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 arch-nemesis Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) — and perhaps that’s a good thing. Overall, 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 Neganometer™. 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.
With the Saviors saga slated to end with next week’s season finale, it feels like The Walking Dead is on the cusp of pulling off a unique narrative flourish that could actually improve upon its comic book counterpart. It all comes down to Dwight, whose double-agent status has put him in the position of being able to influence who wins the war, and Eugene, whose bullet-making prowess just might give Negan the edge.
Negan, Dwight, and Eugene are perhaps the most important characters in the comic’s “All Out War” arc, and the show has kept the general gist of their motivations, allegiances, and trajectories intact. But last night’s episode, “Worth,” changes things. Thanks to Simon — a character unique to the show — and some pivotal changes to Negan and Dwight’s arcs, TV viewers are getting a storyline that feels richer and more unpredictable than what played out in Robert Kirkman’s comic. It makes “Worth” another strong episode that should have diehard comic fans second guessing everything they think might happen in the eventual finale.
Cutting off the bullets
“Worth” picks up right where last week’s episode left off, with a teary-eyed Rick going over the letter Carl left behind for him, as actor Chandler Riggs reads it in a voice-over. The letter itself contains a string of memories Carl recalls before the viral outbreak, and how he wants Judith to grow up in a world like that. Rick can help shape that world if he does the right thing, Carl hopes. It seems like Rick had to go to the worst possible extremes — killing those Saviors in cold blood in last week’s episode — to get back on this road to redemption. But it’s still not clear that he’s fully arrived at Carl’s worldview, or that Negan and the Saviors will even give him an opportunity to show mercy or compromise.
Over at the Sanctuary, Daryl and Rosita put into motion their plan to cut off the Saviors’ bullet supply by capturing Eugene. It seems at first like a brilliant success, with Rosita calling out Eugene’s cowardice in venomous fashion, and describing how the Hilltop plans to keep him locked underground until the war is over. But Eugene manages to break free by forcing himself to vomit, which is somehow a more disturbing on-screen visual than any decay-ridden corpse. Eugene gets away, putting a quick end to a scene that seemed designed only to give some secondary characters screen time. It’s easy to write off any sequence with Eugene as a bundle of cheap stereotypes, circuitous dialogue, and painful acting, but he does represent one of the few characters on the show that seems to realistically act in his own self-interest — something that you’d imagine would be more prevalent in The Walking Dead.
Regardless, Eugene’s capture does preface Negan’s return to the Sanctuary, where he retakes command from Simon and, in an extremely tense exchange, lets him live despite his obvious and flagrant disobedience. Negan informs the Saviors that the plan has now shifted, and the Hilltop must be exterminated, further convincing Simon that his way of thinking is the correct approach and that’s he safe from Negan’s wrath. On the surface, Simon’s forgiveness and Negan’s arrival felt disjointed and anticlimactic, as if The Walking Dead had just spoiled its most interesting show-specific plotline,putting its characters right back where they started. However, in a behind-closed-doors conversation between Simon and Dwight, it’s revealed that a coup against Negan is in the works, setting up a true showdown for the episode’s second half.
Simon’s unfortunate coup
Things come to a head quickly, as Simon enlists Dwight in his plan to overthrow Negan later that same day. Unfortunately for Simon. Dwight is desperate to prove his allegiance to the Saviors’ boss in order to throw off any suspicions that he’s the secret mole. So when Simon makes his move, pulling guns on Negan with a small group of co-conspirators, Negan reveals that he’s known about the treachery all along thanks to Dwight. All of Simon’s men are gunned down on the spot. Yet Simon demands a chance to prove himself in front of the entire group with a hand-to-hand fight against Negan.
It’s an odd request. Wouldn’t a savvy leader like Negan just end a traitor then and there? But as a conversation earlier in the episode revealed, the two have a complicated history. Negan always thought Simon was too aggressive and violent even for their group. It was him, not Negan, that orchestrated the murder of all the men and boys from the Oceanside community, the reason the all-female survivors no longer trust anyone. Negan felt it was his role to rein Simon in, and use his cruelty and sadism toward more productive ends. Given their past, Negan agrees to square off in a fight for the right to lead the Sanctuary into battle.
Unfortunately, it’s pretty clear to any viewer how the scene pans out before the fight even starts. Simon gets in a few good hits, but Negan promptly overpowers him and strangles the man to death in front of an entire crowd of Saviors. It puts an end to actor Steven Ogg’s fantastic run as one of the show’s funniest and most well-written villains to date, and it’s sad to see Simon go. Ogg’s on-screen presence was a bright spot in what was often an otherwise dull cast of anonymous and thinly written bad guys. Sadly, Simon was never going to survive this particular narrative arc, especially not after he openly crossed Negan.
Planning the surprise
Simon’s death sets into motion a number of important plot developments. Dwight, petrified that he’ll no longer be able to honor his deal with the Hilltop and take out Negan, sends Gregory on a mission to deliver Negan’s planned whereabouts the following day to Rick and Maggie. Dwight effectively thinks he can end the larger conflict by sending Negan straight into a trap, and Gregory — whose allegiances shift more fluidly than even Eugene — is happy to oblige. Meanwhile, Eugene makes his way back to the bullet factory, where he puts a still-captive Gabriel to work on the line and informs the crew that they’ll be working overtime to meet Negan’s new, more demanding munitions request.
The big twist happens when Dwight opens the door to his personal quarters only to find a surprise guest: Laura, who witnessed Dwight turning his gun on his fellow Saviors back in the mid-season finale. It’s here that Negan’s master plan becomes apparent. Negan knew Dwight would turn on Simon to save his own skin, and he also knew that Dwight would feed information to Gregory in order to lay a trap. So Negan set a trap of his own, feeding Dwight the false information with the hope that it would get passed along to Rick. The scenario wasn’t hard to see coming, not with the tease from last week in which Negan picked up a mysterious stranger that wasn’t openly identified, but it’s nevertheless a much-needed departure from the comics.
In the comics, Negan’s fatal mistake is trusting Dwight to have infected Rick with an arrow, only to find out that Rick has been alive the whole time. That one assumption ends up leading almost directly to Negan’s downfall in the source material. But here on the show, Negan is even more cunning, and is now poised to wipe out Rick and the rest of the Hilltop, all of whom think they’re the ones performing the sneak attack. It’s a fantastic twist that puts the entire fate of the show on the line in a way that doesn’t feel telegraphed or predictable. Of course, we know Rick likely won’t die, but everything else is up in the air.
Carl’s dying wish
“Worth” closes out with Michonne and Negan talking over walkie-talkies. Michonne, her faith in Carl unwavering even as the boy’s dad seems torn to pieces, thinks Carl’s letter to Negan could influence their enemy, just as Carl hoped it might push his father to take a different path. She reads it into the microphone, as Carl’s words call out Negan’s motivations, and question why he feels the need to be who he is and do what he does. Negan seems unphased. He tells Michonne that the time for mercy and forgiveness has passed, and he pledges to destroy all of them.
Connecting Negan, now as in thrall to vengeance as Rick was in last week’s episode, with his enemy through Carl’s letters is a powerful moment. The Walking Dead hasn’t always known the best way to develop either character, but viewing them both through the eyes of Carl proves to be the magic bullet. In Carl’s mind, both are strong leaders in their own way, and both are redeemable, no matter what they’ve done. Their fates will be determined by how they each interpret his words, and whether the show’s universe treats the sentiments as wise or foolhardy.
Evaluating the villain:
Brutishness: We know Negan could never have taken the Sanctuary and assumed total power over a group of savage, violent survivors in the post-apocalypse if he couldn’t reliably hold his own. So it came as no surprise to see Negan easily defeat Simon in physical combat, without the help of his trusty baseball bat. Though it would have probably been less risky to not bother accepting Simon’s challenge, it made for a fittingly brutal end to Negan’s most defiant lieutenant.
Cunning: Negan’s ability to play chess when his opponents are stuck on the checkerboard has become his most defining quality. He displayed that in spades in “Worth,” outsmarting Simon, Dwight, and Rick in equal measure, and laying a trap that could win him the war.
Cruelty: Negan’s more sadistic side has been in hiding for quite some time; he hasn’t burned anyone’s face with a hot iron or bashed in anyone’s skull this entire half-season. But that doesn’t mean that he’s gone soft. His strangling of Simon and his pledge to Michonne to kill every last one of his enemies illustrate that violence is a tool he’s happy to wield in bombastic fashion if it achieves his ultimate goal, regardless of the pain it causes others.
Negan-o-meter™ rating: 9 out of 10
Moving the needle:
Negan as a character has finally risen to the level of complexity that viewers deserve. Though his motivations still feel somewhat nebulous — he seems to dance between vengeance, the power trip, and a genuine desire to protect his people — Negan’s shifting attitudes toward violence and his pragmatic approach to problem-solving have turned him into the most formidable and relatable villain the show has ever had. It took some time to get there: nearly 32 episodes’ worth of television in which the writers often struggled to put Negan on the screen at all. But as a fixture of nearly every episode of the back half of season 8, the show and his character have improved immensely. The idiotic obsession with dick jokes and profanity has been replaced by a deeper exploration of Negan’s unique god complex and the qualities of that makes him different than, and similar to, Rick Grimes.
What we need now is a conclusion that will make this multi-season trek worth it. The show’s ratings may never recover, and no series can stay at the top forever, especially not after eight years. But if The Walking Dead is to gracefully age into its final two or three seasons with a character like Negan alive and in the mix, it needs viewers to both love and hate him in equal measure. Viewers need to believe that whatever happens to Negan next week will have deep lasting effects for Rick as a leader and a father, but also for Maggie as the widow of Glenn, and for every other character who’s bled in the war they’ve fought. There can be no half-measures or cliffhangers with Negan’s fate. If there’s ever been a time to be as declarative and definitive as possible, it’s with this season’s finale. The future of the show depends on it.