Negan’s arrival in The Walking Dead promises to renew the sense of horror the story inspired, while casting aside the goofy “I am Spartacus” element introduced in this week’s episode. The problem is, I no longer think Negan is the bad guy.
For years I have feared and desperately yearned for the arrival of Negan in the television show. The day issue #100 of the series came out, showcasing his arrival, is still an acutely painful memory. I was sitting in line for a panel at the San Diego Comic Con, surrounded by other convention-goers. It was the only book I had bought yet. As I closed it, having witnessed Negan’s brutality, his amusement at his own sadism, his detachment from characters I had grown to love and long invested in, I was sick to my stomach. Somehow, in that crowd of excitement and joy, I suddenly felt very much alone.
Robert Kirkman had created a villain to rival his previous masterpiece of horror, The Governor. It didn’t seem possible. After all, I read the stories pitting Rick, Michonne and the survivors against The Governor and Woodbury in a constant state of anxiety. In fact, I was reading the book in a public laundromat. Just as The Governor arrived at the prison with a tank and a small army, someone dropped their detergent and I nearly screamed. That was the fear The Governor inspired in me. Yet the show came along and sought to humanize him, lessen him for the AMC audience. Don’t tell me AMC could have ever made a Governor as horrific as the one who lived in the comic books. I don’t care how “intense” you thought Breaking Bad was. I’ll never forget what he did to Michonne. But I’ll admit to being tremendously disappointed by the pathetic figure AMC’s Governor turned out to be. So, I waited for years for Negan to bring the tension and anxiety that used to characterize The Walking Dead.
Now, here we are, soon to have Negan enter our lives again, and my fear is not the havoc that he will wreak, but the disappointment he will bring.
Commence spoilers for those who are not caught up.
The mid-season arrival of Negan’s men, the leather-clad biker gang, was a promising start. They had our beloved Daryl, our take-her-or-leave-her Sasha and our dialogue-written-by-a-drunken-ten-year-old Abraham. They were outnumbered, outgunned, things were going to go poorly for our survivors. But there was no point in complaining. After all, that’s the path that leads to good fiction, people you love in circumstances you hate. Accept, wait… Daryl toggled through his weapons cache and used a rocket launcher to cleanly kill them all without hurting Abraham or Sasha in the explosion, burning them in the subsequent flames or giving any thought to the motorcycles shrapnel that follows blowing up a motorcycle gang. So, huh… well, I guess those guys weren’t that scary.
After meeting Jesus, (who I’m convinced is just three raccoons in a person-suit) and Gregory on the Hilltop, Negan made another off-screen appearance by way of the carnage he spreads. Inciting others to violence by holding their loved ones hostage, we may not have yet met Negan, but we could tell he was the worst of the worst. After all, he was taking half of everything the Hilltop had and even tried to have Gregory killed. But, wait… Maggie just casually leveraged the same deal with payment up front to kill Negan, a deal which, on paper seems to mean they’ll kill one guy. In Maggie’s mind and the mind of the survivors meant killing a whole group of people in their sleep. So, the same deal plus mass pre-emptive murder.
“If you ruin this for me, I will eat your face, Morgan.”
When Rick calls every character with a name into Alexandria’s church so he can bully them from the other side of a preacher’s pulpit, he’s too excited to kill another group of people to care about any dissent. After all, he’s been riding high since killing that group Daryl had been running with in the woods, wiping out Terminus, turning Alexandria on its head (after all, the “ruling” family there was all dead for one reason or another shortly after his arrival and the people who had previously feared him openly now have to fear him very discreetly). So, man… the idea of new person to butt heads with, someone whose people he can kill one by one is probably very exciting to him. When Morgan expresses his concerns about leading the group to war, Rick says he’s going to talk to everyone about it so that they are all on the same page. When Aaron immediately expresses his support, Rick says, “Well, I guess we’re all decided then,” and somehow fights the urge to stick both his middle fingers in Morgan’s stupid, peace-loving eyes.
The group proceeds to seek out Negan’s establishment and with no more planning than drawing a map of a hallway with two rooms, proceed to quietly go through stabbing people in the head while they sleep. This came very easily to the group though they clearly seemed to realize it was wrong. But they knew they had to do it. After all, Negan was running a protection racket and tried to have a guy killed. And any time someone pointed out, “Hey, aren’t we now running a protection racket on the very same group and killing a great many people?” they were probably met with a quiet “Shh-shh-ssshut up…” or a “Hey, watch how easily I can stick a knife in this person’s head. I think his skull is made of warm butter.”
At this point, two different people who have been terrorized by Negan have said, “Hey, you guys are worse than Negan.” First, Jesus points out to Maggie that they took their protection payment up front, something even Negan didn’t do, and certainly not after another group had just taken half their supplies. The statement is made again when Rick is trying to find a severed zombie head to present as Gregory’s. When it is said the head they settle on has a slightly different nose, Rick demonstrates having no knowledge at all that the zombie head in his hand has probably been dead for years and punching it repeatedly will not only not cause a bruised, misshaped effect but rather effectively pulverize it like a jack-o-lantern on Christmas Eve. Rick says if anyone asks, the logic should be that when they killed Gregory, he’d broken his assailant’s hand so Gregory’s nose was broken to settle the score. “Yeah, but Rick… we cut his head off. How much revenge do we need?”
“How much revenge? All the revenge. I’m sorry, I don’t get the question but I like where it is headed.”
What the Hilltop resident actually says is “Negan is scary but you’re worse.”
At no point does anyone react with, “Wow, did you say I was worse than the person I’ve accepted payment to kill? Maybe I should stop and think about that because that was offensive.” Both times, it’s sort of burped off like, “Hey, don’t slow the scene with your moral compass, pal.”
So, all this could really be chalked up to an accurate or sometimes overzealous interpretation of the characters from the book. That changed, however, when Carol and Maggie were taken hostage. And this is the criticism that I know will probably bring me some scorn. Maggie and Carol are taken hostage by three women and one guy, and that was what really killed the momentum towards fighting a “villainous” Negan.
When I see a group of brutal men, I don’t just think, “these guys are physically intimidating”. I notice that there are no women among them. Immediately, I begin to think of them as misogynistic, probable rapists. They don’t integrate, which in mind means they probably consume in a moralistic sense, seeing women as another resource. Once I’ve decided someone is probably a rapist, I just assume they’re a cold-hearted murderer and, yes, that group comprised solely of men is more frightening to me than the integrated group. Negan, in the comic book, is terrifying, but he does have a pretty clear policy against raping women. Yet his men (again all men) are used to threaten to rape Carl in issue #100 (which Carl probably gets tired of hearing, seeing as it was the second time someone had brought it up). I don’t see an integrated group being so evil.
That point was further made with this week’s episode, as the three women in the group were all humanized in one way or the other, in their need to be strong, in their mourning for the lives they would never have. They were fierce and formidable, but the show also showed they were vulnerable. They were not the tyrants and pirates that comprised Negan’s forces in the comic book. They were not people to fear. They were simply another group, like Rick’s, who simply had the idea to run a protection racket first (or maybe concurrently, seeing as that’s essentially what Rick has been doing for Alexandria). After all, they had been attacked first. They could have killed both Maggie and Carol and it may have been frustrating as a viewer to see there was nothing to stop them, but you would not be able to hate them for it.
Even as I read issue #100, I thought to myself, “Negan killed one person… however viciously and called it even. Rick has been killing his men every chance he got. Negan may have broken my heart just now, but I guess it was darkly fair.”
Carol and Maggie got captured because while acting as the lookouts while their friends massacred a group of sleeping people. Maggie had to be held back from partaking in the mass homicide. The friends of the people they helped kill said, “You’re the bad guys,” and instead of hearing that very fair assessment, Maggie and Carol killed them anyway. Were their lives at risk? They did undo Carol’s gag when she was hyperventilating. They weren’t torturing or beating the woman and opposed the one person who wanted to get violent with them. In fact, there’s no reason to really think they could not have been returned safely to their group.
“Man, this was so much funnier than escaping when we had the chance.”
But it was safer to kill them.
At this point, it’s hard to think of Negan as the villain. He might be a bad guy, but is he kill-twenty-people-in-their-sleep evil? Is he listen-to-a-woman-talk-about-her-dead-family-and-then-shove-a-pipe-through-her-because-she-wouldn’t-run-away evil? Has he ever humorously detonated a group of bikers with a rocket launcher that presumably been used previously by Wile E. Coyote? Probably not.
At this point, Negan seems more like the leader of another group surviving in a hard world. I don’t hate him, or fear him. Unless he showed up in my house and used Lucille to knock over my bookshelves, that probably won’t change. At this point, Rick and his group really seem like the reigning bad guys.
Agree? Disagree? Feel free to tell me in the comments below or on Twitter.