Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review The Walking Dead each week in a series of letters.
Toward the end of this latest 90-minute televised abomination, I thought I was just moments from finishing yet another run-of-the-mill godawful episode of The Walking Dead. Like Enid, I had entered with the attitude of “just survive somehow,” and I thought I had made it. Then something interesting happened, just after Negan fat-shamed and propositioned Olivia, and then told Carl to give him the grand tour of the house.
They had a fucking montage.
Seriously, this happened. I rewound it just to make sure. I gave full allowance for the possibility that I had hallucinated the entire thing, but now that I’ve seen it four times, I can only conclude that it’s a legitimate part of reality.
Some kind of ‘50s sock hop started playing, and we actually saw a montage where Carl—after being emotionally abused for most of the episode—stood by with a “man, this is wacky!” expression as Negan dug his toes into the plush carpet, shot some darts, marveled at the running water, and generally just lived it up in Alexandria. It was such a bizarre tonal shift—so sudden, so pointless, and so temporary—that I can only compare it to watching the weirdest, darkest snuff porno ever, but in the middle there’s a really lame song from a Broadway show like Guys & Dolls spliced in for like two minutes.
Mind you, Josh, i’ve never watched such a thing. But it’s still my only point of comparison. And as I listened to that music, and watched Negan caper around like Eliza Doolittle the first time she wears a rich lady’s dress, I came to a startling conclusion: This is the worst episode of television I have ever seen.
It was so bad that—for the first time all season—I began to respect the show again. Because it’s one thing to take the most popular show on cable TV, with all the money and prestige that entails, and fuck it up with endless mediocrity. Anyone can do that. But to really destroy it, beyond all recognition? That’s not easy. I couldn’t do that. You couldn’t do that. There are not many people in this world who could manage such a feat. But they’ve done it, Josh, and now, nothing is off limits. Next week’s midseason finale could feature a dance number with aliens and a hundred men dressed up like Hitler, and I’d just be like, “oh, yeah, this is how this show works now.”
If you couldn’t tell, I’m staggered. I tip my fictional cap, I curtsy, I bow. The Walking Dead creators are kings of destruction, and all my bitterness is gone. I fully deserved to have the hot iron of this season pressed into my face for 60-90 minutes each week. I succumb to my fate.
I have more thoughts on how obscenely terrible this episode was, along with a theory that Negan is a frustrated suicide case, but I’ll save those for the second email. For now, I’ll leave you with this:
Carl and Negan are probably the most insufferable characters on the entire show, but they did not become truly unforgivable until this week, when they had ample opportunity to kill one another and didn’t do it. That’s beyond redemption, Josh. When Hannah Arendt spoke of the “banality of evil,” I’m pretty sure that this is what she meant. Because they’re both clearly satanic, and I hate them, but I’m also so, so bored.
I can confirm that you did indeed watch a montage of Negan digging his feet into the carpet and tossing a bullseye into Carl’s bedroom dart board. That was a thing that did happen and not the result of any illicit pharmaceuticals you may have “accidentally” taken in preparation of this episode. But to say that this is the worst episode of television you’ve ever watched tells me you didn’t check out MTV’s Shannara Chronicles earlier this year.
I found the episode tedious and unnecessarily padded to fill the 90-minute slot. Negan is starting to wear on me. I didn’t need to watch Rosita verbally abuse poor Eugene or Negan iron some guy’s face off. But I didn’t think this was a complete failure. For starters, I kinda liked Carl in this episode. His single-minded if poorly planned call to kill the man who killed his friends turned him into kind of a badass. I didn’t want to watch a half season with Rick’s gang all trying to play nice with Negan, so I appreciate that Michonne, Jesus, Rosita and Carl are all trying to take action in their own way. Michonne was fantastic as always, showing Negan’s lackey not to mess with her. Even Father Gabriel was likable this episode, telling Spencer that hoping Rick dies on his run doesn’t necessarily make him a sinner, but it does kind of make him a shit.
And the zombie-filled moat that Rick and Aaron encounter around some crazy old guys cache of horcruxes—I mean, guns—looks really promising for next week.
So obviously I didn’t hate this episode quite as much as you. But I didn’t love it enough to sit here and try to defend it. But they left me in a place where I’m actually looking forward to the mid-season finale. Last week you asked me how to salvage the season. Step one was Carl getting captured in order to light a fire under Rick’s ass. Rick also needed some sliver of hope at defeating the Saviors, and he may have just uncovered a weapons cache. So, despite the really weird montage (how long before the Internet sets that footage to a sitcom theme song?), this episode moved us in the right directions.
But I’m guessing I haven’t changed your mind. You’ve waxed poetic about some of the early seasons of The Walking Dead. Is there anything the show could do in its final 90 minutes of 2017 that could win you back?
The number 1 thing The Walking Dead has to do in the midseason finale is kill Negan. And I swear I’m not just saying that because I despise him as a character. The real, deeper reason that he must die is because Negan himself craves his own death. This is the theoretical underpinning of last night’s episode, at least per my reading—Negan badly wants to die, but he lacks the courage to do it himself, so he’s been trying for years and years, unsuccessfully, to get other people to kill him. It explains everything—his weird lack of caution, the way he taunts even those who are very loyal to him, and how he constantly puts himself at risk while continuing to piss off his enemies.
Consider this, Josh: When Carl emerged from the back of the truck, firing away, Negan came back. Seriously! He had disappeared for a moment, Carl wasted the dude in the back of the truck, and was holding everyone hostage with no Negan in sight. Any sane person—even an evil sane person—would have stayed the hell away. What did Negan do? He strutted right back into frame, wearing the world’s biggest grin, pleased as a peacock. He thought his time was up, Josh, and that his number had finally been called. At last, he said to himself, here’s a kid crazy enough to just fire away, and my deliverance is nigh.
Later, he kept handing Lucille to Carl and standing in front of him, begging him to bash in his skull. He even emotionally abused him with that goddam miserable eye scene, followed by the truly excruciating “You Are My Sunshine” weirdness. It’s the same reason he won’t kill Rick—a guy that can’t stop staring at him with menace in his eyes, and who openly threatened to kill him, is exactly what he wants in his heart of hearts. Negan needs someone to end his misery, and he won’t stop until he provokes his own death.
I bet this scene happened early on his reign:
EXT. Forest Road
Negan: Pull over! Pull over NOW.
Everyone piles out of a big truck, holding guns, and Negan herds them into the middle of the road.
Negan: Well, don’t we have OURSELVES a big ol’ PICKLE!
Negan leans back, grinning.
Negan: I look around at all of you, my TOP LIEUTENANTS, and you know what I see? A bunch of REAL CHICKENSHITS!
Negan then proceeds to berate them for 10 minutes, reminding them all of the times he had sex with their wives, doing impressions of the their family members at the moment when he murdered them, re-enacting the times he ironed their faces, and viciously picking on any physical flaws. At the end, he tosses Lucille and his only gun into the middle of the circle.
Negan: Well, would you LOOK AT THAT. Mighty Negan doesn’t have a weapon! I mean, NOT A SINGLE WEAPON! And I KNOW that none of y’all LIKE me. How GODDAM EASY would it be for any of you to just SHOOT ME right in THE KISSER?!
Long pause, Negan drops the grin and falls to his knees.
Negan: Guys, seriously, the person that kills me will basically be a hero. There will be no repercussions. Please, someone kill me.
The men stare at him, uncertain.
Negan: I’m going to do horrible things to all of you, and everyone you love, if you don’t kill me right now. There is zero reason for you to let me live. I am powerless. All my perceived control is gone.
The men shuffle around, gaze at their feet.
So, yeah, Negan’s got to go. Carl should also go, quite honestly. I know we disagree on this, but I thought his acting was all over the place, from crazy vigilante hellbent on death and destruction to coward little kid to weird sitcom sidekick. I know that half of the blame goes to the writers—there’s no way Carl just gives up his gun by the truck—but I still found it excruciating to watch the eye scene and the way he shook and cried while Negan mocked him. And the singing was even worse—call me what you will, but I’m not a Carl fan.
Now, I have to ask you a question, Josh, and it’s kind of a personal one. When Negan got slapped by Olivia, and then turned to her and said, “you just became 50 percent more interesting to me,” I laughed. It was really the first time Negan has made me laugh the entire he’s been on screen, and it was a genuine, surprised laugh. My question to you: Does this make me a horrible person? Because I felt a little horrible, in that instant. And second, would Negan have been better if he was just constantly mean in very personal ways, rather than trying to capture some kind of sadistic, all-encompassing psychopathology?
Second, I’ll throw your own question back to you—what are you hoping to see in the midseason finale? I agree that the end looked promising, even if it is kind of a cop-out for the writers to be like, oh, you gave up all your guns? Here’s a huge new stash!
Finally, what did you think of Rosita dishing out an unexpected “cabron!” this episode? Did it feel as much to you as it did to me like a bunch of male white writers going, “hey, you know what we forgot? Rosita is ethnic! What would an ethnic person say?”
Negan as suicidal is an interesting theory, and you’ve backed it up well, but I think that’s the problem with this character. You can see him as a hedonist (motivated by marrying the best women and eating the best food) or a sadist (getting a kick out of every opportunity to iron someone’s face or make a kid sing for him) or just as a really practical ruthless leader (traumatizing Rick to neutralize him and get free labor). But it’s hard to imagine someone with all that going on his head not become more unhinged. When Negan gets cheated on or when a kid show’s up to kill him, he never loses that “aw, shucks” easygoing charm. That makes him a true psychopath, but not necessarily a believable one.
And I don’t think there’s any way they kill off Negan until Season 8. Maybe late into Season 8. Remember how long we had the Governor?
But stuff needs to start unraveling for Negan. We need to see him lose his cool when Daryl escapes, when Jesus deals some kind of blow, when Rick’s group re-arms themselves. If we end on a cliffhanger with someone else’s maybe dead/maybe not, it’s going to be hard to return in the spring.
And Rosita may be the most under-written character on the show. Did you remember she was sleeping with Spencer? If she’s going to play a big role in the revolution, she needs some layers.
I’ll leave you with this. The Walking Dead has given us a number of great finales. Michonne and Daryl are on the move. Please don’t die, either of you. And please don’t suck, mid-season finale.
Shane Ryan is a staff writer at Paste and author of Slaying the Tiger: A Year Inside the Ropes on the New PGA Tour. Josh Jackson is founder and editor-in-chief of Paste.