After a three-month hiatus, The Walking Dead returned with its midseason premiere down one character (Jesus), up a new set of villains (The Whisperers), and confronted with an unexpected bad-news pregnancy (Rosita). This week’s episode of The Walking Dead, “Adaptation,” also made an unusual and probably unintended segue into the debate over the value of prison.
The focus of that debate is Negan, the brutish, dictatorial, mass murdering leader of The Saviors, who has spent the last seven years inside of a prison cell in Alexandria. This week, Negan springs free from his cell after the door was left open. Negan uses the opportunity to check out his Alexandrian surrounding before escaping from the community, but only after Judith reluctantly lets him go. Negan — like Brooksy in Shawshank Redemption — finds that freedom is not quite what it’s cracked up to be. On the outside, he has to find his own food and water, deal with the pesky undead, and confront all the other challenges one has to face in a post-apocalyptic world all alone. He returns to The Savior compound and finds that there’s nothing left for him there. It’s been abandoned and left in a state of disrepair. All Negan can do is put the walkers he left behind out of their misery.
It’s all that Negan needs to see of the outside world before deciding that his home now is in Alexandria, whether it’s in a prison cell or not. “When your mom and dad locked me up,” Negan tells Judith early in the episode, “they told me I was going to be good for something. That I would help people see that things could change. And they did … for everyone but me.” By the end of the episode, however, Negan realizes that the change has come for him, too. After seven years locked up, he’s a more mellow, compassionate, and thoughtful Negan, one who returns to Alexandra foremost because he misses the nine year old girl with whom he has developed a bond. Prison, combined with the informal therapy sessions he’s had with Judith, reformed Negan. He’s been redeemed enough now that –when he’s needed to help confront the The Whisperers — Negan will likely be released and allowed to become a citizen of the community. He’s gotta protect Rick’s daughter, after all (side note: I’ve taken a shine to Judith; I hope she doesn’t leave the show for the Rick Grimes movies along with Michonne Let Negan become her surrogate father).
Negan is not the only character this week in a prison storyline. Michonne and Daryl confront a number of Whisperers, kill a few, and take one hostage. They imprison Lydia at The Hilltop, but Daryl and Michonne find that their bad cop/bad cop interrogation techniques aren’t working. Daryl, whether intentional or not, strikes upon a solution to get Lydia to speak. He so harshly threatens her life in front of Henry — who is imprisoned in an adjoining cell — that Henry develops some sympathy for Lydia. By the end of the episode, Lydia and Henry have forged a bond, and Henry unwittingly becomes Daryl’s good cop. Now he’s in a position to learn a lot more from Lydia about The Whisperers. (This was actually Carl’s storyline from the comics. RIP Carl).