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Tag Archives: Negan
Since at least the middle of the show’s fourth season, The Walking Dead’s M.O. has been to divide and conquer. As the show’s cast of characters has grown, more and more often its episodes focus on just a handful of individuals, typically separated from the rest of the group. That makes the series’s season premieres and season finales (or mid-season finales), where everyone joins back together, feel almost like crossover episodes.
But it also makes them feel like reunions. The time apart for these characters doesn’t just give us a thrill when they link up once more, but makes us miss their interactions and shows us the value of their cooperation, and even their mere shared presence, through its absence. That fits the theme of “Hearts Still Beating,” which shows any number of survivors attempting to solve the season’s big problems on their own, trying to carry the entire load on their backs, only to realize that what they hope to achieve can only be accomplished by working together. “Hearts Still Beating” is not a great episode of The Walking Dead, but in this vein, it works for what show’s going for.
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.
I’m not sure I could tell you much about Tara prior to this episode. I knew that she came to the main group via The Governor. I remembered that she was among those who met up with Abraham, Rosita, and Eugene after the prison fell. I recalled that she was dating Denise. But otherwise, like so many of the show’s secondary characters, I’m hard pressed to think of any way in which she’s been fleshed out enough for her to really register for me.
I enjoyed the season premiere of The Walking Dead better than most. I understand the complaints that it was too bleak, too cruel, and too hopeless, but to my mind, it made sense to embrace those elements in order to establish Negan, both a character and as a threat. There have been so many ineffectual villains on this show, so many antagonists who seemed like mere speed bumps along the way toward Rick and company’s inevitable victory. TWD needed to make a big introduction to convince the audience that Negan and The Saviors were something different, something dangerous and more serious.
I also didn’t mind the hopelessness of that opening episode. Sure, it’s difficult to watch our heroes being broken, to see characters we know and love brutalized while the bad guys take great joy in the effort. But shows like The Walking Dead need stakes. In order for the good guys’ eventual triumph to feel earned and meaningful, the series has to make its main antagonist not only someone whose defeat doesn’t seem preordained, but also someone who’s actually worth beating. The suffering at this point of the arc will, with any luck, pay off down the line when the protagonists strike their blow against Negan and his goons.
The only problem is that the premiere already felt like a lot. It gave us a lot of blood and guts, a lot of horrible acts, and a lot of Negan preening and chewing scenery. That worked as an opening salvo for the character and as the culmination of the build his debut, which had been bubbling up since the midpoint of Season 6. But it was a great deal to take in all at once. The viewer can only stand so much of that level of cruelty and velvet-trimmed venom before it starts to overwhelm.
I’m often struck by the technical and structural audacity of The Walking Dead. It’s frequently a gorgeous show, with visuals that grab you even when the frame isn’t filled with zombies. But it’s also a show that can be quite adept at communicating its ideas and themes with visuals alone, albeit one that is maddeningly inconsistent about when it feels like doing so. To that point, “The Cell” centers on the experiences of two characters, Dwight and Daryl, and opens with a pair of montages with next-to-no dialogue, but which nevertheless tell us everything we need to know about who these characters are and what their situation is.
Most people know the bible story of when God tested Abraham. It’s one of those biblical references that just filters through the popular consciousness, even if you haven’t cracked open Genesis anytime lately. The Good Lord tells Abraham, his devoted servant, to prove his devotion by offering his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Abraham follows this command, building an altar, binding his son to it, and raising his knife in the air, ready to perform the grisly deed. But God stops Abraham at the last minute, explaining to him that this was all simply a test of his devotion and then providing a ram to be sacrificed instead.
I can remember hearing this story in Sunday school and how the rabbi would milk this moment a bit. Keeping second graders enthralled with bible stories isn’t necessarily easy work, but he knew how to draw out the details of the story, embellish a little at the margins, and hold the tension of moments like that one. Even if you’d heard the rabbi tell this story half-a-dozen times before, he made you believe that maybe this time it would be too late, that Abraham would act and all would be lost. He knew, in short, how to build the suspense.
One of the interesting things about The Walking Dead under showrunner Scott Gimple’s influence is that it has, more or less, eschewed the traditional narrative structure for a season of television. The storyline of the prison and The Governor seemed to be building to a finale at the end of Season 3, but then it didn’t really end until several episodes into Season 4. Afterward, the show embarked on its Wandering in the Wilderness/Terminus storyline that stretched from roughly the midpoint of Season 4 until the beginning of the Alexandria storyline in Season 5. Then that plotline, about our heroes discovering a new community and gradually integrating into it, reached its natural conclusion with this year’s mid-season premiere, where the Rick’s group and the town came together to defeat the zombies at the gates as a whole. Only then, did the current arc begin in earnest.
Which is to say that as Season 6 draws to a close, we’re not at either the end or the beginning of the Negan storyline; we’re in the middle. That’s admittedly a little strange. It’s a departure from the annual Big Bad structure that Buffy the Vampire Slayer established and many other shows adopted. And it’s even distinct from the trend started by The Wire and The Sopranos, where the real fireworks happen in the penultimate episode of a season, with the finale reserved for aftermath and reflection.
One of the best parts of Carol’s arc on The Walking Dead is that it’s largely been underplayed. Melissa McBride is such a talented actress that the show can dispense with its often lumpy dialogue and simply let her performance convey the meaning in the moment, whether it’s a sullen look after the events of “JSS” or a harsh tone in her voice when she tells Rick that Maggie shouldn’t be out on the raid in “Not Tomorrow Yet”. This season in particular, The Walking Dead has done well to let the idea that Carol is feeling the weight of her actions and gradually pivoting away from her more ruthless persona, bubble under the surface. That’s made the scenes where those ideas are brought to the fore or dramatized in a more prominent fashion, stand out as effective and earned.
But “The Same Boat” basically turns that subtlety on its ear. It’s a bleak bottle episode that spends most of its time keeping Carol locked in a single room while trotting out an odd version of This Is Your Life!