“A war of all against all.” That’s how philosopher Thomas Hobbes pithily explained the “state of nature,” his theoretical account of what it was like when human beings lived without government, without order, and without rule. He imagined a life that was “nasty, brutish, and short” and posited that we all needed a Leviathan, the personification of the force and power of the government, to avoid that unenviable existence. On Hobbes’ account, people needed to give up certain freedoms and turn things over to the Leviathan to ensure compliance with the order of the day, as the price to avoid that endless, indiscriminate war.
In Negan’s mind, he is that Leviathan. The last time The Walking Dead interrogated Negan’s moral philosophy, it left it ambiguous how the leader of The Saviors viewed himself. It was nebulous whether Negan really believed that his brutal ways were for the greater good, or whether he was just spinning propaganda to justify the comparatively lavish and carefree lifestyle he could enjoy while others toiled.
“The Big Scary U” is much less ambiguous. There is a certain sense that Negan may be deluding himself, offering rationalizations and eliding the darker or more self-serving side of the choices he’s made. But it nevertheless becomes clear that, on the surface at least, he is a true believer, someone who thinks that he’s doing what needs to be done to avoid a worse fate for everyone.
The episode explores that with one of the oldest tropes in the book — two characters, trapped in a room together, reflect on their lives, shared enmities, and personal truths. (Think “Fly” from fellow AMC stablemate Breaking Bad.) “The Big Scary U” catches up with Negan and Father Gabriel, trapped in a temporary building and surrounded by walkers after the events of the premiere, and gives them one of those extended back-and-forths that TWD occasionally attempts to specialize in.
In those close, perilous quarters, Gabriel asks for Negan’s confession. A brief flashback signifies (in TWD’s typically overly lofty tones) that Gabriel no longer fears death; he just fears a meaningless death. And in the present, Gabriel reasons that maybe the explanation for why he’s survived this long despite his misdeeds, the purpose he’s been in search of, is to hear Negan confess and to give him absolution.
But Negan declares he has nothing to attone for. He uses their joint confinement to lay out his philosophy — that however bad things may seem under his watch, that it’s better than the alternative, and that what came before him, and what would come after, would be much much worse.
“The Big Scary U” suggests that Negan’s right, at least within his own fiefdom. When the episode isn’t centered on Negan and Gabriel’s heart-to-heart, it’s in the heart of The Sanctuary, where all of Negan’s lieutenants are scrambling to figure out what to do in the shadow of the absence and possible demise of their leader. It’s there that the backbiting, disagreement, and recriminations come to a head.
Regina wants to sacrifice the workers and attempt an escape. Eugene questions whether that plan could possibly succeed. Gavin declares that somebody must be collaborating with Rick & Co. given how the attack on The Sanctuary went down. Dwight deflects and is prepared to read the riot act to whomever needs to hear it. And Simon, who seems to be the closest thing to a second-in-command here, tries to hold court.
It’s fascinating watching the various seconds that Negan has amassed slowly turn on one another, ally with one another, and generally seem lost without him there to guide them all. Negan has inculcated the need for a dictator, for an unquestioned leader who can whip people into shape. As soon as the man and his baseball bat are gone, things start deteriorating, with workers staging the beginnings of a revolt, the remaining leaders seeming unsure and ununified about what to do, and the situation growing volatile quickly.
But The Walking Dead plays at least a little coy about whether this dictatorial fervor is genuinely the better alternative, or whether this is simply the world Negan created. It’s easy for Negan to pontificate and gloat to Gabriel about how things would fall apart without him, that his presence is necessary to bring order and security, but what if that’s just true for the little ecosystem that Negan made to be dependent upon him? What if the truth is simply that he’s built things to be this way, rather than that they have to be this way to attain any measure of stability or peace.
Rick certainly seems to think there’s another way, even if Daryl remains skeptical and more Negan-like himself by the minute. “The Big Scary U” comes down to, as so many TWD episodes do, the question of whether it’s okay to kill someone, “the right person,” in order to achieve some sort of greater good. And it positions all its major characters on different sides of the debate.
Daryl has turned single-minded in his quest for vengeance and is unbothered by the potential loss of life in eliminating The Saviors, even if it means that the innocent workers at The Sanctuary perish in the process. Rick pushes back against him, wanting to stick to the plan, even if the fighters from The Kingdom have been killed, because he doesn’t want to risk more innocent lives.
Negan believes in killing people, even innocent people, if it serves a greater cause, while Gabriel believes in saving people, even bad people like Gregory, if it serves a higher power. And Gregory himself has no scruples, no principles, one way or another, only caring to keep himself alive, whatever that may require.
In “The Big Scary U,” it’s Negan and Gabriel who have to work to keep themselves alive, as the walkers slowly but surely start to break through the meager walls and barriers protecting them. That’s mainly a plot device to ensure that Negan and Gabriel can’t just keep talking forever (thank Heaven) but it at least creates some urgency and sense of place in the midst of what is basically a miniature stage show featuring these two characters.
It’s a real showcase for Jeffrey Dean Morgan in particular. Let’s face it; Negan is a pretty ridiculous personality. Some of that is intentional, with the character meant to project a certain amount of intimidating bombast. But some of it is just an inherent part of putting such an outsized figure into a nominally down-to-earth take on the zombie genre. Regardless, Morgan has the chops to go big or go small as the situation requires, and make it convincing in either guise.
That’s why his pronouncements about “saving” people, his pretzel logic about the difference between “killing the right people” and “letting your people get killed” (blame-shifting logic which Daryl starts to share), don’t sound as insane as they might here. There is a conviction in Morgan’s voice when he delivers those lines, a certainty in the truth of them that informs the character’s perspective and makes it feel true to who Negan is, even if the audience isn’t supposed to take his argument as true.
But Negan also winces just a bit when confronted about his “wives” and grimaces through his excuse that they merely “made a choice.” His deflection about the state of his “workers” functions as an internalized dismissal of any economy having “winners and losers.” And he even breaks down (as much as a proud guy like Negan can) and admits the only time he was “weak” was when he could not put his “real wife” down after she turned. Like much of the show, it’s a little too neat as informative backstory, but the actor makes the personal history, and the unfaced contradictions of his philosophy, work.
It works because Negan believes in it. He believes in killing people to create order, that harshness can make people and civilizations stronger, and that engendering submission, even in lethal terms, can save lives. There’s a twisted worldview at the heart of Negan’s perspectives on governance and leadership, ones with antecedents across history. But for all the metaphysical and ethical conversations at play here, it’s the truth of this view in his eyes, the palpable sense of belief from Negan as he champions the need for that Leviathan, that makes the villain more than just a bunch of cruel deaths and priapic boasts.
He represents the worse angels of our nature, the ones that say we need to be cowed lest we tear one another apart, and the hints that he may be right, at least for the part of this world he’s overseen, makes him all the more terrifying.