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Deaditorial: Negan, The Governor and “THE WALKING DEAD”‘s Villain Problem

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THE WALKING DEAD set the stage for perhaps one of the most devastating episodes of horror television to date. Maggie, one of the most sympathetic characters of the show, was near death, with a pregnancy complication jeopardizing the lives of herself and her unborn child. The otherwise confident, selfless leader that is Rick Grimes was left a sweaty, shaken mess, humbled and emotionally compromised by an underestimated force. And almost every character had a “two days ‘till retirement” moment that would make their death bittersweet: Eugene’s Map, Abraham and Sascha’s decision to settle down, Carl’s armory chat with Enid, etc.

And then there’s Negan. Comic fans have patiently awaited the arrival of this uber-villain for quite some time, while fans of the series have had plenty of hints of just how bad Negan can be. From the assault of Hilltop’s Gregory to the polaroid of caved-in skulls at their Satellite compound, THE WALKING DEAD wanted you to know that Negan isn’t someone who can be bargained or reasoned with: he’s a force of nature that will happen upon you like a hurricane. And after a foreboding, palpably intense 10-minute monologue, Negan begins counting down just who is going to meet “Lucille”, his barbed wire-covered baseball bat.

But then, our worst fears are confirmed: the series cuts to the POV of the victim as Negan brings the bat down on their head, carefully framing the shot as to give nothing away. Cue credits, and the frustrated screams of millions.

Now, I won’t lie: I was frustrated as hell, as was most of America. The decision to deprive us of the victim’s identity robbed us of a payoff to eight episodes of escalating tension and fear. It also is another addition to the show’s blood-boiling use of “shocking cliffhangers”, from Glenn’s dumpster-dive to Sam’s cries for “Mom” to Daryl’s unexpected gunshot the week beforehand. And for a show that has so well mastered the art of gore on television, there’s an equal frustrating in leaving Negan’s horrifying handiwork to CGI blood running down the camera (which, by the way, needs to stop) and basic audio cues to pummeled meat.

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But as someone who watches THE WALKING DEAD as both a fan and a critic, the cop-out cliffhanger is problematic for a whole different reason entirely: the series has a villain problem, and when the chance comes to show our team a bad guy that was not fucking around, they hobbled his impact for a cheap narrative device. As someone who has watched week after week the introduction of minor characters and stock Alexandrians as cannon fodder, the element of danger is waning, and the deus ex machinas of gasoline ponds and precision firework archery are getting frustrating. And for a show that so often touts the mantra “Fight the Dead, Fear the Living,” THE WALKING DEAD has so strongly needed a human face of savagery to be a serious threat to our core survivors.

Yet above everything, THE WALKING DEAD needed a villain that would dwarf the emotional and mental compromises of Rick and Co. Sometimes, it’s almost as if the writers of THE WALKING DEAD forget that Rick cornered all the “Terminus” survivors and butchered them to death while unarmed in a church, or that Carol almost single-handedly murdered all of “The Wolves” without shedding a tear. After losing Lori, Shane, Herschel, Beth, Tyreese, T-Dog, Andrea, and so many others along the way, Rick and Carol were even plotting to massacre (or at the very least, imprison or exile) the Alexandrians if they were deemed “too weak” or “untrustworthy.” That’s the kind of level of crazy THE WALKING DEAD needed to top, and to rob Negan of the chance to do so in all of his gruesome glory is a real problem for the series to overcome next season.

Plainly speaking, THE WALKING DEAD has a villain problem, and one they’ve had since The Governor left the picture. Sure, they had the enslave-and-rape cops that Beth encountered, but they were essentially a non-threat. Sure, they had “Terminus,” but despite a killer introduction to these cannibals, they were defeated handily… twice. Sure, they had “The Wolves” and the various sects of Saviors along the way, but outside of Denise, they were defeated time and time again. For two-and-a-half seasons, Rick Grimes has been the toughest kid in the playground, and no matter how many members of his gang get knocked down, he’s conquered any obstacle in his way. As satisfying as it is to watch, it really removes the stakes of everything, especially since so many characters are still dispatched by zombies, with so few deaths really making an impact.

Of course, Negan had the chance to change that problem; Negan wasn’t a perturbed individual driven to villainy by loss, as was The Governor, or a power-hungry opportunist like Shane. Negan is the evil antithesis to Rick Grimes, and renders him powerless. And with the audience having seen Negan’s crew sadistically kill other groups for minor discrepancies, the idea of Rick seeing one (or more) of those he promised to protected savagely beaten to death is one that would put the “Screwed With The Wrong People” cliffhanger to shame.

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But, alas, here we are again: another weak villain introduction that takes the “anything can happen” danger of the post-Darabont main cast purges and marginalizes it, and likely taking a large bite of the audience with them. Rather than leaving fans with a punch-to-the-gut or with baited breath for the next episode, AMC is leaving fans to stew for six months over an anti-climax that can be resolved by reading a show recap. You see, ending a season with Negan decimating Glenn or Daryl with a baseball bat is what fundamentally makes THE WALKING DEAD must-see entertainment; an ultraviolent soap opera where characters are just as likely to walking into a tractor-trailer full of zombies as they are a wandering traveler with a samurai sword. But by ending a season with Negan decimating an unknown victim off-screen- which could feasibly be replaced by a minor impact character like Aaron or Eugene, should AMC want to hedge their bets- is much less of a gamble, and certainly a far-cry from must-see.

Sure, THE WALKING DEAD has a new villain in town, with a whole army of gun-toting weirdos and sadistic freaks to back him up. Sure, they hang dudes and kill them with baseball bats; so did the Terminus folks, and at least we knew they meant business very explicitly. But at this point, narrative tricks like this made to “preserve the drama” drain the impact of the Saviors, or the impact of seeing Rick reduced to a human mess, or the impact of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s villainous performance. And if that’s what we’re to expect from THE WALKING DEAD, why are we to care?

And if AMC and Scott Gimple thinks that the fans are going to come back either way, they might want to reconsider that notion. THE WALKING DEAD routinely hits Netflix before the next season, and if cliffhangers like this are going to be the new normal for the series, don’t be surprised if viewers decide to wait a bit longer to binge-watch, taking away the impact just as easily. But above all else, it reminds us that THE WALKING DEAD does not care about it’s villains, and for one of the few shows on television where a truly despicable, unrepentant villain could restore the show’s near-depleted shock value, that’s a damn shame.

Take a note, AMC: if Negan is competing with Ramsay Bolton, Mason Verger and Kilgrave for the title of most depraved, ruthless villain on television, you’ll have to do better than this. Come this fall, this writer hopes you will, and that whatever is on the other side of that baseball bat is worth the wait. As a fan and as a critic, I want THE WALKING DEAD to have a villain to fear again; someone who can wrangle out more emotion than an intense one-scene stand-off. With all the hype around Negan, Gimple and Co. have created a monster; now, they can’t be afraid to let him loose.

About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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