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Saturday, January 22, 2022

‘The Walking Dead’ Hits A Homerun With ‘Here’s Negan’

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Sunday night’s episode of The Walking Dead—“Here’s Negan”—finally gives us a really in-depth look at Negan’s backstory and how he became the man we now, strangely, find ourselves liking more than most remaining characters on this show.

There was a time when every Negan scene was intolerable, and for a couple of seasons I was certain he was one of the main reasons the show was so hard to watch (along with the bad writing, plot holes, crappy special effects and so forth).

But over time, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has become a lot more sympathetic. He’s befriended Judith, helped Carol defeat the Whisperers and stuck around as a loyal companion even though everyone treats him with mistrust. Even though the bad things he did to the Alexandrians were in retaliation for the bad things they did to his people first.

Tonight’s episode brings us back in time (and then back in time again and again) and paints a more complete portrait of the former Savior king and the relationship between him and his wife, Lucille (Hilarie Burton Morgan).

Negan, we discover, has always been something of a mixed bag as far as human beings go. Long before the zombie apocalypse he could be a brutal man. In one instance, he nearly beat a man to death after telling him to be quiet so that he and Lucille could listen to their song—“You Are So Beautiful To Me”—on the jukebox. This lost him his job as a gym teacher, a loss he apparently took quite cavalierly, spending hundreds on an expensive leather jacket much to his wife’s chagrin. She tells him she’s returning it.

That purchase looks a lot worse when, later in the episode, we learn that the man Negan beats up sues them, forcing Lucille to pay his medical bill.

But he could also be funny, talking smack while playing video games with kids online, or goofing around with Lucille as they pick out wigs for her to wear during her cancer treatment. Joking with her over a dog-food dinner. Or sweet, singing to her in bed or going out further and further to find supplies and medicine and gas for the generator that keeps the chemo meds refrigerated.

And he could be very human, fumbling while trying to kill a zombie until Lucille—strapped to her machines and tubes—shoots it for him. When she chides him that he shouldn’t have problems killing the things (they’re easier to kill than animals, she says) he tells her that he doesn’t want to get used to it.

He’s been both a good husband—caring for his sick wife—and a lout, cheating on her with her friend while she works and pays the bills. Meeting with his mistress instead of giving Lucille a ride from the doctor’s office.

When she gets her cancer diagnosis she tries to call Negan but he doesn’t answer. She calls his parole officer (where Negan said he’d be) but he’s not there. She calls her friend and she doesn’t pick up, either. She puts two and two together, realizes the two of them are having an affair, and drives off in a hurry. She goes home and gets a gun and waits for Negan to return.

But she doesn’t shoot him. Maybe she would have saved a lot of lives if she had. Instead, she tells him about her diagnosis. But she doesn’t tell him she knows until after the apocalypse is well under way. When he realizes, he’s distraught and guilty and tells her he broke off the affair the moment he found out about the cancer.

The episode jumps around a lot. We have the present timeline in which Carol takes Negan out to a cabin a good ways away from Alexandria and tells him he’s been banished. He wonders if she’s simply taking matters into her own hands but she plays coy.

He goes and searches for his bat—Lucille, named after his wife—out at the spot where Rick slit his throat at the end of the Savior war. He finds it, but breaks it fighting off a walker. His mind drifts back in time, 12 years back, to the early months of the apocalypse when supplies were a little easier to come by.

Negan is tied to a chair. Bandits interrogate him, demanding to know where he got the medicine he’s carrying a cooler. Negan has lied to them already and now they want the truth or they’ll dump the medicine and make him watch (and kill him for good measure).

When Negan finally spills the beans, we get another flashback to just a few days earlier when Negan tries to rob a mobile medical clinic with an empty gun. He’s foiled in this attempt by none other than future-Savior, Laura, the daughter of one of this group’s doctors. She smacks him over the head with a bat—the bat, which eventually becomes Lucille.

Here, Negan tells the doctor some of his story, and we get the flashback about Negan and Lucille living in the apocalypse, the dead generator and so forth. And within this flashback, we get Lucille’s story of her diagnosis, discovery of the affair and so forth. That all takes place 7 months prior, meaning we’re very, very early into the apocalypse. Season 1 or 2 early.

That’s a flashback within a flashback within a flashback within a flashback if I’m not mistaken. Russian doll levels of flashback going on in this episode. It’s not really hard to follow by any means, but it’s quite the layer cake of flashbacks.

We’re pulled back out layer by layer—Inception style. After learning that Lucille knew about the affair, we cut back to his tearful confession. From there we cut back to the doctor, giving him the medical supplies he tried to steal, and Laura giving him the bat since it’s better protection than an empty pistol.

From there we pull back to the bandit, and Negan finally giving up the doctor and his group to save his own—and Lucille’s—skin (though it’s been two months since he set out, leaving her alone). He gives the doctor’s group up and in return, the bandits honor their word and let him go, cooler full of medicine and all. He hears Laura screaming in a camper but drives off on a motorcycle without a second look. You can tell he feels bad, but Lucille is his only priority.

Unfortunately, when he returns the house is quiet. A note on the door begs him not to leave her this way, with a little heart drawn after the message.

Inside, Lucille is tied to the bed, a plastic bag over her head, empty pill bottles on the nightstand. She’s killed herself rather than die slowly and alone. Negan can’t bring himself to put her out of her undead misery. He sits and weeps and you can see the guilt and shame crushing him.

“You Are So Beautiful To Me” plays over the whole thing which is . . . a little much (the song, or rather its use as both their “song”, his impetus for beating a guy half to death in a bar, the song he sings to her to comfort her in bed and as the Very Sad Music that plays during the dead Lucille montage is a bit over the top. Maybe that’s just me).

When it’s over, the old Negan is dead. A new Negan emerges. Puts on the leather jacket that Lucille surprised him with (she didn’t return it after all) and sets the house, and his zombified wife, afire. He hops on kicks the throttle, knocking the mailbox off with his bat as he pulls out of the drive.

From here he goes and rescues the doctor and Laura, killing his first handful of people in the process—some with his bat, some with bullets. He let’s the bandit leader live, but not for long. “You better hope I never stop talking,” he tells him ominously. When he does, bad things are going to happen.

And he talks. He talks about seeing red when he beat that guy up in the bar. He talks about how back then society kept his inner demons in check. His wife and her love. Lawyers and cops. The little boundaries the world sets for all of us. Those boundaries are gone now—or, dare I say it, there are NO rules. Now he’s capable of “almost anything.”

He points the bat—now wrapped in barbed wire—at the bandit in an all too familiar manner and takes a swing. It’s pretty much impossible not to think of Glenn at this point, and yet we still find ourselves liking Negan here. Then again, Glenn’s death was the result of Rick’s reckless decision to take on Negan without even getting the lay of the land. Negan killed Glenn and Abraham after Rick and his crew snuck into one of their bases and killed a bunch of their people in their sleep.

Was Negan’s retaliation all that harsh? It seems pretty justified when you think about it, even if I’m still mad they killed off Glenn.

From here we zoom out again, back to the present timeline. Negan, back at his little cabin, talks with his long-dead wife, apologizing for not being there with her when she died, for abandoning her when she needed him most—even if it was in a last-ditch effort to find her more medicine. He knows she would have preferred to go without and die with her husband near her rather than all alone, a bag over her head.

He puts a shroud over the broken bat and sets in the fire, a final farewell to both Lucilles all at once.

And then he goes back to Alexandria. He calls Carol on her bluff. And as Maggie watches on furiously, Carol tells him that Glenn’s widow will kill him if he stays. But Negan seems okay with that. He grins a classic smug Negan grin and swaggers on his merry way.

That surprised me. Where this conflict goes is perhaps the biggest question mark for Season 11. I have to say, I’ve come to like Negan more than Maggie. At least he cracks jokes and goes out of his way to help people. At least he’s not such a one-note character (even though he used to be).

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This was truly one of the best episodes of The Walking Dead in years. One of the best since the early seasons certainly, and the best of these six bonus episodes without a doubt (with the Aaron/Gabriel episode my second favorite). If my biggest complaint is the overuse of a cheesy song, that says something.

Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and his in-real-life wife Hillarie Burton Morgan were fantastic. You’d think putting a married couple in a TV show together would result in terrific chemistry, but then again married people don’t always have terrific chemistry do they? These two clearly do.

Negan has been growing more and more likable and sympathetic since the end of the Savior war, but this episode helped ground him further—not as someone who used to be good and then broke bad, but as someone who walked a much finer line than even he was really aware of. If the apocalypse hadn’t happened, maybe he would have turned out okay. But then again, he had a violent streak. He cheated on his wife. He was far from perfect. Maybe that makes us like him more, or at least relate to him more. Humans are flawed creatures at the best of times.

Negan went down a dark and violent path after Lucille’s death. Shown mercy, he emerged from that dark pit and tried to make a new go as a better man. I’m just not at all sure where he goes now, with this newfound swagger and that same sly grin on his face. Maybe he’s just trying to provoke a showdown with Maggie. Maybe he wants her to kill him. Or maybe he has something up his sleeve.

We’ll see when The Walking Dead returns for its final, extra-long season later this year.

On the other hand, isn’t it kind of strange how hit-and-miss this show is? Last week I wrote one of the most scathing reviews I’ve ever written about The Walking Dead thanks to last week’s episode being so absolutely awful. Now here I am writing basically the opposite. It’s weird!

What did you think of the episode? Let me know on Twitter or Facebook and thanks for reading!

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