We're a little more than halfway through the The Walking Dead's fall season, and so far no line line of dialogue has been more memorable than Negan's warning in the premiere: "I hope you got your shittin' pants on ... because you are about to shit your pants." Still, the big bad boss does try to top himself in the latest episode, when he suggests that Gregory is "a thin-dicked politician, threading the needle with your thin, thin dick." A pattern's emerging here: Not only does Negan communicate almost exclusively in vulgarities, but he tends to swear in circles.
This week's episode – "The Big Scary U" – is an unusual hour of TWD, with about a third of it dedicated to flashbacks that are meant to fill in some crucial story-gaps. It's also the best episode of the season so far, because it gets back to exploring the closed loop that is Negan's mind, and how he uses forced, folksy simplicity as a way to justify cruelty.
The hulking guy with the shit-eating grin and barbed-wire Louisville slugger is a more nuanced villain than he appears on the surface, because deep down he seems to know that his philosophy of life is unsustainable and unsatisfying. We saw that in Season Seven, when he delivered Carl back to Alexandria and spent a day imagining what it must be like to be Rick, with an actual loving family and friends. And we see it again here when he's stuck in a shipping container with Father Gabriel, who challenges his host's worldview.
The scenes between these two are very cleverly handled, serving some of the same function as the spinoff origin story Here's Negan in Robert Kirkman's comics. Rather than showing us the character's pre-apocalypse life, credited writers Scott M. Gimple, David Leslie Johnson and Angela Kang let Jeffrey Dean Morgan take us there just with his words. He describes the wife Negan loved, and the students he tried to toughen up so that they wouldn't "turn out to be garbage." He even compares his vocation with Gabriel's, saying that they both identify and exploit "weakness."
Having the oft-underused holy man act as Negan's audience pays off, dramatically; he believes his purpose ion being stuck alongside the villain in a zombie-surrounded trailer is to hear the man's "confession." The priest has spent years of his life playing devil's advocate (so to speak) to his parishioners, and even when dealing with someone as self-confident as the snarky sadist, he's able to coerce some concessions. He gets the head-bad-guy-in-charge to admit that he doesn't really trust his own generals to carry out his vision without him – at least not without a lot of people dying unnecessarily. Gabriel also pushes against the idea that the Saviors' sex-slaves and low-paid laborers all "made a choice" to participate in an economy where somebody always has to lose.
If "The Big Scary U" were just about two dudes in a dark room (from which they eventually escape, by the way, using the ol' walker-guts camouflage trick), it still would've been a pretty good episode, if a little under-stuffed. But what makes this hour a potential season-saver is that it also ramps up the palace intrigue at the Sanctuary – and more importantly, gives the show's "All Out War" story more complexity.
A lengthy pre-credits intro shows what Negan and his inner circle were doing right before Rick's coalition rolled up with their "hillbilly armor." Gregory was trying to sell the war-council on his plan to take the Hilltop's pieces off the board altogether, while the too-gullible Simon was backing this strategy. Jumping ahead to the present – with Negan missing and presumed dead – Simon struggles to keep Regina, Gavin, Dwight and Eugene focused, as everyone's torn between smoking out the traitor in their midst and rallying to the aid of their workers before all hell breaks loose.
This question about what to do with the Sanctuary serfs is an interesting one, adding a welcome new wrinkle to what was starting to become a dull stand-off between two increasingly indistinguishable ideologies. In a subplot involving Rick and Daryl, the latter's adamant that they should take their newly seized weapons cache and turn it immediately against their enemy's home base. The two even get into a physical brawl, because Daryl chooses to ignore the argument that killing so many folks who are essentially prisoners would be counterproductive. Like Negan, Rick believes that human beings are a resource, and that whoever controls the biggest supply will win out.
This theoretical dispute goes unresolved, because our two heroes become distracted by an exploding truck (and then some mysterious helicopters overhead). But it plays out in a very real way at the Sanctuary, where Negan returns and gets the workers back on his side before they can revolt.
What Negan & Co. are missing, however, is that Dwight has already turned against him – and that Eugene may not be far behind. In one final cool twist to this episode, an imprisoned Gabriel asks Eugene to help him free the Hilltop's doctor, not long after our eloquent turncoat nerd seems to have figured out that the closest thing he has left to a friend is the Saviors' real rat. So once again, the show's biggest coward is faced with a choice between warlords who may or may not be able to protect him. Does he work with Dwight, who's been clever enough to sabotage his own team? Or does he stick with Negan, who's promised that even if everything goes sour, he'll kill him quick so he won't suffer.
Odds are that he's going to use his over-active brain to come up with a solution that gets him far away from the man whose best offer includes a 50-50 chance of severe physical pain. Given how much Eugene fears death, for once, Negan may wish he hadn't been so blunt.
Previously: The King and I