it.
Inevitably, Carol leaves him. Morgan then runs into Rick, and the duo walk right into a trap set by the long-haired Savior Jared — the same one that mocked Morgan during a supplies handoff back in episode 13 of last season. When Rick comes to, tied up alongside Morgan inside a derelict warehouse, he discovers that Jared’s plan is to use Rick as a bargaining chip to get back on Negan’s good side. Several of Jared’s fellow Saviors, however, are fearful of the play — and Rick sees a vulnerability to exploit.
It’s here that the brutal, unforgiving — and, yes, villainous — side of Rick comes roaring back. That aspect of his character has been more or less dormant since the showdown with the cannibals at Terminus in season 5, but here Rick convinces the Saviors that he, like Maggie, wants to integrate them into the Hilltop and create a better community. He gives them his word, which “still gotta mean something” in the depraved world they all inhabit. As if on cue, walkers then storm the building, and the panicking prisoners free Rick and Morgan on the condition they all work together and return to the Hilltop as a group.
For a moment, you can almost believe Rick has taken the dying words of his son to heart. But then he and Morgan promptly murder every single Savior in the room, with only Jared escaping. Morgan takes off in pursuit, and the chase ends with Morgan essentially feeding Jared to an eager zombie horde. In the aftermath, it’s clear viewers just witnessed an extreme moral transgression, one that leaves a bad taste even knowing the lawless nature of The Walking Dead. Rick and Morgan murdered men who wanted nothing but redemption and a second chance — and they did it mostly just to forget their own troubles.
The origin of Lucille
Rick comes off as even more cruel and sadistic when contrasted with what ends up being a surprisingly empathetic look at Negan. It begins when Negan wakes up in Jadis’ custody, tied up on his back as she threatens to burn his precious baseball bat, Lucille.
The interplay between the two is fascinating. It’s clear Jadis doesn’t really want him dead, or else she would have killed him already. Negan, too, seems to understand her sorrow, and even apologizes for abetting Simon in the massacre of all of her friends. Yet when it looks like Jadis might unleash a zombie on Negan as punishment, he manages to get his hands on a nearby flare, threatening to burn a pile of photographs of Jadis’ fallen allies.
The whole setup feels wildly impractical — why are Jadis’ photographs conveniently next to a handy flare, and why is Jadis going through so much trouble to not murder the man she presumably despises? But it does create a situation in which Negan feels compelled to open up about his past. He tells Jadis that his baseball bat, like her photographs, is the only thing left that reminds him of someone he loves. He discloses that Lucille is the name of his late wife, a detail that was hinted at in the first half of the season, and that he named the bat after her because his wife helped him get through life before the outbreak, and the bat has helped him through the post-apocalypse. It’s the only fragment of Negan’s former self that he has continued to hold on to, and he begs Jadis not to send the bat up in flames.
Just as it seems like two adversaries are reaching some sort of understanding, the whole scene is upended by the reappearance of the helicopter Rick spotted in the first half of the season. Various verbal hints scattered throughout the last two seasons have made it clear that Jadis’ trash heap is home to a helipad, and Jadis immediately attempts to snatch the flare from Negan in order to get the helicopter’s attention — and presumably save herself. She accidentally douses it in a pool of water instead, and while she fetches a second flare right away, it’s too late to hail the helicopter. After one final plea from Negan, she lets him go.
For a scene that feels remarkably forced in its basic set up, it ends up delivering a remarkably satisfying look into Negan the human being, rather than Negan the cartoon villain. But really, though — what’s the deal with the mysterious chopper, and what does Jadis really know about who it belongs to? Could it be Georgie, the Hilltop’s benefactor, who comes and goes by air? Hopefully the answer is delivered sooner rather than later, as the mystery is one of the more exciting plot elements on The Walking Dead these days.
Given the dizzying number of minor subplots sprinkled throughout the episode, the final stretch manages to pack in a neat conclusion and some well-earned teases of what’s to come. Carol, who refuses to give up on Henry as Morgan did, manages to find the boy trapped by zombies in a swamp. She frees him, and the two are welcomed back to the Hilltop by an ecstatic Ezekiel. Carol opens up and shares that she once had a daughter, and that coping with that loss helped her learn how to not fall victim to her worst impulses. The lesson seems wasted on the king, however. It’s Morgan, who also lost a child earlier in the series, who really needs to hear it.
Meanwhile, Negan picks up a mysterious stranger on his way back to the Sanctuary (TWD doesn’t reveal the person’s identity, though it is clearly somebody that Negan recognizes). When Negan finally makes it back, he arrives in the middle of the night and instructs the on-duty guard to not alert anyone to his presence. It appears he intends to surprise Simon, but those plans will undoubtedly be complicated by yet another reveal: Daryl and Rosita are shown off in the distance, hatching a plan to kill Eugene in order to bring the Saviors’ bullet-making operation to a halt.
The most significant portion of the episode’s final stretch centers on Rick, who returns to the Hilltop alongside Morgan. Rick looks fittingly despondent. He knows he betrayed Carl’s dying wish, and despite taking out a good number of Saviors, he seems to realize that all he really did was senselessly murder people desperate for a way out of their own hopeless situation. He did the exact opposite of what Carl would have wanted him to. The final scene shows Rick at last reading the letter Carl left behind, tears in his eyes. The show doesn’t reveal what Carl wrote, but it’s clear Rick is reckoning with the violent, morally repugnant side of himself — an aspect of his personality he knows he has to resist if he’s ever going to pursue Carl’s vision for a better, and more peaceful, future.
Evaluating the Villain:
Empathy: A less emotionally manipulative person might not have been able to talk their way out of an almost assured execution, but Negan does so with Jadis based on his ability to recognize and understand the pain others are feeling. A cold and sterile sociopath couldn’t believably deliver an apology as well as Negan does, and it’s hard not to think he really does mean it when he assumes responsibility for Simon’s misdeeds.
Craftiness: Negan always seems to know how to get himself out of a sticky situation. While the various elements of his scene with Jadis didn’t necessarily feel believable unto themselves, it’s still a testament to Negan’s quick thinking and composure that he’s able to use a flare and his own backstory to help win the heart and mind of his captor.
Virtue: In “Still Gotta Mean Something,” Negan is positioned as morally superior to both Simon and Rick, something that is illustrated best by his treatment of Jadis. Negan doesn’t respond to being captured with violence, and once he is freed, he doesn’t attack her or demand she follow him to the Sanctuary. It’s clear that for Negan, there is a moral line he’s unwilling to cross. And unlike Rick, who openly lied to his captors and murdered them in cold blood, Negan walks away from a similar hostage situation with clean hands and a cleaner conscience.
Negan-o-meter™: 7 out of 10
Moving the Needle:
What we saw of Negan in last night’s episode was unprecedented. Not only did he reveal a crucial detail from his past, but he didn’t bother to even retaliate against his captor. In fact, Negan seemed to genuinely care about Jadis’ loss, and felt implicated in having played a part in how it all went down. Like episode 10, in which we see Negan mourn the death of Carl, The Walking Dead is finally engaging more deeply in the moral and philosophical debate around what it means to be virtuous and villainous in the post-apocalypse. For the longest time, it felt as if Negan was a one-dimensional cardboard cutout of a comic book villain, and Rick a flawed, but otherwise well-intentioned, hero. Now, more than ever, viewers are forced to wonder why they’re rooting for Rick, and whether Negan just might be redeemable after all.
To make this all work, however, The Walking Dead needs to lean even harder into the narrative that Negan is less morally compromised than his enemies and that the decisions he makes as the leader of the Saviors really might be in the best interest of all parties involved. Only by further blurring the line between good and evil, right and wrong, and hero and villain can The Walking Dead make good on its multi-season investment in its biggest villain to date, especially if the character is to stick around for the remainder of the entire series as a major player.
There are only two episodes left in this season, and it’s unlikely the show will drag out the Negan arc into season nine. So hopefully the writers use this valuable time to make the final showdown between Rick and his nemesis emblematic of the prevailing worldview of its major characters, just as Carl would have wanted.