“There’s a left-hand turn that really focuses things up in a very different and weird way,” Scott Gimple said of this season of The Walking Dead back in October. He didn’t give us any indication of what that might mean, but we theorized that the point of view could shift from that of the Alexandrians to that of Negan. We predicted that the series could step back into the events of the pilot episode and show us what was happening with the Saviors before Rick and Co. arrived with a horde of zombies.
That’s exactly what happens in this week’s episode, “The Big Scary U,” which more or less kicks off with the meeting Negan had been attending when Rick arrived with his battalion of soldiers in the pilot. The reason the point of view would need to change, we surmised, is because it would become necessary for the series moving ahead to make Negan a more likable character. Why? Because at some point, Rick is going to be faced with a big decision where it concerns Negan: To kill or not to kill. “May my mercy prevail over my wrath.”
For there to be any suspense or tension about that decision, it’s important to create some empathy for Negan. “The Big Scary U” is the starting point for that journey. It’s the Negan rehabilitation hour. However, it’s not designed to make us like him, or to see him as anything other than an “asshole,” as Gabriel calls him in the episode. It is, however, designed to ensure that we understand why Negan is an “asshole” and why Negan believes Rick is an even more dangerous asshole.
“The Big Scary U” is a huge success in that regard, and as far as character development goes, the best episode of the season (it’s no surprise that Angela Kang wrote the episode, as she is often behind many of the best character-driven episodes). It does, indeed, take us back to that backroom meeting between Negan, Dwight, Eugene, Gregory, and Simon, where Negan admits to Geofrey, “I like killing people.’ Negan doesn’t like to kill indiscriminately, however. “It’s about killing the right people. You kill the right people at the right time [in the wrongest way possible] and everything falls into place.”
It’s why Negan has no interest in wiping out entire communities (“People are a resource. People are the foundation of what we are building here” he yells at Simon, emphatically). He only wants to kill those whose deaths would have the biggest impact. Rick, the widow and “King Assface,” in this case. A big, public display of their deaths would ensure that those communities fall in line. “You kill one, and you could be saving hundreds more. That’s what we are all about. We save people.”
The logic is twisted, but it’s not without merit. It’s been effective for Negan, so far, and it has saved hundreds of lives. There are presumably hundreds of Saviors, men and women who Negan pulled off the trash heap and turned into productive members of the zombie apocalypse. They have electricity. They have food. They have jobs. And they are protected. In his own mind, Negan is not a villain. He’s a literal Savior. “I make them strong, which makes this world strong.”
We also get a taste for what the “loose confederation of assholes and gangs of animals” the Saviors are without Negan. There’s backbiting, pissing and moaning, and they pit the workers against the soldiers. Without Negan, the place falls apart within the day.
Negan kills people for a reason. Rick “gets people killed.” That’s an important distinction for Negan, who has been presented with several opportunities to kill Rick, and were Negan into killing for killing’s sake, he’d have already done so. In fact, in this episode, he could have killed Gabriel after Gabriel took a shot at Negan. Rick would have killed Gabriel in that same scenario, but Negan sees value in Gabriel. He also understands that he gains nothing by killing Gabriel.
Where Negan’s logic falls apart, however, is the women. Maybe he does kill innocent people to save the lives of hundreds, but what about the marriages? Father Gabriel confronts him on that very question, and he hits a nerve. “Every one of those ladies made a choice,” Negan says, but he doesn’t sound convincing.
He does, however, try to redeem himself on that front. He confesses to his biggest weakness: He slept around on his first wife, his “real wife,” with whom he was very much in love (his bat, in fact, is named after her). The story about his wife gives us a glimpse of the humanity within Negan. It also convinces Father Gabriel that maybe Negan is not the worst. It’s the first time since he was introduced to the series that Negan begins to feel like his comic counterpart, the character who comic fans adore rather than revile.