Did I hallucinate or did this show actually treat a Rick/Daryl brawl as an afterthought to the apparently much more important business of random Saviors sitting around a table and bickering? We’ve been waiting years for this, and thanks to the show’s pacing, each of those years felt like a decade. And they treated it like no big deal. Imagine a “Kirk brawls with Spock” episode of “Star Trek” in which all but two minutes of airtime are consumed by the aliens of the week sitting around discussing the smell of their own farts. That’s what we got last night.
I thought having Negan and Gabriel holed up in the trailer would finally flesh out Negan’s character a bit after he’s spent the last few years as a one-dimensional Psycho Fonzie. But the only glimpse of depth was him feeling so sentimental about his wife, after confessing to have screwed around on her, that he couldn’t bring himself to give her undead reincarnation the full Lucille treatment. I suppose him believing that he really is saving lives by bringing ruthless law and order to his community is depth of a sort, but every tyrant justifies himself that way. That’s been the Rick story too since day one; he and Negan are data points on the spectrum from anarchy to authoritarianism, at times not as far apart as Rick would like. The novelty last night was that usually it’s Rick who’s moving towards Negan’s spot on the spectrum whereas this time it was Negan moving a bit towards Rick’s. I think the fight with Daryl was meant as a gloss on that. Rick and Daryl threw down because Rick wanted to spare the workers inside the Sanctuary; in a way, that was also Negan’s motivation to get out of the trailer and back to his people. He told Gabriel the Saviors would start murdering each other if he wasn’t around to lay down the law — and to all appearances he was right, arriving in the nick of time to prevent an uprising.
“This season is turning into a weird and unearned argument against any kind of leadership,” notes USA Today about last night’s show but that’s not quite right. It’s turning into a study of different styles of leadership, which ones are effective and which aren’t. Gregory’s the double-dealing coward interested foremost in saving his own skin. Ezekiel’s the well-meaning pretender who’s had his delusions of glory and conquest shattered. Rick’s the capable but insufficiently ruthless warlord whose deputies have begun to doubt him. And Negan’s the brutal dictator whose word is law. Negan seems the most capable among the four. And yet this is true:
Although The Walking Dead has introduced and killed off its fair share of characters over the past eight years, it just can’t make Negan and his minions either interesting or remotely sympathetic. And it’s coming at the expense of the series’ stronger characters, like Michonne, whiling away in Alexandria while nameless Saviors have their moment. It’s a waste, and the series would do well to move right along.
That point has been made many times before, including by me, but the writers are all in on Negan as their super-villain. The show is never better than when it’s showing how the less alpha characters, like Eugene and even Ezekiel, assert themselves in the post-apocalyptic state of nature but the show prefers to play with its Rick/Daryl/Negan GI Joes. Ah well. Negan will be gone by the season finale. Or maybe they’ll do something interesting and force him and Rick to somehow coexist in the same group, as reluctant allies? The only way to make Negan compelling at this point is to give viewers a reason to root for him. They’ll probably just have Rick chop his head off 10 episodes from now instead.
Don’t give up hope, though. That helicopter at the end of the episode means another dangerous outside force is on its way in soon. Maybe Rick and Negan will be forced to form an alliance of convenience after all.