Why The Walking Dead Needs Less Negan
Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Negan is a terrifying villain. But The Walking Dead should know that menace can be built in what you don't see, too.
This Walking Dead article contains major spoilers.
No one can argue how Negan, The Walking Dead‘s current villain, brought to life so convincingly by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, has really rattled some skulls, both onscreen and off. The usually unflappable Rick was literally brought to his knees at the end of season 6—courtesy of Negan and his Saviors. Anyone who has followed TWD from the beginning understands what a pivotal moment this was, both for Rick and for the show itself. Negan may crack wise (fairly and often), but the man himself is no joke. But after nine episodes (ten, if you include last season’s finale), is Negan fatigue starting to set in?
How you feel about TWD’s seventh season probably has a lot to do with your feelings about Negan. Not only has he made life miserable for Rick, Michonne, Maggie, and the rest, he’s directly responsible for killing two fan favorites—one of them a day-one cast member to boot. Personally, I thought the writing was on the wall for Abraham from the moment he dared to dream of a future with Sasha.
As for Glenn, anyone familiar with issue #100 of TWD comic book knows the one-time pizza delivery boy met his demise at the end of Negan’s bat. The season 7 premiere pretty much matched the comic panel for panel and beat for beat (and beating for beating). Whether you saw it coming or not, Glenn’s death was both horrific and heartbreaking. So much so that many viewers swore off the show, appalled by the level of gore and violence. Message received loud and clear, though: Negan is not to be trifled with. And that would be fine, except that TWD’s creators really like Negan a lot.
Maybe too much. Sometimes, less is more. Case in point:
Darth Vader. Some people may not realize that the Star Wars’ biggest and baddest villain is only onscreen in A New Hope for 12 minutes out of 125. Twelve minutes. And yet the character still managed to cast a long shadow across the movie. When he showed up, everyone else knew it was bad news.
Heath Ledger’s Joker. This iconic, Oscar-winning performance from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight comprises roughly 30 minutes of screen time in a 152-minute film. Like Vader, Ledger’s lip-smacking anarchist never overstayed his welcome.
Jaws (AKA Bruce the Shark). 1975’s Jaws has been dubbed Hollywood’s first true summer blockbuster, terrifying audiences so much that people feared going to the beach. Which is quite a feat for a mechanical shark that barely has five minutes of screen time. What works here is that the fear of being attacked is so real and so pervasive that to show the shark more would have worked against the film’s suspense.
Which brings us to Negan, who, over the course of season 7A, has logged an impressive 110 minutes of screen time (compared to Rick Grimes’s 112 minutes). And in that nearly two hours of screen time, we’ve seen a lot of Negan smirking and swaggering with a sort of careless bravado that was terrifying eight episodes ago, but is now wearing a bit thin. We get that Negan is a man to be feared, killing people on a whim (Spencer, who had it coming anyway) while giving others a pass (like Olivia, up to a point).
One of this season’s best Negan episodes is probably “Sing Me a Song.” Even after Carl kills two Saviors, Negan still takes him under his wing, showing him around the Saviors’ compound in what seems like the weirdest Take Your Child to Work Day ever. One of the episode’s best moments is Negan’s insistence on seeing Carl’s empty eye socket. It’s a power play, of course, but Negan is legitimately chastened by Carl’s tearful humiliation. Negan’s subsequent apology is earnest. It’s a nice departure from what has basically been one-note villainy. There’s a conscience lurking around in there, beneath the swagger and bravado.
One of the reasons TWD’s take on the Governor was so effective was because the character was flawed. Woodbury was the Governor’s attempt at normalcy, not a power play. And he was actively searching for a way to cure his daughter. When Michonne “killed” the Governor’s daughter, she killed his last ray of hope in a dark and terrible world. The show went on to humanize him more in episodes subsequent to Woodbury’s fall.
Sure, it may be a little too soon in his run on the show to explore what makes Negan tick, but we need to get some glimpses into his motivations soon. Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard started exploring a bit of this backstory last year in the pages of Image+. The serialized story called “Here’s Negan!” gives us the man before the apocalypse, shedding light on the would-be leader of the Saviors. One can hope that AMC will bring these moments to the screen.
We don’t need to like Negan, especially since he’s responsible for killing so many important characters. But if AMC can make me care about the Governor (mainly from deviating from the source material), the show can only benefit from humanizing an inhumane villain. Until then, though, I believe in the idea that less is more.
Make the undead a real threat again, something we haven’t really experienced since season 6. We get it—the living are dangerous. The show doesn’t have to beat us over the head with it. By scaling back on Negan’s screen time, the show avoids the pitfall of him becoming more of a punchline.
Yes, I realize Negan is in the comic a lot—and I do mean a lot. (It’s worth noting that JDM will be around for season 8, too.) And yes, I understand this season is being very faithful to the source material, slavishly so. But to bring up an earlier point about the Governor, some of his better character moments didn’t appear in the comic. AMC might do well to stray from the page while remaining true to the spirit of the comic (something the network has done with great success in another of its comic-turned-series, Preacher).
A parting thought: Steven Ogg plays Simon, one of Negan’s chief enforcers who first turned up in last season’s “Last Day on Earth.” He hasn’t been on the show a whole lot, but in some ways he’s more menacing than Negan, mostly because we’ve seen so little of him by comparison. Even so, we understand Simon is an extension of Negan, as all Saviors are. They’re not mere henchmen. In essence, each of them is Negan. And that idea, that one man could be everywhere at once by engendering such fealty in his followers, is, in some ways, more chilling than the man himself.
If you’re in the pro-Negan, more-is-more camp, sound off in the comments below. And be sure to come back for our weekly reviews of The Walking Dead!