The Walking Dead finale recap: Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Negan is the villain we needed

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan in The Walking Dead. Photo: AMC Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Lucille in the season 6 finale of The Walking Dead. Photo: AMC
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Talk about delayed gratification. We first heard the name Negan in episode six of this season of The Walking Dead, but it took until the last 10 minutes of episode 16, the finale, for him to finally show his face.

But what a face it is: suave, handsome, charming, cruel. I know Jeffrey Dean Morgan can’t help being blessed with good genes, but in this towering actor – most recently seen as Alicia’s investigator/love interest Jason Crouse in The Good Wife – we have a villain who is charismatic, seductive and an utter A-hole. The attributes of the classic psychopath, in other words, whether in business, politics or the post-apocalypse.

He came on like the smooth-as-f— head of a corporate sales department presenting his record quarterly figures to the board, but his arrival capped the narrative arc of the entire season: the utter humiliation of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln).

Our erstwhile hero began season six having just staged a military coup in the greenie utopia of Alexandria. He ended it on his knees, in abject submission.

Hubris and humiliation. That’s what this season has been about – for Rick at least. His final moments of the season saw him trembling with fear, fresh out of ideas and options, as Negan hovered above 11 of our crew, Lucille – his baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire – in hand. He was going to beat the crap out of one of them to establish his God-like authority, because he could, because he wanted to. But which one would it be? Glenn, who has risen from the dead once but might not manage it a second time? Maggie, almost dead already from some pregnancy-related complication? Rick, or his one-eyed son Carl? Abraham, his new squeeze Sasha, sidekick Eugene, or Aaron, who normally takes his beatings from Rick? Or would it be Michonne or Rosita? Or Daryl, already wounded from a gunshot?

With so many to choose from, no wonder Negan had to resort to the old eeny-meeny-miney-mo.

“You. Are. It,” he said, finally settling, but on whom? The camera’s POV was that of the victim staring up at Negan, the final image of blood on the lens – the same as last week, when Daryl was shot – the final sounds, fading over black, the repeated thunkings of Lucille into an unknown skull. It was brutal.

How did we get to this?

The episode began in pastoral mode, a recurring theme this season, as if to suggest that when we are all gone from the face of the Earth nature will carry on just fine without us. Morgan (Lennie James), tracking Carol with all the dogged instincts and hangdog face of a bloodhound, finds a horse in a field, already saddled and waiting. Never one to look a gift equus in the mouth, he hops on.

When he finds Carol (Melissa McBride) huddling in a doorway in some abandoned town – she’s been stabbed – she tells him to bugger off and leave her to die. “If you care about people, there are people that you will kill for,” Carol explains. “And if you don’t want to kill, you have to get away from them. You should know that.”

“Everything is about people,” says Morgan the pacifist. “Everything in this life that’s worth a damn. That’s what I know.”

Carol is so moved by his speech she pulls a gun on him. Later, while he’s out milking the horse, she does a runner.

My God, do you chuggers never give up?

Back in Alexandria, Rick and co are readying the Winnebago to take Maggie (Lauren Cohan) to Hilltop, where there’s a doctor. They’re leaving Father Gabriel (Seth Gilliam) in charge, so the jury is out on the wisdom of this plan.

In the ‘bago, Rick offers some solace to Maggie. “It’s always worked out for us because it’s always been all of us,” he says. “As long as it’s all of us, we can do anything.”

It’s a stirring speech that rather conveniently fails to mention any of the people who’ve died along the way – Tyreese, Beth, Herschel, Noah – but it does prove one thing: Rick’s sense of his own power is out of control.

They soon run into a road block, with some poor guy lying crumpled on the tarmac, barely alive, while eight Saviors hover over him. “He’s someone who was with a whole lot of someones who didn’t listen,” lead Savior (Steven Ogg) tells Rick and co.

“We can make a deal,” says Rick.

“That’s right, we can. Give us all of your stuff. All you have to do is listen.”

“Yeahhh,” Rick drawls. “That deal’s not going to work for us.”

He rounds up the posse, tells Savior man they’re leaving.

Soon they hit another roadblock, with twice as many Saviors, then another, this time just a line of zombies chained together across the road. They eventually chop their way through this chain gang, but as they’re driving off, Rick realises the Saviors had always intended for them to go in this direction. They’re being toyed with.

That’s the sound of the dead men working on the chain gang.

Another bend, another roadblock, with lots more Saviors: at the established rate of increase, let’s say there are 32 this time.

“Turn around,” says Rick, who is fast running out of options, with fuel low and Maggie’s temperature sky high.

Carol, meanwhile, is jumped by the Savior who has been following her since last week’s bloodbath. They fight, and he grabs her pistol and shoots her in the arm, because he wants to watch her die slowly, “just like my friends back there on the road”.

Lying on the bitumen, blood pouring from her arm, she starts laughing.

“What the hell’s wrong with you,” asks the Savior.

“I’m going to die,” she says, “so there’s nothing wrong with me any more.”

He shoots her in the leg. “You think you’ve suffered enough now?”

“No, probably not.”

He walks away, spun out by this crazy woman. “What, are you done,” she asks, channelling the Black Knight. Come back here, I’ll bite your legs off.

He does come back, planning to finish her, but Morgan is there. Finally, he has a reason to kill. He unloads his revolver into the Savior.

“Would you please just let me go,” says Carol by way of thanks.

He turns around and there’s two men there, in body armour, with long spears, one of them on horseback. They look like medieval knights.

“I’ve got your horse,” says Morgan. And, referring to Carol: “She needs help.”

“Then let’s get you some help,” says Sir Galahad, and what with all this “run away” and “that’s just a flesh wound” and a knight without a horse, you have to wonder if the ghost of Monty Python and the Holy Grail doesn’t hover over proceedings in some strange way.

Yea verily, it is a pleasure to meet you, Sir Knight.

Actually, this whole season has taken on an increasingly medieval hue, with isolated fortresses ruled over by heavily armed despots, with tithing of the weak by the strong. There’s shades of Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban’s magnificent novel of the post-apocalypse, in all this. But there’s also something very real-world about it too, with Rick – always the stand-in for hawkish America – brought to his knees by a force whose full-on embrace of middle ages-style terror he can’t quite match.

Yes, Negan and his Saviors are to Rick’s world as ISIL is to ours.

One more road block, and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) nails the reality of their situation. “We are neck-deep up shit-creek with our mouths wide open.”

Eugene (Josh McDermitt) has an idea – he will take the van as a decoy, while everyone else can get out and carry Maggie on foot for several hundred kilometres by night. Man, that dude will do anything to get out of work.

And that’s how they end up kneeling before Negan.

Hey Eugene; about that plan of yours…

“Pissing our pants yet,” he asks as he makes his long-delayed entrance. “Boy, do I have a feeling we’re getting close. It’s gonna be Pee-Pee-Pants City here real soon.”

As first impressions go, you have to admit it’s pretty good.

He introduces himself to Rick, then tells him: “I do not appreciate you killing my men. Also, when I sent my people to kill your people for killing my people, you killed more of my people. Not cool.”

Negan outlines what he calls the New World Order to his hostages. “Give me your shit or I will kill you.” Not even the TPP’s terms of trade are quite that lopsided. “You work for me now. You have shit, you give it to me. That’s your job.”

He’s not going to kill them, he says, because he needs them to work for him. But he is going to beat the crap out of one of them, using Lucille, who is “awesome”.

Abraham straightens up, stares Negan in the eyes, as if to say, “Go on, beat me; I can take it”. Negan just sizes up his ranga mutton chops, rubs his hand over his own stubble, and says, “Huh, I gotta shave this shit”. He is a master of humiliation.

Rick is trembling. “It sucks don’t it,” Negan says. “The moment you realise you don’t know shit”.

He may be vile in his outrageously charismatic way, but The Walking Dead needed Negan. There have been times this season when the walk slowed to a shuffle. There have been great moments – Glenn’s death and resurrection, Maggie’s pregnancy, the attack on Alexandria by the Wolves and the flooding of the town by walkers after the wall came down – but too often the terror was vague, amorphous (in the way only a decaying body can be amorphous). Now, it has a human face again. It’s less predictable than the brainless horde, and thus so much more dangerous.

That didn’t stop people venting about the ending on social media, though, mostly on the issue of why we had to wait six months to meet Negan and now have to wait another six months to find out who he killed (that’s assuming he actually did kill someone – though given the way he swung that bat, you’d have to assume he did). Put another way, cliffhangers suck even more.

Yeah, I get that, but it misses a couple of points. First, cliffhangers are an intrinsic part of serial culture. You don’t like it, go jump (which many fans are already threatening to do).

Second, and it is something this season has made abundantly clear, this will never end. There is no cure, no salvation, just endless trudging in search of respite and supplies through a world that has gone to Hell and then rapidly run downhill from there.

This stuff is easy; it’s the live ones that are hard.

If you accept that you quickly realise that The Walking Dead could in theory keep going forever, or at least for as long as those endlessly running daytime soapies. Like sands through the hourglass, these are the days of our barely-alives.

It won’t go on forever, of course; it’s too expensive for that and eventually a tipping point will be reached where declining audiences and rising costs bring it all to an end. But for now, Rick and co are doomed to keep sloughing through the same cycles of hope and despair, of settlement and dispersal, of power and subjugation, a journey that has no end other than death, whether at Negan’s hand or some other.

Hey, maybe it’s not about the apocalypse at all. Just life as we know it.

Karl Quinn is on Facebook and on twitter @karlkwin

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