Has ‘The Walking Dead’ overplayed the Negan card?
This Sunday, The Walking Dead will air their 90-minute season finale. Both within the narrative and without, the foreshadowing has been caked on like spackle. Negan is coming and he’s a bad guy. Worse than the Governor, worse than the citizens of Terminus, and definitely worse than the Wolves. Negan walks softly and carries a barb-wire stick. Negan is the leader of an extensive population of mercenaries and killers. Negan is going to kill someone the audience loves.
Negan is on my last nerve and we haven’t even seen his face.
Image Credit: AMC
Yesterday AMC released this still of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan, holding the infamous Lucille. There was also a video clip, but you can get the gist from the photo. After dedicating the entire back-half of Season 6 to building up Negan, the payoff is finally here. But do we even care?
After the Schrödinger’s Glenn debacle earlier this season, the show recovered fairly well. Putting the focus on rebuilding Alexandria after the walker infestation and integrating with the wider survivor community was some of the strongest stories of the year. But like a bad apple spoiling the barrel, the looming specter of Negan forced the narrative in a direction that felt both forced and hollow. Oh? Another Big Bad™ for The Group to fight? Fiftieth verse, same as the first. It’s exhausting (and kind of boring) to see the same plots cycled again and again with different cardboard villains propped up for the heroes to shoot down.
But plenty of shows fall into this kind of rut. So what’s different about Negan’s introduction? The longer The Walking Dead draws this out, the longer the audience has to gird themselves against oncoming character death. We’ve known for MONTHS now that someone will taste Lucille’s wrath in the season finale. That’s too long. I’ve used up all my anxiety and all that’s left is indifference. To paraphrase every action hero ever, “If you’re gonna kill me, kill me already.”
Maybe I would feel different if the last two episodes had felt organic. But no. By forcing the characters into bizarre behaviors (most of the Group leaving Alexandria even knowing the Saviors are out there, having yelling fights in the middle of the woods even knowing the Saviors are out there, Carol’s 180 on violence even knowing the Saviors are out there), you can see the writers pulling the strings. They have an end point in mind, and they’ll get there even if it makes no sense. At this point, meeting Negan feels like a slap in the face to every hard lesson the Group has learned over the last five seasons. Had they actually stumbled upon him in the raid a few episodes ago, it might’ve held more narrative weight.
As to who Negan will kill? Who cares. If it’s someone the audience cares about, the outrage will be immediate. Glenn has been on the chopping block so many times, killing him now would undermine his previous brushes with death. Carol would never get into this kind of situation if she were behaving like herself. Michonne's arc with Rick being cut short would be The Walking Dead cutting off their nose to spite their face. Rick is immune and we all know it. Morgan’s death would be a relief. The smart money is still on Daryl.
And if Negan kills a secondary character? Then it’ll feel like the show lied to audiences. You can’t promise a Big Bad™ who will change everything and then have him take a baseball bat to someone like Sasha, Eugene, or Father Gabriel. Same if he doesn’t kill anyone though that would, at least, be a surprise!
What should’ve been the start of some of the meatiest material in The Walking Dead has instead turned into a weight around its neck. What does the world look like when you mesh pure survival with civilization? What kind of conflicts arise in a barter society that coasts on an undercurrent of paranoia? How do people cope with the dichotomy of murdering enemies in the morning and cooking dinner for the kids in the evening? These questions are waiting to be answered, but the whole world is on pause so Negan can beat someone to death.
At least it’s almost over.
The Walking Dead finale airs Sunday, April 3 at 9/8c on AMC.