Last season was pretty mediocre with one big exception: Negan. In the brief screen time Jeffrey Dean Morgan had playing the villain, his portrayal was superb. Unfortunately, his big introduction to The Walking Dead was somewhat overshadowed by an objectively awful season finale cliffhanger.
But after a summer and fall full of speculation, The Walking Dead has returned to reveal who Negan decided would get a high velocity kiss from Lucille—which means we’re back with our weekly analysis of everyone’s favorite zombie franchise.
Will there be spoilers? You bet your barbed wire ass there are.
“I’m Gonna Kill You”
The episode opened with Rick, distraught and enraged after watching one of his people get brutally slaughtered, whispering those words to Negan. They were also the same words many of us wanted to scream at showrunner Scott Gimple. For a while, it looked like they were actually going to drag out the mystery of who got killed for the entire episode.
After being asked to repeat his threat (and clarifying that it would not be today or tomorrow), Negan and Rick preceded to eye hump each other for a few minutes before the leather-clad psychopath got up and dragged Rick into his RV for a chat.
When we came back from the credits, Negan had deliberately placed a hatchet within Ricks’s reach, challenging him to go for it and take his best shot. This ended predictably with Rick getting his ass kicked, which was followed by a frustrating series of clips featuring all the potentially dead characters from last season. By the time the RV pulled up to the bridge where the Savior had hung a dude, my head was ready to explode.
Then Negan took the axe from before, threw it outside into a horde of walkers, and told Rick to go get it. If you like looking for symbolism in places that it may or may not exist, then here’s what was going through my mind right about then:
Negan = Scott Gimple
The Axe = Who Negan Killed
Rick = The Audience
The Painful Gift
Somehow, Negan was able to hook the axe up and onto the RV’s roof. This provided us with a chance to watch Rick pretend to be in danger and while everyone watching at home became even more impatient/pissed over STILL not knowing who died.
But then, as Rick laid down on the top the RV and closed his eyes, we were returned to the moment right before last season ended. This time, there were no stupid camera view shifts or cheap fadeouts. Instead, we were treated to one of the most brutal and heart-breaking sequences of television I have ever seen.
The flashback begins with Negan’s sadistic game of eenie meenie miney mo, which lands squarely on Abraham’s beautiful ginger head. He does indeed take the beating “like a champ,” rising back up after the first hit from Lucille to tell Negan to “suck his nuts.” Negan declines his offer and beats him to a bloody pulp instead.
Despite how mad I was at Abraham for the way he’d treated Rosita, it was still a tough scene to watch. Had that been where it ended, this episode would have easily rated among the series’ most tragic installments. Then Daryl rushed forward to avenge the Ginger Bear, causing him to be taken to the ground and staring down the barrel of his own crossbow.
The cries of millions of women (and more then a few men) rose up as Negan stalked toward him. When he told Dwight to stand down, however, it looked like things might be okay. But Negan is a man of his word—and he promised them that insubordination would not be tolerated. As punishment for Daryl’s transgression—and with no random dumpsters in sight—he wheeled around and began clobbering Glenn in the face with Lucille.
If Abraham’s scene was terrifying, then Glenn’s could easily be considered traumatic. As if to punish us all for complaining so much about last year’s finale, Gimple somehow got network approval for Glenn’s death to look as horrific it did in the comics.
You Think That’s Bad…?
Back in the present, Negan begins shooting at Rick from inside the RV, goading him once again to go get his ax. Rick jumps off the roof and attempts to use the now zombiefied hanging victim as a rope, which goes about as well as you’d expect.
But Negan has no intention of letting Rick die. He guns down a large portion of the heard, allowing Rick to return with his weapon along with a completely pulverized and defeated soul.
They drive back to camp, where Rick’s surviving people (and the bloody corpses of his murdered friends) are in exactly the same places and positions that he’d left them. It looked like Negan’s “I’m the boss now” statement was finished…until he got a hold of Carl’s arm, tied a belt around it, and gave Rick a choice between cutting off his own son’s arm or watching him die.
For the first time in a VERY long time, I felt genuine fear for Rick. I also had no idea what he would do. I think we were all leaning toward cutting off Carl’s arm, but even that seemed completely unthinkable. When Rick raised the ax, I couldn’t believe that what I was seeing was actually going to happen. Then, in a move that was pure evil genius, Negan stopped Rick and gave him a reprieve…while also forcing him to pledge his fealty.
Before leaving, Negan decides to take Daryl along with him as an insurance policy. After a few final (and profane) parting shots, he and his Saviors depart, leaving Rick and his surviving family (and the audience) in a state of hollow shock. Maggie tries to rally them, but it’s no use. Negan didn’t just kill two of their best people—he also crushed their spirit.
Is It Good?
First off, I need to address some of the negative reactions I saw about this episode on social media. While we can all agree that the ending to last year’s season finale was bad, we can’t then go and complain when Scott Gimple successfully delivers even more heartache than we’d previously demanded. I imagine the poor guy feels like Maximus in the coliseum, screaming “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?” at the people who claim he went too far.
And no, the death and violence in this episode were not cheap stunts. They easily could have been, but Gimple & Co. masterfully wove it into a story that helped cement this episode as one of the best and most important in the series.
For starters, it threw everyone for a loop with two major character deaths. The question about who Negan would kill had always been a singular one. Even comic fans like myself were only expecting one member of the Alexandria team to be executed. Unless you were actively reading spoiler sites for the last six months, I guarantee you didn’t think two of them would get killed off.
But the payoff from this shocking turn of events–and real genius of the episode–was the scene with Carl. If you’re familiar with the Old Testament of the Bible, then you probably remember the story of about God testing Abraham’s faith by commanding him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Just as he was about to through with it, God halted the proceedings, satisfied that Abraham feared Him sufficiently.
In this instance, Negan not only breaks Rick down to a quivering mass, but also sets himself up as the Grimes’ almighty lord and savior. Rick truly fears Negan, not just because of what he might do, but because he has shown himself to be supremely capable and willing to do it. And by not making Rick go through with maiming Carl, Negan also managed to make himself look merciful despite having just murdered two members of their group (and seeming to enjoy the hell out of it).
So yeah…I don’t forgive Scott Gimple completely for the end of the last season, but this definitely makes up for it.
It should also be noted that none of this works without some truly great work by all the actors, particularly Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Andrew Lincoln. Lauren Cohen’s anger and sadness seemed so real that I actually felt relieved when I saw her walk out on Talking Dead looking happy and radiant as usual—AND that she’d recovered from that awful haircut Enid gave her.
While this episode was a hard one to conventionally enjoy, it was still excellent. And like I told a friend of mine who described herself as “dead inside” after it was over: Cheer up! We’re going to have a tiger on the show soon.