The Walking Dead is back, and for us here at The Verge that’s an opportunity to examine just how effective the show can be in creating a complex villain. As played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, big bad Negan has always been violent. But thanks to his man-baby antics, he’s stubbornly remained a comic book thug, never becoming the nuanced character the show so sorely needs.
Each week, 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.
Warning: There will be spoilers.
The current season of The Walking Dead has been an exercise in frustration. Halfway through the first set of episodes, its defining characteristic has been how it’s utterly ignored one of the only two characters the show has promised to focus on. Save for a few minutes in the season premiere, big-bad boogeyman Negan has been completely off the radar, leaving audiences to impatiently wonder what’s been going on since we last saw him and Father Gabriel trapped in a trailer, surrounded by zombies. In “The Big Bad U” that drought finally comes to end, picking up the unlikely pair’s storyline, while also flipping the script to show the season-opening attack from the point of view of the Saviors.
It’s a refreshing change of pace, and not just because it shifts the focus away from the protagonists after three straight episodes. With Negan’s return, The Walking Dead has the opportunity to demonstrate that it can make its villain more than just a mustache-twirling cartoon. Pleasantly, the writers actually deliver, making for one of the best episodes the show has produced in quite some time.
“The Big Bad U” opens just moments before the events of the season 8 premiere, as Negan and his lieutenants grill the Hilltop’s leader, Gregory. The flashback reveals that Gregory’s attempt to get his community to abandon Rick, Maggie, and the others was a sort of peace offering to Negan and the Saviors — though we know from previous episodes that the effort was ultimately futile. But when Negan’s lieutenant Simon suggests that if the Hilltop doesn’t fall in line the Saviors can simply wipe the community out, Negan slams his trusty bat against a metal table. “People are the foundation of what we’re building here,” he shouts, silencing the room.
It’s a moment for actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan to show off Negan’s more authoritative side without relying an over-the-top display of violence. Typically, Negan switches gears between locker room banter and excessive brutality, leaving little room for nuance. But the conversation shows exactly why Negan is exalted by his people: he has a strategic mind, and understands that winning people over is a smarter tactic that simply eliminating all who disagree. The point’s underscored when Negan lays out why publicly executing Rick, Maggie, and Ezekiel is a core part of his plan. “We kill the right people in the wrongest way possible, and we make them all watch,” he says.
Negan clearly has a psychopathic streak, but he also doesn’t resort to all-out violence at every opportunity, which makes him more dangerous than your standard authoritarian brute. Before they can continue strategizing, however, the sounds of Rick’s rifle ring out. From the season premiere, we know things didn’t turn out so well.
Negan shows his soft side
Up until now, Negan has been portrayed as a stubbornly opaque and shallow villain, characterized by his violence, the baseball bat he commits it with, and the fact that he runs a racketeering operation like a pre-apocalypse mob boss. Little time has been spent on why he acts the way he does and what drives him. We’ve seen a few flashes of his humanity, like the moment last season when he tried to impart some wisdom upon a murderous Carl. But viewers shouldn’t be blamed for assuming that Negan would immediately bash Father Gabriel’s head in when he finds himself trapped in a trailer with the priest.
What we get instead is a far more fascinating scene, one that digs into Negan’s character and humanizes him in a way no previous scene has accomplished. Though Negan immediately relieves Gabriel of his weapon, the two nevertheless have an instructive back and forth, with Gabriel convinced he has to take Negan’s confession. Perhaps seeing some strategic utility in having Gabriel as a hostage, Negan earns the man’s trust by opening up. We learn that Negan used to work with children, and that Lucille may actually be the name of his wife, that he lost to cancer. He let her turn into a walker in the earliest days of the outbreak, Negan says, because he couldn’t bring himself to lay her to rest himself.
Even after Gabriel tries to pull a firearm on Negan, the leader of Saviors still refuses to get violent, illustrating that he’s willing to go to great lengths to prove that he’s capable of pragmatism and mercy. Negan’s worldview and leadership style may be atrocious, but his ability to manipulate people is incredibly effective, and the scene culminates with the two drenching themselves in zombie guts and battling their way together to the Sanctuary.
Rick and Daryl tussle over tactics
While The Walking Dead has been more blunt with its moralizing with the Jesus and Morgan storyline, it takes a more subtle approach to the widening rift between Daryl and Rick. The two men have begun to take different paths in recent episodes, with Daryl on a merciless, take-no-prisoners rampage, and Rick dialing back the aggression. The philosophical difference results in blows when Daryl suggests using explosives to blow a hole in the Sanctuary to let zombies finish the job of wiping out the Saviors. Rick says killing innocent families and nonviolent workers isn’t part of the plan, echoing Jesus’ plea to Morgan that what separates them from the morally reprehensible is a willingness to spare bloodshed when given the opportunity.
Although it’s largely inconsequential — the two men struggle for a bit before Rick tosses the explosives into the flaming truck, rendering the conversation moot — it speaks to a greater rift among the coalition of communities fighting Negan. It would be a lot easier just to execute every enemy and use scorched Earth tactics to ensure they’re annihilated for good. But The Walking Dead has never really been a story about antiheroes. It flirts with the sins and moral descents of its main characters, but it always brings them back from the brink. Even if it’s more of an undercurrent rather than the main event, the show is ultimately about finding hope and the drive to regain some sense of normalcy. For Rick, that idea would now seem to be what differentiates him from Daryl, and the dynamic will almost certainly affect the two men’s character arcs as the season begins winding toward its conclusion.
The meaning behind the Saviors
While Negan and Gabriel are fighting their way back to Sanctuary, the Saviors are arguing over who to blame — and what to do if Negan is actually dead. Everyone is pointing fingers at someone else, with the existence of a traitor now fully acknowledged by all parties. The scene portrays the Saviors’ leadership as a roundtable of inadequate politicians, each suffering from a critical character flaw. Eugene is smart, but cowardly and awkward. Dwight is no-bullshit, but the others see him as a weak yes-man. Simon is domineering and animated — just like Negan — but always thinks violence is the answer.
When the lower-class workers storm in, demanding a solution to the predicament, the lieutenants crumble from infighting and indecision. Only when Negan shows up, with Gabriel in tow, does the entire situation calm down. As the workers each bend the knee to Negan, audibly thanking him for showing up to rescue them, Father Gabriel gets a firsthand look at the loyalty Negan’s mix of charisma and cruelty has instilled in his people. Dumbstruck by the Saviors’ faith to their leader, Gabriel allows himself to be peacefully hauled away to a cell while Negan tells the Saviors to put their trust in him.
Evaluating the Villain:
Power: We saw Negan’s intimidating physicality in action in a variety of different scenarios in this episode, from his disarming of Gabriel in the trailer to his impressive zombie-fighting skills outside the Sanctuary. In one comical scene, Negan punches the priest squarely in the face for having pulled a gun on him earlier in the episode. The fact that Gabriel takes the hit, and even agrees to help Negan immediately thereafter, is yet another demonstration of his ability to assume control in almost any situation.
Charisma: From the moment Negan and Father Gabriel’s conversation turns toward their personal lives and sins, it’s clear that the priest is out of his depth. Negan manages to convince Gabriel that there’s more to his leadership style and worldview than meets the eye — neatly echoing the conversation Ezekiel had with Carol a few episodes back — and he even opens up about painful memories from his past. The throughline is Negan’s ever-present charisma, enabling him to earn the priest’s respect, as well as his assistance in breaking through the zombie horde.
Leadership: It may be easy to write off the devotion of the Saviors to Negan’s temperamental rule, but in this episode it becomes clear he’s actually quite good at reassuring his people that he knows best, and that he alone can solve any problem at hand. It lends a new meaning to the Saviors’ name and their narrative. People may fight when motivated by fear, but they’ll fight even harder when motivated by true belief, and throughout the episode it’s evident just how firm a grip Negan’s leadership skills have given him on the people that look up to him.
Final Takeaway: This was perhaps the best collection of Negan scenes since the character’s introduction, and for the first time this season I actually found myself hopeful. This is the kind of deeper dive that will make Negan truly compelling, and after weeks of no-shows it suggests that The Walking Dead can turn its “All Out War” saga into a more fascinating character study with protagonists, and villains, worth caring about.
Negan-o-meter™: 7 out of 10
Moving the Needle:
If there was a moment fans have been waiting for this season, last night’s episode was it. The Walking Dead brought Negan back, and put him in a spotlight that he actually earned for once. Not only did we see many different sides to him, but we got our first morsel of backstory, something the character has desperately needed since his introduction roughly 18 months ago.
Moving forward, the recipe for keeping the show watchable should be simple: feature more episodes like “The Big Scary U” that actually portray Negan as a villain worth the endless push-and-pull. If the show really wants to get ambitious, it could even offer a flashback scene showing Negan pre-apocalypse, something that would go a long way toward rounding out his character. The actions of a hero like Rick Grimes are only as good as the villain he’s going up against, and the show needs to keep Negan in the mix every episode to keep that essential tension alive. Anything less will simply undercut the entire season, whether it’s the ballyhooed conflict at its core, or the broader themes about the bad things that good people will do in the name of survival.