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Not Your Nerds’ Negan

Fixing ‘The Walking Dead,’ which returns on February 12, requires repairing a cherished comic-book character who’s failed as a TV villain

(AMC/Image Comics/Ringer illustration)
(AMC/Image Comics/Ringer illustration)

This weekend, The Walking Dead will lurch back to life and try to atone for the torturous eight episodes that formed the first half of the AMC show’s seventh season. Showrunner Scott Gimple’s blueprint for the season so far has called for the series’ typically humorless, hopeless slice of postapocalyptic life to double down on the bleakness, pinning its appeal on the buzzy but creatively bankrupt question of which cast members would have their heads caved in by a bat. Predictably, that wasn’t a working formula for fan engagement.

The premiere’s immoderate bloodletting caused a public backlash so severe that AMC stripped some of the violence from a few episodes that were still in production. A sizable chunk of the show’s massive audience drifted away despite the semi-sanitization, probably less because of the beatings than because the series seemed to have little left to say with its manipulative cliffhanger resolved. In the season’s second episode, the ratings plummeted from the premiere’s peak. Then they fell for four more weeks, bottoming out in Episode 6, the show’s lowest-rated since early in Season 3. The slide stopped as the midseason hiatus approached, but it didn’t really reverse itself: Episode 8 was the lowest-rated midseason finale since Season 2.

There’s a fair and accurate counter to ratings watchers’ Walking Dead doom and gloom: The series remains the most popular show on cable, both by total viewers and in the 18-to-49 demographic. For now, the televised future of Robert Kirkman’s creation still looks limitless, but to sustain its first-place status, the show will have to stop being a slog for fans and actors alike. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who plays Negan, the season’s big bad, considered quitting after his brutal debut, and Andrew Lincoln (Rick) and Norman Reedus (Daryl) haven’t held back about Gimple’s apparent plan to turn filming into an Apocalypse Now–esque ordeal, which was grueling even for the actors whose characters weren’t on the giving or receiving end of Lucille’s spikes.

The positive spin on the rest of the season says that the suffering of the first half will make the second half sweeter, like Super Bowl LI for Pats fans or that first, refreshing sip of still-tainted water after the walker is removed from the well. The promo for Sunday’s midseason premiere reveals Rick’s crew going on the offensive, the beginnings of an alliance between the three known settlements under the Saviors’ heels, and ensemble scenes that seem like a refreshing break from the fragmented structure that’s separated fan favorites for extended stretches of the season. The comeback can’t help but be better than watching Rick grovel, Daryl cower, and Carol live the quiet cottage life on the outskirts of The Kingdom.

Despite that relatively intriguing outlook, though, the second half still has a problem. The transition from “darkest” to “dawn” depends on Negan being a bad guy whose satisfying downfall justifies the excruciating setup. And based on what we’ve seen, the TV version of Negan is not the villain that The Walking Dead needs.

Negan’s arrival at the end of Season 6 was preceded by months of fanfare, both because of Morgan’s casting and because the character is beloved by comics fans. Negan’s ruthless pragmatism, bolstered by boundless charisma and a Walking Dead rarity (motivations that make sense) promised a departure from previous monstrous and sadistic villains (such as the Governor, Gareth, and Owen) as well as the whiny and weaselly kind (Nicholas, Pete, Ron). More than a month before Morgan made his first onscreen appearance, Walking Dead executive producer David Alpert anointed Negan “one of the greatest villains ever created in TV.”

Thus far, the hype hasn’t been justified. Through the first nine episodes of the Negan era, the new handsome strongman has ruled a lot like the old ones, with even longer power-mad monologues. Negan swaggers, smirks, and leans through his halting, repetitive scenes, Morgan’s menacing jollity and scruff-covered laugh lines doing only so much to make up for the fact that every exchange boils down to the threat of a head being bashed in unless Negan gets his way.

While Negan is far from the most maddening Walking Dead adversary, nothing about the TV version explains readers’ reverence for the comic-book character. Without an understandable origin story, there’s no logic to his cruelty or sense to the sway he has over the Saviors. The show hasn’t explored his history, and if it ever does, it won’t be for a while; late last year, Gimple described the prospect of revealing Negan’s roots on screen as “fairly far-flung stuff” and “a good while away.” Yes, Negan will be back for Season 8, and maybe beyond.

J. Ryan, the webmaster of The Walking Dead Fansite and consumer of Kirkman content in all its forms, tells me that there’s more depth to the comics version’s personality. Comics Negan, she says via direct message, “shows hints of his humanity. He feels that the way he runs his community is how it has to be to survive. You miss that in the show. They seem to be painting him as a one-dimensional lunatic.”

Cameron Collins, an admin for Fandom’s Walking Dead Wiki, reports via email that the community’s prevailing attitude is anti-TV Negan. “I have met a few comic fans who like TV Negan, but they’re few and far between,” he says. (Nonreaders on Reddit aren’t all that into him either.)

Collins’s critiques focus on the fact that TV Negan is “inconsistent and unpredictable” and “seems to do a lot of things without any rhyme or reason,” whereas comics Negan is “a lot more calculating and deliberate” and “does only what he believes to be completely necessary.” Comics Negan kills Glenn for the same reason that TV Negan kills Abraham: as punishment for Rick’s slaughter of Saviors. But Collins says that “Comic Negan would never have gone so far as to kill another of Rick’s men just to prove a point,” as TV Negan does when he kills Glenn because Daryl talks back.

TV Negan, Collins says, “[lacks] any sort of emotion when compared to his comic counterpart. While both mercilessly kill and appear to take great pride in their actions, [comics] Negan comes across as being a lot more genuine and socially aware.” In every instance in which their actions overlap, TV Negan takes things to a sociopathic extreme. Comics Negan whispers a joke about Olivia’s weight to Rick, without anyone else in earshot; TV Negan mocks her face-to-face until she breaks down in tears. Comics Negan disembowels Spencer Monroe with no one else around, then orders one of his men to dispose of the body before someone sees it; TV Negan does the disemboweling while a crowd of Alexandrians watches.

Comics Negan is willing to listen to reason, and he doesn’t sanction gratuitous attacks. “Comic Negan operates in a very similar manner to a Godfather-style mob boss; he doesn’t want people dead, he wants people obedient,” Collins says. “He keeps most of the groups in the area together by means of intimidation, manipulation, and charm. I can see they’ve tried to do something similar in the show, but things like burning the group’s mattresses for no real reason ruins the effect; comic Negan would never deliberately handicap another group under his control.” The same goes for Rick’s RV abduction and Daryl’s solitary confinement and “Easy Street” torture, neither of which seems likely to inspire loyalty. Although Collins thinks Morgan is doing as well as one could with the material, “most of [Negan’s] actions seem to lack purpose, and I’ve always felt as if the writers are more interested in making him insane than an actual human being with wants and needs,” he says.

Maybe Negan’s remorse after making Carl expose his empty eye socket in Episode 7 — which mirrors a scene in the comics — portends a more nuanced character to come. But Collins believes it’s too late for the show to tinker with Negan enough to make Alpert’s proclamation come true, because any real alteration to the TV character would make his earlier actions appear even more erratic. The best outcome he envisions is that the show could “place some kind of method upon the madness. If they could come up with some legitimate reasons for his actions (killing all the males in Oceanside, for instance), then perhaps there would be a chance of TV Negan becoming a respectable character in his own right. … Generally speaking, I don’t have enough faith in the show to believe any improvement will, nor could be made.”

In Negan, The Walking Dead was handed a classic character who could have shaken the show out of its mid-run malaise. Instead, he’s helped send it even deeper into the doldrums. The second half of the season could theoretically restore his reputation, but hope is rarely rewarded in The Walking Dead’s world.