The Walking Dead had a return to form in this week’s 90-minute episode, “Sing Me a Song” an outing that finally sees the writers advance the story, if only incrementally, as the series heads toward next week’s midseason finale. Here are this week’s main takeaways.
It’s No Longer Andrew Lincoln’s Show
For six seasons, The Walking Dead has centered around Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes. There have been subplots that haven’t directly related to Rick, but we have been guided through each season by Rick’s actions and moods. The first season was about Rick finding his wife and kid and taking a leadership role within his new community; the second season was about the battle for control over the group between Rick and Shane; the third season was about the loss of Rick’s wife, his downward spiral, and his recovery in time to take down Woodbury; the fourth season was about Rick defeating the Governor and leading his people to Terminus; the fifth season was about Rick’s battle with Terminus, the trip to Alexandria, and Rick forcing himself into a leadership role there; and the sixth season was about Rick reaching the pinnacle of his power before meeting his match in Negan.
We may look back on the seventh season in a year or two and see it as the season Rick regrouped after a defeat, but at the moment, it’s not Rick’s show. It’s Negan’s show. Not only is Negan getting far more screen time than anyone else, but every single storyline has revolved around Negan and his men. Alexandria is scavenging for Negan; the Hilltop episode was about Maggie taking power away from Gregory because of Negan; The Kingdom episode illustrated their unique approach to dealing with Negan; and even in last week’s episode, Tara was nearly killed by the Oceanside group because of Negan. He’s everywhere, even when he’s not in an episode, and when he is in an episode, he dominates it, as he did in the opener; in the return trip to Alexandria; and in last night’s episode.
Relative to Negan, we haven’t seen that much of Rick or anyone else this season. (Rick was reduced to an afterthought in last night’s episode.) With Jeffrey Dean Morgan signed on for at least one more season, it’s likely to remain that way. How often have we seen that in a series? For it to pivot its focus on an entirely new character for an entire season or two? We’ve obviously seen dominating villains in the past, but how often have we seen one take over an entire show? The closest comparison I can think of is Benjamin Linus on Lost, a villain who absorbed other major characters into his community of Others and continued to stick around. Negan, I’d wager, has an ever larger presence than Linus.
Whatever else one might want to say about an otherwise weak season of The Walking Dead, it was a bold decision to put the lead character on the back burner and build a season or two around a brand new character.
Did We Finally Catch a Glimpse of Negan’s Humanity?
The problem with building a series around a new character is that we don’t have six seasons of context to help define his motivations. We still don’t have a good beat on why Negan behaves in the way he does, other than a tragic event in his life that potentially broke him and turned him into an extreme version of the worst gym teacher ever. The problems that have plagued Negan all season long — the repetitive affectations, the pointless cruelty — continued to dominate this week’s episode.
However, there were two moments in the episode that did seem to hint that there is more to Negan than what we see, that his personality is potentially a facade not unlike that of Ezekiel’s. The first was when Negan apologized to Carl for making him take off his bandage. He actually seemed to break character momentarily. “Damn. Holy hell kid,” Negan said to Carl. “It’s easy to forget that you’re just a kid. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings or anything. I was just screwing around.” A knock on the door seemed to remind Negan to get back into character, but for a brief moment, he stopped playing the role.
The other was when Negan said to Carl, “I bet you think I’m a lunatic,” which suggests to me that — at least in his own mind — there’s a rhyme and reason to his actions. I don’t know how Negan can justify to himself much of what he’s done, but it’s possible that he thinks of himself as a good guy who is only trying to keep his people alive, that he’s playing a part for the benefit of others. In that respect, he’s actually been wildly successful. He has a huge community that — save for the psychological trauma — lives fairly well. The only way he’s achieved that is by establishing rules and enforcing them. He’s disciplined, as he would have to be in order to maintain control over such a large population. He’s an extreme version of the Ricktatorship with a lot more people under his control. Losing that control might mean more than his own death; it could jeopardize the survival of all The Saviors.
In a lot of ways, The Walking Dead is about what political styles work the best. Each settlement takes a different approach, and maybe Negan’s totalitarian regime is the one most well-suited to a zombie apocalypse.
Will Carl Warm To Negan?
Carl sneaked into The Savior compound for one reason only: To take out Negan. He managed to kill two of Negan’s men, and if he had not hesitated, he could’ve killed Negan as well. Negan, it seems, has some sway over Carl. For a brief moment here and there, it actually seemed like Carl was impressed with Negan, and maybe even a little disappointed in his father for not being able to rule with as much authority. The fact that Carl continues to stand up to him, however, endears him to Negan and I think that Carl is a little flattered by that. That could all come completely undone, of course, if Negan hurts Judith or kills another of Carl’s friends.
However, I suspect that Carl understands Negan and understands how necessary it is to erase and/or neutralize a threat, as Negan did in killing Glenn and Abraham. It wasn’t exactly uncalled for, either: Rick, Glenn and Abraham had just killed a dozen of his men. Negan killed Glenn and Abraham and kidnapped Daryl to ensure there would be no more bloodshed, to end the war before it got started in earnest. There is rhyme and reason to that.
A War Is Coming, But More Battles Will Be Lost
Negan, of course, underestimated a few of the Alexandrians, like Carl, who would rather die than live under Negan’s thumb. Maggie is clearly willing to fight back. Rosita is putting a lot of effort into one bullet, presumably under the belief that she can cut off the head of The Saviors and no other would spring in its place. Meanwhile, Michonne must think she’s a one-woman army and that she can singlehandedly take down The Savior’s compound once she finds out where it is. I think someone is going to die next week, and I don’t think it’s Michonne or Carl. Rosita, however, may find her attempt to kill Negan frustrated and I have a sneaking suspicion that — if Rosita dies — it will be Spencer’s fault. Or if Spencer dies, it will be to Rosita’s credit.
In either respect, Scott Gimple — despite all the mistakes of this season — has set up a compelling midseason finale that will see Rick return to find Negan in his home with his baby; Rosita inside Alexandria with Negan, a gun, and one bullet; and Michonne on her way to the Savior compound to do God knows what. I suspect that Michonne will be on hand to help Daryl escape, but I don’t know how Daryl’s escape could be good for anyone in Alexandria. Negan will punish someone else for Daryl’s mistake.
— Jesus did what he set out to do: Find out where The Savior’s compound is. The poor guy didn’t have much to do in this episode, though, other than hang out inside of a truck and, for a few moments, on top of one. I did, however, appreciate that he poured out all of Gregory’s liquor as a f*ck you to both Gregory and Negan.
— “You can jump out that window and save me the trouble of killing you.” That was maybe the best line of Carl’s run on The Walking Dead.
— One of the chief reasons why this episode succeeded where others did not this season was that it had multiple storylines that bounced around between characters. I don’t like how both this show and Fear the Walking Dead have been so preoccupied with episodes focused on only one storyline. This season has seen several B-plots drive an entire episode. Indeed, much of this season has been filler, but the episodes that worked the best — the premiere, the Ezekiel episode, and this episode — were straight out of the comics.
— Not that it needs to be repeated, but Spencer really is the worst. If he dies next week, that might be the victory that this show really needs right now.
— We didn’t really need that exchange between Negan and Olivia, did we? We don’t need Negan to make fat jokes and not-so-subtle rape threats to understand that he’s a bad person. That’s already been well established.
— It was good to see Aaron finally get something to do.
— OK, who passed the key to Daryl? Was it Sherry? Or Dwight? Or Fat Joe?
— Finally a big shout out to Father Gabriel for calmly, politely telling Spencer to go f**k himself: “What you’re saying doesn’t make you a sinner. But it does make you a tremendous sh*t.”
I think we can all say an amen to that.