Major spoilers from Sunday night's (November 6) episode of "The Walking Dead," "The Cell," lie ahead.
Readers of Robert Kirkman's comic book series knew he was coming even before Andrew Lincoln's Rick Grimes woke up from that coma, way, way back in 2010. Fans of "The Walking Dead" TV series first heard his name on November 29, 2015, when Daryl, Sasha, and Abraham ran into a particularly nasty group of his followers on the road in an end-credits scene for the Season 6 midseason finale.
All of us combined finally met Negan in the flesh — as portrayed by Jeffrey Dean Morgan — on April 3, 2016, when the much-hyped Biggest Bad the series had ever seen sauntered out of his trailer, Lucille a'swinging.
And now, seven months after his physical debut, eleven after his name first cast fear (or, at the very least, confusion) into the hearts of millions, and years after his on-the-page murder of Glenn Rhee earned him the title of "The Walking Dead"'s scariest mother-fucking villain, is it time to admit that the show has massively screwed up this vitally important character?
Sunday night's episode, "The Cell," was the series' best showcase to date for Norman Reedus' Daryl Dixon.
I often underestimate Reedus when he's acting next to, say, Melissa McBride, but this episode was a firm reminder at how much Reedus can say when he's barely saying anything at all.
As Dwight, Austin Amelio was also excellent; as "The Cell" was the first episode to paint Dwight as a real, three-dimensional person with a life and a story as opposed to a Looney Toons villain.
And bleak as it was — "The Walking Dead" was originally going to air "The Cell" last week, but swapped it with the considerably lighter "The Well" when they realized viewers might need a break after the trauma-fest that was the Season 7 premiere — I also really liked our first trip to Negan's compound as a stand-alone episode.
The value of merely staying alive when you're truly, hopelessly miserable isn't the most enjoyable of topics (and I hate unrelenting sadism, though "Walking Dead" spared us graphic body horror in favor of dog food sandwiches this time around), but "The Well" did a really good job showing us why Dwight made the decisions that he did, and why Daryl, broken by his guilt over Glenn's death, could never kneel to Negan.
But "The Cell" did Negan a terrible disservice.
When I finished my press screener, the first thing I did was message my friend Alex Zalben from TVGuide with some questions about how Negan was presented in Kirkman's comics. Because after "The Cell," I simply couldn't buy Negan as the hypnotic, enigmatic, Hitler-esque orator and subjugator of man the show was promising.
Zalben made the solid point that Negan — in the books, at least — had broken down all of his men the way he is hoping to with Daryl, leading to a sort of Stockholm syndrome that turned some of them into scared puppy dogs and others, his inner circle, into "wannabe alpha-male Trump supporters."
This sounds like a potentially terrifying villain, but this simply isn't what we saw in "The Cell" — instead, we met three crucial characters from his inner circle — two right-hand men and a wife — who fucking hated him, and should theoretically jump at the chance to kill him the second he has his guard down. (I mean, guys, Lucille is scary, but it's not like he has machine guns for hands or actual super powers. Negan is very, very beatable. Also, it seems like he spends a fair amount of time in the bedroom with a variety of women — why not chow down on his Johnson, Eugene-style?)
So this idea of Negan as a dude who can make anyone either love him or fear him so much they bend their wills to his was instantly disproven by the three Saviors with the most to do in the episode.
That's, uh, not good.
And it wasn't just Negan's Saviors hating him that was the problem. His speeches, to date, leave a whole lot to be desired.
"Lucille is thirsty ... She is a vampire bat!"
"It's gonna be pee-pee pants city here real soon!"
To Morgan's credit, he does the best he can with broad material like the goofy lines listed above. And I can fundamentally see how a dude coming up to me with a barbed-wire covered bat, promising "pee-pee pants city," would scare me.
But for his followers, Jesus Christ, the non-stop monologuing must suck. Unlike, say, David Morrissey's Governor — whom I firmly believed was able to keep Woodbury in line by promising them peace and stability — I cannot buy Negan as a motivator of man. His speeches haven't been awe-inspiring or terrifying; they've been vehicles for exposition.
Like, my dude, we fully got what had happened to Dwight and Sherry — and I'm pretty sure Daryl did, too — before you spent three entire minutes explaining it in what I'm sure "Walking Dead" producers thought was the most badass scene of the episode. And this wasn't just a problem in "The Cell," either, as "The Day Will Come When You Won't Be" and "Last Day on Earth" also leaned heavily on Negan as a big, bad, blood-guts-and-exposition machine instead of as an actual human being.
Since Morgan is so talented — and since "The Walking Dead" has successfully pivoted so, so many times — it doesn't mean all hope for Negan is lost.
If the show can get over the idea of Negan and really think about who he is and what motivates him, they can hopefully drag the character out of the archetype mud he's currently swimming in and put Morgan's myriad talents to good use. Hell, they just did it with Dwight in 40-odd minutes!
But for now, I'm still feeling depressed and pessimistic about Negan going down in the TV history books as yet another uninspired, macho-man sadist villain. We've seen this guy before, we know that he sucks, and I for one am already ready to bid him adieu in favor of a more creative adversary.