When six bonus episodes of The Walking Dead were announced after the original season 10 finale, I felt that, even if the other five episodes proved to be cutting-room-floor material strung together by order of a content-starved network, at least the Negan episode had the potential to be great. However, as it turned out, all six episodes were at least good and one was even an all-time great. This makeshift finale, “Here’s Negan,” is a step below “Find Me,” but it’s still an instant classic in its own right.
The cast and crew beautifully capture Negan’s downfall at the end of society as we know it in this origin story episode. Though “Here’s Negan” uses a rather clunky device of a flashback within a flashback within yet another flashback, it ends up working out okay. Plus, the chemistry between Jeffrey Dean Morgan and his real-life wife, Hilarie Burton, really anchors the episode effectively no matter what moment in time we jump to.
For so long, we’ve seen Negan as the brutal dictator, a personality cult leader, and, more lately, a reserved and apparently sorrowful man, neutered by the Alexandrians’ diplomatic successes in a world where he once believed might meant right. In “Here’s Negan,” we see many new sides of Negan in just 57 swiftly moving minutes.
Before the world fell apart, Negan was a motorcyclist, a high school gym teacher, an occasional assaulter, an amateur chef, a gamer, and a philanderer. He also didn’t have his penchant for violence. Even as the dead began to walk, Negan hesitated to kill them, telling his wife Lucille he hoped he never gets “used to it.” As fans know, in time, Negan gets all too comfortable bashing brains in, and this descent is captured with equal parts heart and heartache in the episode.
With dwindling medicine, Lucille’s cancer spurs Negan to behave hastily, chasing down a medical convoy he’s merely heard rumors of in the new post-apocalypse. This sets him on a path not only to where he will eventually kill his first human victims, already liking it a bit too much even then, but also where he finds Lucille the baseball bat, piecing it together like Freddy Krueger’s glove over the opening credits of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Negan even comes upon whom the show suggests in awesomely subtle fashion went on to become the first Savior in his cult, Laura.
The episode really begins to crescendo into a classic when Negan returns home from his initially daring, ultimately desperate trip. He sells out the convoy to a band of raiders so they’d let him go with his wife’s critical chemotherapy supplies. Then he rushes in to be with her once more, mission uncomfortably accomplished, only to find she’s killed herself, sensing Negan was falling apart tending to her in a world not built for the sickly. It’s this tragedy that really hit hardest, even as we knew her death is what set him off before this episode ever came to be.
Wrapping her head in plastic and writing a short goodbye on the door, it’s her zombified self who greets Negan upon his return. From this, everyone loses everything. The convoy folks suffer due to Negan selling them out, now all for naught as Negan’s wife killed herself while he was away anyway, and from this disastrous mountain of ashes rises one hell of a villain.
As he slow-motion kicks down the door of his home, now being burnt down deliberately, it’s the show’s way of saying the old Negan is gone; he never walked out of that house. Something altered emerged. Clad in his iconic leather jacket and with Lucille in hand, Negan embraces the new world order, the society he now finds himself in where you keep as much as you can take, where he gets to villainously monologue to others because he’s the one with the barbed wire bat. Naturally, one can’t help but feel mixed emotions about it all.
The show cleverly pits Negan in conversation with his past self at one point, and it’s stark how different he is, displaying a now-obvious divide between past and present that sneaks up on you when watched one episode at a time. It’s easy to see how his world fell apart and he became the monster he did, but he’s a great study in empathy and forgiveness. As viewers, we can feel as he felt, broken and lost after Lucille’s suicide, and understand the whys and the hows of what came next — but we need not forgive the myriad heinous things he did either, as Maggie certainly hasn’t.
With a cast of characters vastly different from that of the comics at this same juncture, it will be fascinating to see how The Walking Dead writers decide to bring this train into the station with the final season beginning in the summer. They would be wise to continue leaning on this divide of justice versus punishment, as it’s always been at the core of the show. How do you build the world back up, and in what image? Negan’s fate is forever tied to this show’s final message, and the final season could prove utterly riveting with the brilliant Angela Kang at the helm.