This Walking Dead review contains spoilers.
The Walking Dead Season 8 Episode 5
Holy moley, what a gigantic waste of time to open the episode with Gregory’s meeting with Negan and the Saviors before the attack on the Sanctuary. I just don’t get why any of this is necessary. We know Gregory is a coward, we know he turns on a dime depending on what will secure his continued survival, and we know he’s a terrible liar. Negan, who at least the show tells us is supposed to be intelligent, can smell Gregory’s deception from a mile away, but yet chooses to do nothing. But perhaps there’s more to this redundant scene than what’s on the surface.
I suspect the opening is trying to do something else: show the difference between the two leaders. Gregory offers to expel anyone at the Hilltop who doesn’t side with the Saviors, while Negan rages when Simon suggests that they exterminate everyone at the settlement in order to get things back on track. Negan is not so quick to lay down the hammer here. Would it be easier for him to just kill everyone who opposes his rule and fill those settlements with his own people? Probably. So why doesn’t he go for Simon’s nuclear option?
If you’ve been reading my TWD reviews for a while, then you won’t be surprised to know that I think Negan is one of the worst villains this show has ever had. No, I don’t mean “worst” as in “he’s the most evil.” I mean that every time Negan shows up in an episode, I want to turn off the television.
Mind you, I don’t think the fault really lies with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, an actor I’ve really enjoyed in the past and who’s a HELL of a lot of fun to interview. I actually think he’s the right guy for the job – charismatic, foul-mouthed, and intimidating (at least in his first appearances as the villain). But one thing the character has not been since he was introduced at the very end of season six is earnest. Because showrunner Scott Gimple and the writers have followed Robert Kirkman’s comics so closely since Negan’s introduction, Morgan has never really had a chance to make the character his own. He doesn’t own Negan on television in the same way the absolutely WONDERFUL David Morrissey owned the Governor, a comic book villain who felt unique to the television version.
The Governor existed in a very different era of this show, one ushered in by a different showrunner (Glen Mazzara) who wasn’t afraid to stray from the source material (not always for the best, mind you). The ever-faithful Gimple is not that kind of showrunner though, and so his era brings with it all of Negan’s most cartoonish antics and dialogue that have worked on the page but absolutely DO NOT work on the small screen. Morgan, who I think is capable of bringing some nuance to the character, has been stuck with that portrayal since walking out of that trailer at the end of season six.
But “The Big Scary U” shows what Morgan can do with the character if given some space to work beyond the comics. He’s not so much painting by the numbers here as introducing hints of humanity to Negan, what little might be left inside his rotten body. No, I wouldn’t say Negan earned any kind of sympathy tonight, but at least we finally get a look under the hood.
There’s been a lot wrong with season eight thus far, including the boring action sequences and how painfully slow Rick and Daryl’s plan is unfolding (we’ll get to this in a minute). That said, one thing that’s been alright in my book is the total lack of Negan. Gone are the days of the extended Negan episodes of season seven.
I’ve always felt that the show should be sparse with a character as harsh as the leader of the Saviors. While even the Governor held some twisted sense of morality – which was rooted in his attemps to cure his zombified daughter – Negan is pure, unadulterated evil in his early appearances. This approach could have worked if season seven had used the villain sparingly, having him pop up every few episodes to do some evil shit before allowing him to retreat back into his totalitarian fortress full of slaves and cult members. Perhaps this might have even made him a bit more scary. Instead, all curiosity about the character was lost (at least on my part) after his third or fourth dick joke.
“The Big Scary U” tries its damn hardest to bring some nuance to Negan, to make him feel like an actual person and not just a cut out from the comics, and it kind of works. No, this episode still really stumbles in a few places – again, that Gregory sequence gives us information we don’t need, especially since Negan’s talk with Father Gabriel retreads the same thematic material.
What we discover about Negan during his talk with Gabriel doesn’t make him any less of a piece of shit. Negan doesn’t believe in saving people or bringing out the best in them out of good intentions. No, he just needs people to produce for him. When the Sanctuary finds itself in a dire situation – without power, a shortage of water, and a general lack of supplies – it becomes clear that it’s because the settlement can no longer depend on Alexandria, the Hilltop, or the Kingdom to provide for them. The main Savior import isn’t food or water or weapons, it’s people. Which is why he won’t just go and exterminate the Hilltop or any of the other settlements. Yes, he has the manpower to do it, but it’s cheaper to just kill the the King, the Widow, and Rick in very public fashion and get everyone else back in line. This will ultimately save the lives Negan needs for the continued prosperity of the Sanctuary.
The most interesting thing about Negan’s methods is that many of the people he has saved during his rise to the top actually feel like they’re all the better for it. He gives them shelter behind the thick walls of the Sanctuary, feeds them, and turns them into mean survivors who will do anything to stay alive. If the bad dude you’ve been following has kept you alive, wouldn’t you want to keep on following?
The workers at the Sanctuary don’t feel quite the same about Negan’s lieutenants, and the Savior leader knows this. He’s absolutely right when he tells Gabriel that a lot of people are going to die in the Sanctuary because he’s not there to stop it. Gabriel witnesses first hand when Negan makes his grand return (theatrical as EVER) to his base of operations and effortlessly defuses a standoff. Instead of killing each other, everyone kneels – including Gabriel.
It isn’t blind faith or fear that keeps Negan’s people in line. It’s that he provides for them and makes those who wish to follow him stronger. As one of the indentured servants at the Sanctuary says to Negan’s council of bad dudes during the standoff, the deal is that “we work for you and you protect and provide for us.” It’s clear from how quickly his lieutenants muck things up and almost commit mass murder that Negan’s the only person who can really do that. After all, he’s the guy who solidified this massive “community” of survivors in the first place.
Ultimately, Negan is still a disgusting excuse for a human being, but at least now we know what makes him an effective leader in the postapocalypse. His confession to Gabriel, one of the highlights of the episode – although this is one time I kind of would’ve liked a flashback scene – shows the moment of weakness that pushes Negan to be stronger. The Lucille reveal is a bit anti-climactic but it does accomplish its goal: to show a sort of inevitability to Negan’s character, that he was always headed down this path, that he was born to be a leader.
To say that Negan and Gabriel come out of that trailer as friends isn’t quite right. They do leave with a better understanding of each other, though. Perhaps even a hint of respect. I’m a little disappointed that their scenes together had a lot less to say about Gabriel than they did about Negan. Gabriel plays the cold opening as if he’s unraveling from being stuck in a trailer with Negan while also surrounded by walkers. There’s a sort of crazy smile on Gabriel’s face as he tells Negan that his purpose is to hear the villain’s confession before they die. But that’s thankfully not the case.
Their conversation feels more like a game of chess (if you can disregard Negan’s terrible masturbation joke at the start of the episode), and it’s really interesting to see Negan treat the priest almost like an equal. Even the way Negan punches Gabriel in the face after confessing feels kind of satisfying because there’s a sense of earned camaraderie there. You expect Negan to be vengeful and clobber Gabriel with Lucille, but his reaction is just kind of bro-ish. It’s like, “Bro, we’re probably fucked, so I’m going to take one last jab at you for being a dick and making me confess my darkest secret before we die.”
Anyway, there’s a lot of frustrating shit going on during their escape scene. For one thing, WHY does it take Negan so long to use the old “cover yourself with walker guts and simply walk out the front door” trick? WHY can’t the walkers easily slip into the trailer after breaking through the walls? And HOW do Gabriel and Negan not get eaten as soon as their cover is blown? They’re surrounded by walkers on ALL SIDES. The episode cheats by never showing exactly how the hell Negan and Gabriel got back inside, which feels really cheap when the odds are so stacked against the characters. This show is so bad at stakes it’s unbelievable.
Would it have been a satisfying end for Gabriel to die at the hands of the horde after hearing Negan’s confession? No, it would have been cruel. But that’s the name of the game on The Walking Dead. The end of the episode feels unsatisfying in comparison. The last scene makes it seem like Gabriel is succumbing to a walker bite, although that’s not directly addressed. This feels like a fake out to me. A really bad one. Surely Negan would have noticed that Gabriel was bitten? If he does know, Negan doesn’t give any indication of it when he tells his men to gently escort Gabriel to a cell. It’s a really confusing ending that does more harm than good to one of season eight’s better hours.
I’m guessing we’ll find out what’s going on with Gabriel like three episodes from now?
Speaking of bad pacing, why are Rick and Daryl still trying to recover those weapons three episodes later? It’s maddening that TWD hasn’t learned its lesson after so many seasons. WE DON’T WANT TO WATCH BITS AND PIECES OF A STORY THAT’S UNNECESSARILY STRETCHED OUT FOR SEVERAL EPISODES. There is really no reason for this week’s “Checking in with the Supermen” segment. Their terribly bullshit fight – one that’s totally not earned, because this show is incredibly shallow in most cases – is so bad that I wish they’d both just been blown up by that truck. If this intolerable Rick and Daryl storyline is stretched out any further, we’ll be watching Daryl doing motorcycle maintenance soon. Yeesh.
“The Big Scary U” is an intriguing episode that still showcases some of the show’s most glaring problems. It doesn’t quite save Negan for me, and never goes as far as it should with Gabriel, especially when it comes to the very unnecessary tease that he MIGHT have been bitten before the screen fades to black. Rick and Daryl’s journey is boring as hell, and the Sanctuary board meeting scenes don’t do much but show how incompetent the Savior leadership is without Negan. But hell, can I say that this episode doesn’t TRY to do some interesting things? No way. While this week’s deconstruction of Negan is nowhere near as effective as last week’s Ezekiel-centric episode, there’s definitely something to take from “The Big Scary U.” That’s more than I can say about most of season eight.