(Warning: The Walking Dead TV series and comic book spoilers will be found below.)
This week’s episode of The Walking Dead, “What It Always Is,” is the beginning of what may be the most challenging arc in Robert Kirkman’s comics, a stretch of source material that will require Angela Kang strike a very delicate balance.
This week’s episode highlighted that challenge, and director Laura Belsey and the episode’s writer, Eli Jorne, absolutely nail it. It’s at this point in The Walking Dead when viewers have to ask, “Who is Negan?” Now that he’s free of jail and of Alexandria, is he the same guy he always was when he was running the Sanctuary? Or have the last seven years behind bars surrounded by a community built on hope changed him?
We see flashes of both Negans in “What It Always Is.” In rescuing the mother and son from roamers, he displays the kinder, gentler version of Negan. Likewise, he pushes back against Brandon’s perception of him. When Brandon pulls out Lucille and Negan’s leather jacket, Negan winces at the thought of returning to the man he once was. He also comforts the new kid, but there are flashes of the old Negan there, too, when he advises the kid on the proper way to “nut tap.” The old Negan fully resurfaces, however, when Brandon — in an effort to appeal to Negan — kills the mother and child. Negan kills Brandon with the attitude and brutality of the old Negan, but his motivations are driven by the ethos of the new Negan.
In other words, Negan is the same old Negan, but his motivations are different now. That is important as The Walking Dead pivots into the next arc, one where [Light Comic Spoilers] Negan works himself inside The Whisperers’ camp. The old Negan — brutal, ruthless, sometimes inhumane — should be able to earn the trust of Alpha and Beta. But Negan’s motivations may still be driven by his loose allegiance to Judith, Lydia, and even Father Gabriel back in Alexandria.
Remember, in last week’s episode, Negan escaped jail and fled Alexandria because the council was split on whether to execute him for the accidental murder of Margo. The question now is whether Negan wants to get revenge on the Alexandrians for essentially driving him away under the threat of execution, or if Negan wants to prove himself loyal to the Alexandrians by breaking some heads within The Whisperer camp. The next two or three episodes will likely feature two sides of Negan fighting against themselves, as Negan weighs those competing interests.
Psychologically, it’s one of the most interesting arcs in the comics. Assuming that Angela Kang adopts liberally from the source material, it’s going to take some extra care to strike that balance. I trust that Kang can pull it off, and if we learned anything from this episode — the best of the season, so far — it’s that Jeffrey Dean Morgan is clearly up to the task.