"Walking Dead" grumble thread: The tender side of, uh, Negan

A stray thought left over from last week: Isn’t it weird that a seasoned fighter like little Carl got taken out by a bite during a scuffle with a single zombie? When does that ever happen? Super-badasses like Rick and Michonne can fend off entire swarms, as they did in the junk yard last night, but even survivors with average combat skills can handle a few at a time. Carl, as the son and heir of The Chosen One, obviously was above average yet he was done in during a one-on-one — with a tummy bite, no less. For cripes sake.

I suppose that was one of the few ways the writers could kill him off while letting him linger long enough for a sappy death scene with Rick and Michonne. If he got cornered by a swarm there’d be nothing left of him by the time they were done. Which would have been a *great* death, actually, since it would have proved that even heroic core cast members aren’t immune from a terrible, lonely, horrific end. That’s just how real life would be in an actual zombie apocalypse but it’s not how these writers roll. The good guys always go out relatively cleanly.

The most interesting part of last night’s fallout episode was the qualified humanity of Negan, the show’s most one-dimensional character. A typical Negan scene involves him threatening someone, smiling and laughing inappropriately, then barking an order. They’ve milked the shtick literally for years. But last night he was the less bloodthirsty figure in not one but two interactions. Simon, his henchman, wanted to exterminate the Scavengers as punishment for double-crossing the Saviors but Negan wouldn’t hear of it. They’re an asset, he insisted. Kill just one of them as an example and leave the rest alone. (Simon’s punishment for not following that order is as yet unresolved.) It’s hard to parse his motives in showing mercy to them. To some extent he’s nothing more than a slave overseer protecting his “property”; why murder the Scavengers when they can go on working for him? But I think he believes the BS he pushed on Simon about the Saviors “saving” people, a point he made once before to Gabriel. In Negan’s mind, enslaving local communities in a protection racket isn’t an act of selfishness, it’s an act of altruism. He really is protecting them. Whether that’s always been his motivation or just a self-delusion he arrived at to cope with the guilt of his brutality is unclear, but either way there’s some remnant of conscience there. It’s Simon, the lackey, who’s prepared to kill indiscriminately but not Negan, the leader — and that’s true to form. He could have murdered Rick’s entire gang during their first meeting but chose to make an example only of Abraham and Glenn. He’s a monster but he’s not a madman.

And he seems genuinely aggrieved to hear that Carl died, which is also true to form. Negan did always like Carl. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Carl had more memorable interactions with Negan over the past few seasons than he had with Rick. Remember the time Negan made him spaghetti? Remember the time Carl showed up at the Sanctuary to assassinate Negan, and was spared because Negan was impressed with the kid’s moxie? Whereas remember the time that Rick and Carl, uh…? Negan admired Carl’s spirit and hearing of his death finally gave poor Jeffrey Dean Morgan a chance to show some range beyond the “apocalypse Fonzie” shtick he’s developed for the role. As with Simon, here too we found Negan trying to calm someone down who was ready to spill blood, as all Rick could do during their walkie chat was stutter about wanting to kill him. He’s wild-eyed, driven by emotion and revenge, whereas Negan is sober about the way forward. That’s a neat turnabout from how the characters usually come off, Rick the lawman desperate for peace and Negan the vicious warlord eager to grind resisters under his boot. It can’t be long now until a few “Negan is the real hero of ‘The Walking Dead'” hot takes start popping up online. That wouldn’t be true — the empire/rebel dynamic between him and Rick all but forces us to root for the underdog — but he may be the only character left who’s in control of his emotions, with a firm sense of the society he wants to build. Maybe that’s why he liked Carl, who shared the same traits.

As for the Scavengers, how ’bout that industrial grinder at the junkyard turning what remained of Jadis’s crew into zombie slurry? After this many years the writers must be pressed trying to come up with new and inventive ways of dispatching the undead. Points for creativity.