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Did ‘The Walking Dead’ Successfully Pull Off Negan’s Redemption Arc?

Here’s Negan,” the stand-alone installment of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic, has been talked about as a television adaptation since the day it was released. It tells the origin story of Negan, of his baseball bat Lucille and his leather jacket, and it explains why Negan became the man that he was when he recruited and led the brutal Saviors. As we have learned in 10 seasons of The Walking Dead, bad people like Negan or even The Governor do not always start out as bad people. Grief, guilt, trauma, and shame can do a powerful psychological number on the human mind.

Negan got a heavy dose of all four, which transformed him into the brutal, sadistic, dictatorial clown-show that he would eventually become before having his throat slashed by Rick Grimes and spending roughly years inside of a prison cell. Negan’s story began pre-apocalypse when he was fired as a high-school gym teacher for beating the hell out of a man who wouldn’t keep it down while Negan played he and his wife’s song in a bar on the jukebox. His wife is Lucille (played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s real-life wife, Hilarie Burton), and their song was “You’re So Beautiful,” by Joe Cocker, and it meant a lot to Negan.

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Seeing red and beating up that man, however, led to Negan getting fired as a gym teacher, and it also meant that his wife, Lucille, had to pay for the lawsuits, even as Negan racked up a $600 credit card charge for a leather jacket that Lucille snatched away from him pre-apocalypse but gifted back to him later. As if Negan didn’t feel enough guilt about losing his job and the lawsuit, he was also having an affair while Lucille was at the doctor learning that she had been diagnosed with cancer. Negan called off the affair immediately, but that’s when the guilt and the shame nevertheless began to take over.

Lucille was midway through chemo treatments when the apocalypse began, which meant that Negan had to figure out how to complete the chemo treatment while trapped at home and surrounded by zombies. Unfortunately, Negan forgot to turn the generator that kept his wife’s chemo treatments cool back on after he’d turned it off because it was attracting walkers. That led to even more guilt.

Against his wife Lucille’s wishes, Negan set out to find more chemo treatments for her because (as he later admitted) he was too much of a coward to stay and watch her die. It took him six weeks to find the treatment (thanks to the help of Laura, who gave him a baseball bat to protect himself, and who would later become one of his most loyal Saviors before Beta killed her earlier this season). When he finally retrieved the meds he needed from a mobile medical van, he was abducted by some bad men who beat Negan (until he revealed the location of the med van) before letting him go.

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By the time he made it back home, however, it was too late. Lucille could no longer take the pain of cancer, and she’d killed herself. Negan walked in on his zombified wife tied up in bed with a plastic bag wrapped around her face. If that doesn’t turn you into a supervillain, I don’t know what would. Negan — now saddled permanently with the guilt of cheating on his wife, spoiling her chemo medication, and leaving her while she died — took that baseball bat that Laura had given him, wrapped barbed wire around it, and beat the living hell out of the bad men who abducted him and kept him from his wife.

It was the birth of the “Negan” we know from the All-Out War. He became viciously, brutally loyal to those he sought to protect to the exclusion of everyone else. The whole ordeal warped his mind, and until he spent all those years in prison, he was unable to un-warp it. It was not a normal reaction to the death of a loved one, but in the context of everything else, it kind of makes sense.

Does that redeem Negan? Not exactly, but at least we can understand why he became the man that he was. He’s also spent the last couple of years trying to undo what he had done to Alexandria. Maggie, however, has every reason to continue hating Negan, because he brutally murdered her husband. But given the strength of his loyalty, he’s also a good guy to have on your side.

Beyond the origins story, the episode was also bookended by the present day, which is interesting in and of itself. Carol and Daryl banished Negan from Alexandria and sent him packing to Leah’s old house, which is exactly what happened in the source material. He was barely ever seen again in the comics. At the end of the television episode, however, Negan — having re-examined his life — decided not to accept the banishment. He returned to Alexandria.

“If you stay here, [Maggie] will kill you,” Carol tells him. “I just didn’t want your death on my conscience, and now [that you refused to accept your banishment] it’s not.”

“Fair enough,” Negan says, as he flashes that old-school Negan smile and metaphorically winks at Maggie in the distance. What does it mean? I have no idea. All we do know is that Negan unburied his bat, Lucille, and burned it, so the old Negan is gone, but it doesn’t mean he’s going to be a pushover. According to showrunner Angela Kang, that smile basically said, “I’m here, we are going to have to deal with each other and I belong here and I have a place here.” Negan has made Alexandria his new home, and it’s clear that he’s not willing to give that up, even if it means that the threat of being killed by Maggie will constantly hang over him.

It’s a fitting end to the season, and a great teaser for the final season, which returns this summer. Despite the woeful last couple of episodes, “Here’s Negan” sets the series back on the right path toward its last 24 episodes, which will begin airing on Sunday, August 22nd.

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