There’s an old saw that says the best villains are the ones who believe they’re the hero of the story. “Sing Me a Song” leaves the viewer wondering if that’s true for Negan in an episode that spends even more time acquainting the audience with him and his fiefdom. There are moments when it seems like Negan truly believes he’s doing good, bringing the progress and security of civilization back to an untamed world. There are others when it seems like he simply enjoying himself within his own twisted version of Disneyland. It’s unclear which of those things he really believes, or if he’s even aware of the distinction. But that ambiguity helps make him The Walking Dead’s most interesting villain yet.
“Sing Me a Song” reaffirms Negan as a fundamentally bad person. He maims a man, reveals a harem of de facto conscripted “wives,” and revels in a fair amount of cruelty. But it also depicts him as full of contradictions, positing that he lives his life by certain principles (or at least rationalizes that he does), even when his actions frequently conflict with them.
For instance, one of the things we learn about Negan here is that he has an almost fanatical devotion to “the rules.” Those strictures he’s so committed to conveniently never result in any real harm or even mild inconvenience to him personally, but he still conceives of himself not as some sort of tyrannical dictator, but rather as a diligent steward, simply enforcing the previously established, well-understood laws of the land. Nevermind that Negan himself very likely created those rules, or that they’re inevitably tilted in his favor. The leader of The Saviors views himself as just dutifully abiding by the limits that are best for everyone.
There’s social commentary in that and in the subtext that people in power miss the underlying inequities of systems that just so happen to benefit them, hiding behind the notion that they’re simply following the rules, regardless of whether those rules continually serve to reinforce the imbalances of those systems. But even taken purely as text and not subtext, it becomes unclear whether Negan genuinely believes the grand principles he spouts to his cowed masses or not.
There are times when Negan seems to buy his own bullshit. We finally learn the origin of the term “Saviors” as used here. It’s founded on the idea that Negan’s people are saving civilization through their intervention. It’s not hard to imagine Negan seeing himself as the embodiment of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, preventing anarchy and protecting against the harshest realities of the zombie-produced state of nature by creating a threat of force to keep everyone respecting the rule of law, for the benefit of all.
He is, in some respects, a slanted personification of that view of the role of government, where the governing body holds a monopoly on the use of force and uses it to keep people working for a collective good rather than an individual good. He is a realization of that political philosophy gone more than a little mad. The sunny side of that conception of governance is what Negan preaches to his people — that the rules, which he is allegedly so committed to enforcing, make life better for everyone.
But that line of thinking also works well as propaganda, perfectly tailored to keep those lower on the totem pole in line, either out of a fear for what will happen if the rules are broken, or because they truly internalize the idea that this is the proper organization of people and of civilization as a whole. So it’s hard to tell whether Negan genuinely sees himself as a benevolent leader doing what’s necessary to keep everyone safe, or if it’s a useful fiction that keeps a gravy train that works to his continued benefit in perpetual motion (if he even knows himself). Perhaps it’s a little of each, with Negan believing in the way of life he presents as what’s best for everyone, while suitably content to gloss over the rougher edges of that philosophy to continue his life in the lap of relative luxury.
Part of what points the needle in the direction of propaganda, however, is the fact that the qualities he respects and admires run entirely contrary to his Hobbesian, rule-bound perspective. Negan positions himself as the ultimate enforcer, someone who represents the barbed-wire carrying arm of the law, but he has the most appreciation for, and the most interest in, the people who stand up to him, the ones who, in effect, break his rules.
That’s why he takes in Daryl after the laconic bruiser punches him in the face, with Negan claiming that he’ll make a good soldier. And that’s why, in this episode, Negan starts trying to groom Carl rather than taking him out after he engineers a bold but somewhat cavalier assassination attempt. Negan respects people who aren’t afraid, who are “badasses,” who stand up in the face of pure, merciless force and are undeterred. He won’t tolerate it — he can’t; otherwise, to his mind, his entire rule-focused system would fall apart — but damnit if he doesn’t respect it.
So Negan is a man who both puts the rules above all else, or at least feigns a belief in that idea, especially when it applies to his rank-and-file workers or his “wives,” but who also gravitates toward the people that are not cowed by such limitations, who stand up to the system he has so painstakingly and so brutally established within the factory we see in gross for the first time. There’s a complexity to the ethos “Sing Me a Song” depicts in Negan.
That complexity comes through most clearly in Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s performance. I’ve talked about that aspect of Negan a bit already this season, but it bears repeating. The thing that elevates Negan above the other scores of mostly underwhelming antagonists this show has featured is not just the way the character and his dialogue are written. In other hands, Negan could easily be simply too much. (And, to be fair, sometimes Morgan’s Negan is.)
But Morgan brings a magnetism to the role, managing to cycle through what appears to be genuine joy, quickly rising anger, feigned benevolence, and slimy, chipper menace, oftentimes all within the same scene. Like the season premiere, “Sing Me a Song” often settles into becoming a showcase for Morgan’s performance, letting his scenes breathe, not only to milk the tension as Negan shows Carl around, introducing him and the audience to the Saviors’ headquarters, but to put the considerable talents of the actor front and center.
Which is why, perhaps, every time we cut away from Savior HQ to check in on the other survivors out in the world, it’s not nearly as compelling. But there’s a common thread in the rest of those stories, something that unites the mini-plots for folks we haven’t seen in a while thematically, even as they seem a little disjointed. They center on the people who are willing to act, the kind of people whom Negan seems to respect, even as he puts even more rules in place and puts on more shows of force the tamp down on such things.
We see Michonne (in a delightful homage to The Wire) whistling as she constructs a roadblock, commandeers a car, and instructs her hostage to take her to Negan. We see Rosita browbeat Eugene into making her a bullet to the same end, arguing that he is weak and never really acts. While Rick’s and Spencer’s parts of the episode seem more like table-setting for events down the line, there’s a thematic throughline centering on the idea of who’s willing to stand up and do something, even in the face of Negan’s harshly-enforced laws.
The result is an episode that sets up a “Who Shot Mr. Burns”-esque sort of tension around Negan. So many people have a reason and a plan to kill him. Michonne is on her way. Rosita has her bullet. Daryl is angry and now loose. Jesus has made his way into the Saviors’ compound. Carl already tried it once and is at Negan’s side. Dwight is forced to watch Negan kiss his wife and seems to be having second thoughts about this arrangement. And when the occasionally impulsive Rick returns to Alexandria, he will see this ghoul of a man holding his young daughter in his arms. There are enough folks out there ready to get revenge, ready to stop Negan and all of this, that there’s intrigue in the build to what seems like an inevitable reckoning and the attendant question of who will make the attempt.
But before that happens, we have to spend a little more time getting to know this man, trying to understand how he thinks. Apart from the larger questions of rules and rule-breakers, is Negan, at least in his own mind, a hero? At times, he seems to think so. He’s not shy about the fact that this new order has been good to him. But when he makes his little pitch to Carl, he talks about remaking the world, making it better. Negan is a man who takes what he wants, but who puts on the airs of respectability in the effort. He justifies his particular brand of feudalism as some kind of justice, some manner of improvement on the way things used to be.
He nevertheless spends an awfully significant amount of time just toying with people. It’s not clear whether what appear to be occasional moments of compassion or restraint from him are legitimate, calculated, manipulative, or self-delusions. We know this much about Negan — he is a terrible person, who has managed to concoct a method of organizing and taking from people that manages to sustain a miniature empire and feather his own nest, at the cost of many others’ hard work and a great deal of bloodshed.
But what we don’t know, and the question for which “Sing Me a Song” offers many conflicting indications, is whether he knows he’s a terrible person, baldly reveling in the unchecked power and unbounded hedonism he enjoys under the pretense of good governance, or if he truly believes that he is making this new world a better place, showing kindness and mercy where he can, and only reluctantly doling out punishments to preserve the system when he must. Negan may be the tyrant with no delusions about the fig leaf he uses to legitimize his rule, or he may be a different sort of villain, the kind who genuinely thinks they’re the moral champion of the story, as a day of reckoning grows nearer and nearer.