The Walking Dead’s Negan: A Review
With the seventh season of “The Walking Dead” having come to a conclusion it is worth considering how a television show set in a world plagued by an outbreak of the undead has pretty much stopped being about zombies in any meaningful way. Despite having undoubtedly served as the primary antagonists for the first number of seasons, the Walkers (as they are referred to by the characters of the show) have almost been entirely relegated to the background at this point; occasionally a few zombies will pop up and momentarily threaten the lives of one of our protagonists only to be easily dispatched but for the most part they have disappeared from the narrative of the show. Instead, the main villains of “The Walking Dead” have become other survivors.Enter the character of Negan stage right. Ruthless, witty, and clearly slightly deranged, the leader of a marauding band of survivors known as “the Saviours” quickly establishes himself as the most interesting villains on the show since the Governor of seasons three and four as well as one of the deadliest (killing two of our protagonists – Abraham and Glenn – with his barbed wire studded baseball bat, “Lucille”, in the premiere episode of season seven). To my tremendous surprise, Negan also quickly established himself as my favourite character on “The Walking Dead” full stop. Don’t get me wrong, the death of Glenn (who previously held that title spot) was horrifying to see. Despite this, as the season progressed I found myself not only enjoying Negan’s appearances but actively rooting for him.
One of the great challenges of any work of fiction is the delicate balancing act of how you make a character believably villainous without turning them into a two-dimensional cliché, particularly on the question as to what motivates his or her followers to support him. In Negan’s case, the show runners manage to pass that test with flying colours by giving him a degree of complexity that is very rare.
While ruthless and definitely sociopathic, Negan is no brainless brute. He never kills without some motivating reason, and can be charming when he wants to be (indeed even empathetic on rare occasions). More importantly, Negan has a basic code and generally keeps his word once he gives it ( though he can be very selective about what his word is; in one scene he swears not to inflict his preferred form of punishment – a red hot iron to the face – on someone if they admit to a crime only to throw them head first into a furnace when they do so).
This gives a very realistic explanation behind how a character such as Negan comes to power. In a world full of anarchy, he provides order and stability. Every person is assigned a place in the Saviours hierarchy (even if it is a brutally steep one), and everyone knows what is expected of them. People ultimately like continuity, and most of them will choose that over the uncertainty of chaos even if that continuity is a cruel and oppressive one.
We witness this first hand through the character of Eugene. Initially a member of “The Walking Dead’s” protagonists, Eugene is taken prisoner by Negan when he discovers he knows how to make bullets. Once in the Saviour’s stronghold, Eugene quickly finds that his “prison” is a very comfy one as he’s set up with his own suite complete with a personal entertainment system. Just as important as the physical comforts available to him, Eugene quite soon realizes that to Negan his intelligence and smarts are of tremendous value and by association he is of value in the system Negan has designed.
Eugene’s seduction over to the side of the Saviours is very cleaverly done. The character doesn’t dramatically change by suddenly developing a taste for blood; Eugene very much remains a coward who hides his face in his hands at the sight of violence and at times shows that he has lingering sympathies for his former friends amongst the show’s protagonists. What he does clearly relish is respect for his abilities and authority that comes with them, all of which is possible because of rudimentary stability of the Saviour’s system of obedience and tribute.
History is full of people such as Negan, lucky pirates and bandits who possessed just enough foresight to see beyond the day-to-day and have ambitions for something more. They were often crude and nasty and deplorable in many ways, but they also laid the foundations of what would become modern-day nation states. Take the example of Charles Martel, grandfather of Charlemagne and the founder of what would become France. Martel was the bastard son of Pepin of Herstal, Mayor of the Palace and de facto ruler of Frankia, whose title he usurped for himself upon his father’s death over his legitimately born siblings. In the decades that followed, Charles Martel would rule as an effective tyrant. He confiscated lands from the powerful monasteries and bishoprics of the Church, while simultaneously oppressing the lingering pagan territories of the continent and bringing to heel his noble rivals from Aquitaine to Bavaria. Martel would also repel the invasion of the Muslim Saracens at Tours, and beat back incursions by Saxons and Viking Northmen who had previously terrorized Frankia, while putting in place the centralized state bureaucracy that had not existed since the fall of the Roman Empire. Charles Martel was cruel, ruthless, and utterly without mercy towards his enemies, but he also carved out a kingdom that became a bastion of stability and order out of the chaos that was the Dark Ages.
Taking away the filter of the showrunners, who clearly telegraph that Negan is the villain and Rick Grimes and his crew are the heroes, it is not that hard to imagine historians of the future giving a similar treatment to Negan as those of today give to Charles Martel as they chronicle how out of the chaos of the zombie apocalypse he and his Saviours established the basic foundations of stability that allowed civilization to reassert itself (even if he had to at times do a few nasty things to do so). A very simple truth is that bad times often require people who are willing to do bad things. Negan’s character is an excellent example of this.