The extended season ten of zombie serial The Walking Dead comes to an extraordinary, and completely compelling, conclusion with the much-anticipated backstory episode “Here’s Negan”.
Ever since his character’s introduction in the season six finale, Negan has been one of the powerhouse figures in the series. For several seasons Negan remained monstrous and appalling; a vicious killer and despot devoid of any redeeming feature. The defeat of his brutal militia, and the extended period of incarceration that followed, triggered a slow and faltering process of redemption. His role as a covert assassin of the Whisperers’ leader Alpha led some of the Alexandrians to grudgingly accept Negan’s presence amongst them. But those who have lost the most as a result of Negan’s cruelty – Maggie foremost amongst them – are in no mood to forgive his past crimes.
It’s Carol who has the most complicated relationship with the former Saviors’ leader. As “Here’s Negan” begins she installs him in Leah’s old homestead (from “Find Me“), suggesting that isolation from Alexandria is the only way for him to avoid the wrath of those he has wronged. Left to brood, Negan reflects on the critical life choices that have delivered him to this point.
The sequence of timeline-hopping flashbacks that follow reveal the complex, hidden story of Negan’s past life. It’s the biography of a fallible and deeply flawed individual. Someone who can be thoughtless and selfish and who has few anger management skills. But, in the early days of the apocalypse in particular, Negan is shown capable of loyalty, bravery and a determination to protect those that he loves at all costs.
From his very first appearance, Jeffrey Dean Morgan has owned the character of Negan. He’s brought a commanding presence to the role of a merciless tyrant who’s continually entertained by his own cruelty and vindictive wit. Negan became the most formidable human nemesis yet to confront Rick Grimes’ community. But for all of the bloody horror that erupted around Negan, The Walking Dead’s writers soon struggled to find new ways to bring his callous wise-cracking contempt to life. Despite all of Dean Morgan’s evident talents, Negan became a predictable, one-trick monster. And that meant that the impact of his villainy diminished over time.
The war against the Whisperers opened up the potential to stretch Negan’s nature using new kinds of tension. These were opportunities that Dean Morgan was quick to embrace, showing Negan wrestling with feelings of remorse and self-doubt. The events of “Here’s Negan” add to the credibility of his inner-turmoil by revisiting his relationship with his wife. Negan is exposed as an unreliable and unfaithful partner, unconcerned by his wife’s health-scare. But when she receives a devastating diagnosis on the brink of the apocalypse, he becomes a penitent and devoted husband who’s willing to risk everything in the hope of getting her the medicine she needs to stay alive.
An assured script by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick puts Negan through the wringer as he tries to scavenge, barter and steal the resources he needs. Stitched into the clever plotting are any number of formative experiences in the evolution of Negan’s nature: his initial hesitancy in despatching the undead; the origin of his signature black coat; the means through which he acquires the baseball bat (and enhances its lethality as a weapon) – and more besides. There are also moments of emotional tenderness and great poignancy in the relationship between Negan and his wife – who’s played as a strong and gutsy survivor by Dean Morgan’s real-life wife Hilarie Burton. The character chemistry between the pair is immediately believable.
All but impossible
Dean Morgan’s performance, tracing Negan’s moves through fear and self-loathing, heartbreak and loss, to his consumption by unconstrained rage, is completely compelling. His is a portrayal of human imperfectibility in the context of catastrophe which challenges the audience not to feel empathy towards a figure only previously presented as irredeemable. It’s all but impossible to come out of the episode with an unchanged view of Negan’s nature.
Back in the present day, Negan’s determination to settle accounts with his past behaviour ends with some highly symbolic moments that director Laura Belsey ensures remain taut and powerful rather than mawkish or sentimental.
This sixth and final instalment in the extended season ten ends without an edge-of-the-seat cliffhanger. In fact, it revisits the exchanges of stares between a vengeance-driven Maggie and an atonement-seeking Negan which featured in the first of these standalone stories “Home, Sweet Home“.
That showdown is certain to feature in The Walking Dead‘s concluding season, alongside the existential threat posed by The Reapers hinted at in that same episode. Taken together, the half-a-dozen extra season ten episodes have succeeded in making the show’s swansong season an even more enticing prospect than it would otherwise have seemed. The idea that Negan could be reinvented as a more enigmatic, unfamiliar and complex compatriot of the other Alexandria survivors is perhaps the most surprising development of all.
The Walking Dead, series 10, episode twenty-two, “Here’s Negan” is available now on the Fox network