Question: Is Negan a bad guy, or is he just highly evolved? In tonight's episode – "Sing Me a Song" – we saw a softer(-ish) side of the bat-wielding sociopath, as he took Carl on a tour of his Sanctuary ... and his point-of-view. The kid hung out in a harem, and witnessed a stray Savior taking a hot iron to the face. He saw how one man can inspire fear and fealty, by meting out merciless justice. More importantly, he got a rare insight into what matters to The Walking Dead's most dangerous adversary yet. Negan demands obedience, yes. But he also likes it when his followers snap back at him, because he thinks that's what strong dudes do: "breaking each other's balls." No one's ever going to be better at that particular game than the guy who carries around a barbed-wire club.
In a way, the dynamic between Negan and Carl has become a concentrated rehash of what the boy went through back in the first two seasons, when Shane was whispering in his ear about how to be a man – and subtly suggesting that Rick didn't fit the bill. Maybe that's why the younger Grimes sneaks into the Sanctuary planning to kill his archenemy and instead ends up spending the day hanging out with him. Deep down, Carl is worried that he's never really learned to be macho. He's still in search of a father figure who's not his actual dad.
For the first time in months, The Walking Dead retraces its steps, paying long visits to two places we've already been to this go-round. One is the Sanctuary. The other is Alexandria, where the bat-man returns the boy to his home and then kicks back, waiting for Rick to return from a scavenging run. In terms of delivering new information about what life is like right now in these two communities, this episode doesn't really justify its extended running time (especially given that this is the third time this fall that TWD has gone long, with next week's midseason finale also scheduled to sprawl). But this chapter was the best showcase yet for Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who finally got the chance to do more than just grin, whistle, swear, and slaughter.
Negan here is almost … sympathetic? It's hard to feel too bad for a man who chuckles when a piece of someone's skin sticks to the blazing metal he just used to melt it. Still, there are times though where he comes off as someone who realizes he overshot the mark with his dickish dictatorial persona. He tries to convince himself that when people whimper at his bullying that they just "don't have a sense of humor," and that anyone who banters with him must genuinely enjoy his company. But there's a moment late in this episode where Negan is sitting on a safe-zone porch, sipping lemonade and cradling Rick's baby, where he actually looks melancholy. People kneel to him and even sing for him (as he asks Carl to do) because they feel forced to. Nobody really loves him.
The strength of Morgan's performance saves what's often a grindingly tedious, scattered TWD installment. The overall pace is unnecessarily slow, dragged down by loooong dialogue scenes where characters pause between lines for no reason. It's also possible that the writers right now are managing some self-inflicted narrative problems, born of the decision to spend so much of this season on self-contained place-setting chapters. This week's episode feels like it should've been another one of those, sticking close to Negan and Carl throughout. Instead, with the winter finale looming, we hop all around Virginia, spending a few minutes each with various Alexandrians – plus Jesus.
Some of these little adventures are fun. Jesus is as bad-assed as usual, sneaking stealthily around the outskirts of the Sanctuary while keeping an eye on Carl. Rosita has a powerful scene with Eugene, demanding that he honor Abraham's memory by manufacturing a bullet for her. And Rick and Aaron stumble into a seemingly well-stocked hideaway guarded by a pond full of zombies.
But none of these characters get their full due, because the show also makes time for a bland conversation about sin and redemption between Father Gabriel and Spencer, and for a couple of teasing minutes with Michonne, who's making her way toward the Sanctuary right now for reasons as yet unexplained. Meanwhile, Dwight and his ex-wife Sherry share a cigarette and catch up on their Negan-related miseries, while Daryl spends an afternoon in his cell, where someone slips him a key and a note that reads, "Go now." In other words, there are a lot of people and situations in the mix this week, most of which will be hard to assess until they pay off next Sunday – assuming that they do.
In terms of this episode though, the abundance of subplots distracts too much from the more fascinating "getting to know you" moments between the bad guy and the show's resident innocence-lost character. Our villain seems to appreciate having an audience for his little nuggets of wisdom, as he encourages an impressionable teenager to embrace his scarred face and to exploit the opportunities of a world with new rules. But in the process, he also exposes what may be his biggest weakness, which is that he now takes it for granted that no one can touch him. "If you knew us, you would kill us," Carl snarls, warning that the Alexandrians are more dangerous than they appear. What's crazy about Negan is that if anyone ever did work up the strength and courage to murder him, he'd probably consider that the ultimate sign of respect.
Previously: Eccentric Ladyland