About a year back, I had nice, long talk with The Walking Dead multi-hyphenate Greg Nicotero about what doom likely loomed as Season 7, Negan and the Saviors neared. He said this about Negan and the guy who played him:
“I gotta say, we cast the best person for the role. Negan is charismatic and he’s calculating and he’s dark. I’m a fan of Jeffrey’s work, and ironically when we were starting casting, I was watching The Good Wife, and I was like, ‘Damn, that guy is so fucking charming, and his smile just completely disarms you. What an amazing attribute for Negan to be able to have — the fact that he smiles and it’s sort of a warm, inviting kind of smile, but there’s that darkness behind it.’
“I remember looking over the list of people, and when his name was on there, I called Gimple and I was like, ‘I’ve just been watching this guy recently and it’s amazing — he’s so talented and he’s such an amazing actor.’ It was somebody that we immediately looked at as, like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s him!’ Keeping the comic book very close at hand when looking at who that person is, we felt that he just embodied the character that we wanted to put on screen. He’s fantastic.”
We got a taste of what Nicotero was describing in the Season 7 premiere, but what was primarily left on our palate: “This guy is the worst sort of evil.” Tonight’s episode was different. It was all there on the table — from the moment he rolled up to Alexandria much too early for his date and cribbed the “Three Little Pigs” to announce that fact, to his “Don’t be ridiculous. Thank YOU!” (followed by a profane reminder of his power) — before he took his leave. And way more than his agreed upon portion of their stuff.
Admit it. Even if Negan is the character you swore — suh-wore! — would herald the end of your Dead watch, you’re still watching. And he’s probably why.
That snow-white smile. Those twinkling eyes. The loose-limbed saunter, bobbing and weaving out of the sheer effing joy of being Negan and the game-show-host-meets-car-salesman delivery of undeniably amusing lines — some of which I suspect Morgan ad-libs into pure perfection. And the way he can shut all of that down in a blink and stare the corpuscles right out of your blood.
There’s this, too. When he is eyeball-to-eyeball with Andrew Lincoln’s Rick Grimes, it is patently clear that these two guys are having the time of their lives working together.
At last summer’s San Diego Comic-Con, Morgan said the actors share a similar devotion to their craft — and a like-minded approach to wringing every last drop of their characters’ mindset and intensity into a scene.
“I remember, right before I walked out of the trailer for the first time, this weird calm came over me — which, oddly enough, I think the character needs,” Morgan said of Negan’s big entrance. “But I remember it was a spot that I don’t know I’ve ever settled into as an actor before. I torture myself. I don’t sleep the night before. Andy does the same thing. We’re very hard on ourselves and nothing is @#$%ing right, ever. But I remember right before I walked out that door, it was OK. I knew what I had to do.”
I’ll admit this, too. I’ve been over Rick for a while. Way over. Long while. Over the perpetual … dampness. Over the perpetually crossed eyes as indication of despair. Over the wishy and the washy and the pronouncing Carl “Coral.” I needed him to knock it off and be normal or just go the hell away, especially since there are any number of people who have this world figured out as much, if not more, as he does. See also: The woman who shares his bed.
Now I can’t wait to see what sort of man Negan makes Rick. And possibly vice versa. Especially after this episode. I’ll take a knee to you, Negan, for that fact alone.
We start “Service” with a slumbering Mr. Grimes and a troubled Michonne. Trying not to wake him, she slips out of bed, slings her katana across her back and fishes a rifle from its fireplace hiding spot. Mama’s gotta go to work.
On today’s docket: Heading into a field where she has repurposed the skeleton of a truck into a makeshift hunting stand from which she’ll practice firing the unfamiliar rifle. We’ll learn soon that her katana skills and rifle skills are, shall we say, not commensurate. The girl has — literally — killer hand-eye coordination, so I find that puzzling. But whatever.
Meanwhile, Papa Grimes gets a fussy Judith up; she’ll factor in later. And, out on gate watch, a somber Eugene is fiddling with something electronic in nature when Rosita and Spencer roll up, Rosita at the wheel. They want to make an expedition to find stuff to give the Neganites other than Alexandria’s own supplies. Eugene does not believe he is up to joining in, thanks. He prefers to deal in certainties — that is, whipping up a portable audio system as an offering for the Saviors’ return.
This, as previously mentioned, comes a lot sooner than everyone planned. As in right this very minute.
Bat man announces his arrival with some ominous, self-created entrance music and, yes, asks the assembled little pigs to let him in. Still freshly aware of what happens when one tries to keep the hair on one’s chinny-chin-chin, Spencer goes to the gate, stopping shy of actually letting him in.
Negan stops his shtick long enough to growl. “Do not make me have to ask.”
Before Spencer — as Spencer is wont to do — can screw this up epically, Rick arrives on the scene and reminds Negan that he’s early. Then he lets him in anyway.
Negan offers this explanation: “I missed you!”
Then he demonstrates the art of the “easy peasy lemon squeezey” zombie-kill and touts the service he just provided Rick’s group. I can’t decide if he really thinks they don’t know this drill backward and forward and that pretty much everyone here can take out a walker with their thumbs or a stick or a paperclip. Or is he’s being glib? Then he notices Rick noticing that Daryl — eyes downcast and wearing his Scarlet Letter sweats — is in the group that has come along with Negan.
Negan hands Lucille to Rick (!) and heads on into the community — which Rick sees as a chance to talk to Daryl. Ah-ah-ah. No no. Big no-no. Try it again and we’ll have to revisit that whole limb-chopping deal, only for real this time.
Rick changes the subject, telling the visitors that the Alexandrians have neatly set aside half their stuff for the Saviors to haul away, per the deal. Problem is, in Negan’s world “half” means whatever the hell he says it is. Negan math: Rick + decisions = zero.
Even worse, Dwight kyboshes the living hell out of my hope that he learned a few Very Important Life Lessons last week. Or maybe it’s just because he has an audience. In either case, he waits for his leader to stroll off and then gets in Rosita’s face, using his outside voice. Noticing the pair were on their way out anyway, he gives them a brand-new mission: bring him Daryl’s bike.
“Ain’t here,” says Rosita (“Ain’t,” Rosita?! Since when? It’s OK to be smart in front of boys).
Dwight has deductive powers. If it ain’t here, well then she must know where it is. Taking all their guns — and her cap — as collateral, he sends the pair on their way, relieving them of their water last-minute lest they be tempted to make it a day or a never-coming-back-ever of it.
Out in the field, Michonne blows a ton of ammo (and makes a ton of noise doing it — two things that used to be all kinds of no-no) on a red-haired walker before finishing it off with the weapon she knows. Heading for home, she spots a deer that took one of her misfires and looks sad, but the critter will come in handy.
Back in Alexandria, Negan’s pleased with how the recon mission is going, especially when someone hands him a camcorder. Hoping, he says, to see “a little freaky-deaky” what he gets instead is a lot of beardy-weardy. It’s Rick’s Alexandria admission interview. And there is a lot of hairs on his chinny-chin-chin. Hell of a lot more than there is now, Negan and I will tell you what.
Admiring the “man bush,” Negan tells Rick he would not have messed with that guy. But Rick’s not that guy anymore. Rick offers no argument. Then the discussion turns to Maggie. Where is she, anyhow, Negan wants to know. Was married to “No. 2” right? Well, widows that pretty and ruined are special. Empty inside. But not for long — wink, wink. So where is she?
Just then, Father Gabriel appears and asks if Negan would like to play his respects, getting himself declared creepy in the process. Sure enough, they head for Maggie’s “grave” — though we know that Sasha and Maggie are Hilltop bound (might their episode be next week?). Negan ponders the depth of the Alexandrians’ grief. Abraham, he says, had to go for the lesson to be learned. But Glenn? That one’s all on Daryl. Maggie, too, since they lost her in the aftermath. And here he was going to ask her to go steady or captive or what have you — all the same in his book. Shame, either way.
Gabe and Rick exchange a meaningful glance and then the whole shebang is interrupted by a gunshot. Negan stares hard at Rick then heads off to see where it came from.
It came from Carl, who is holding a few of Negan’s men at gunpoint after the warning shot, telling them that if they don’t unhand what they’ve taken — Alexandria’s medicine supply — he’ll put the next bullet in them.
As Rick begs him to back off, Carl tells Negan that he and his minions should go “before you find out how dangerous we all are.” Yeah. The lad’s baby face, luxurious Farrah Fawcett hair and cupid’s bow mouth don’t go real, real far in backing up the threat. but Negan likes him and his man-size balls anyway. And because he actually likes the tough talking little feller, Carl will be allowed to live.
Still, it’s a costly error in judgment. The situation makes Negan realize how many guns the Alexandrians must actually have. And how willing they are to use them. Can’t have that. So where’s the stash?
Olivia, the supply-tender, shows Negan’s men to the armory. Negan, meantime, points out to Rick that he’s not taking a crumb of their food. Starving Alexandrians are unproductive Alexandrians. There’s another one of those mighty stare-downs I talked about earlier, but Rick refuses to say thanks.
Meanwhile Rosita and a super-pouty Spence retrieve Daryl’s bike, Spencer all the while bitching about how Rick and his poor planning are responsible for the way they are living right now and the number depleted from their ranks. They should have bargained with the Saviors when they had the chance. This is their life now and they need to quit fighting that.
Rosita isn’t really listening. She spies — or hears — something and heads off into the brush.
Back in Alexandria, Neegs is tickled to learn he now is the proud owner of the self-same bazooka that took out “little Timmy and the dick brigade.” (I loved little Timmy. He was funny.) The celebration is short-lived, because his lady warrior reappears with Olivia, reporting that two guns are missing.
The next part is interesting.
Simmering, Negan says he could waste men “all the livelong” — but ladies? Well. But he’ll make an exception for Mrs. Lousy Inventory keeper. She. Had. One. Job.
Really, guy? You could scare Olivia with a daddy-long-legs. This is necessary to make your point how? He doesn’t treat her to a date with Lucille … yet. She’ll be his hostage while Rick hunts down those guns.
Time for a little sermon from Pastor Rick. Lucille is there, too. Not enough guns, not enough bullets to overcome these guys and that’s the truth, says Rick. Nondenominational confession time. Who has the weapons?
In the congregation, a red-haired kid I don’t recognize and Aaron have an earnest interaction. “Don’t,” whispers Aaron. “Now is not the time.” It’s a red herring. The kid stands, but instead of confessing, he wants to know how they’re going to get out of this, guns or no guns.
Simple, says Rick. They’re not. This is their world now. Negan is in charge. Negan gets what Negan wants. Alexandrians get to live. It’s that simple … and that non-negotiable. Then Eugene pipes up, helpfully pointing out that not everyone is here and earning himself some stink-eye from Aaron.
Meanwhile, in the woods, Rosita dispatches a group of former-Savior walkers and finds a gun on one of them. The chamber is empty, but still. It’s a gun. She knows the score. Negan is taking all their guns, so they need to find guns Negan knows nothing about. “This,” she tells her dead-mama’s-boy companion, “is not our life.”
In related matters, guess who was squirreling away the missing weapons, along with some bonus food and booze? His insolence reminds me a little of the time my youngest squirreled away some cannabis in our house. In the heating vent. In winter. Which filled the house with the smell of “You’re grounded till you’re 90” the minute the furnace kicked in.
On THAT subject, I think Rev. Gabriel might be planting a special crop behind the church, because he suddenly is the most chill dude on Earth. Also he just KNOWS everything is going to work out. It’s exactly the pep talk Rick is — and by “is” I mean “isn’t” — looking for.
The constable thanks him for the quick thinking with the graves to explain away Maggie’s absence. “It was nice to dig a grave I knew would stay empty,” Gabe smiles.
Rick turns over the guns and gets a lecture for his troubles: Get everyone on board or it’s right back to square one. Square like a batter’s box. With some unfortunate someone kneeling at the plate. And Lucille ready to swing for the fences.
Ride’s here! Time to go! As Negan congrats Rick on the community and the wonderful opportunity to serve that it provides, Rick spies Michonne in the window. Gimme a minute, he says. Another no. Please. Ok, fine.
Michonne blanches at the sight of Rick carrying Lucille. Never mind that, he tells her; hand over the rifle. He knows what she’s doing out there and there is no need for it. Negan sets the rules now, and if he finds the clandestine gun, someone will die. And he cannot have anyone else die. Can. Not.
The pair return to Negan, Michonne toting the deer and Rick the rifle. The gun is for hunting, Rick explains. Never comes inside the gate. Whether Negan believes him or not, he is tickled.
“Not this is readin’ the room and gettin’ the message,” he crows. Rick — you, sir, are special. Like a widow in mourning. Special enough to have Daryl back? Um, no. But Negan’s willing to let Daryl plead his case.
Daryl says nothing. Maybe he knows it’s futile — at least right now. Perhaps he has a plan that is best executed from inside the Sanctuary. I don’t — can’t — believe he’s really broken by last week’s events; Dixons don’t roll like that. Remember how Merle went out? Daryl ain’t gonna beg either. Will he eventually say he’s Negan? Only if there’s one hell of a rain-down-hell reason behind it, you ask me. But we’ll see.
Come along, Daryl. And you, Rick, get out there and find something “interesting” for the Savior’s next visit. Something interesting. How open to interpretation is that?
Michonne drops the deer and storms off. Negan beams. “Man, I love a girl that buys me dinner and doesn’t expect me to put out,” he giggles. Insult to injury, D takes Daryl’s bike, tosses Rosita her hat and tells her that is all they’re getting back.
“Did you find anything else out there?” — him.
“Just your dead friends” — her.
D outtie. Whoops. No, he’s not. He stops the bike in front of Daryl this time. He can have it back. Just say the word. <crickets>
Now Negan’s downright jubilant. No one died! He feels like he and Rick are that much closer! Friends, even! But you know what they say about friends who overstay their welcome, so would Rick like him to go? Yes. Rick would. Good enough. But before he goes, what’s the magic word — words — little Ricky?
Thank you, Rick croaks. He’s still toting Lucille.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Negan beams. “Thank YOU!”
Just then, another walker crashes the party and — watch mah form! — Negan dispatches it with a big ol’ fancy-pants candlestick. Rick’s fingers twitch on the bat handle.
OK, then. Negan takes a couple steps past Rick, then spins around, because of course he does.
“How careless of me; you didn’t think I was going to leave Lucille,” he says. “After what she did, why would you want her?” He takes the bat. “In case you haven’t caught on, I just slid my [uh, man handle] down your throat and you thanked me for it.”
Rick and Daryl stare at one another as the trucks roll away. Then it’s time for a little Come to Rick-sus for Spencer. The gun, says Rick. Understandable. World’s scary right now. But the food? The booze? “That’s because you’re small. You’re weak. You got lucky with the wall. You got lucky with us.”
Take your medicine, Spence. Take it. Take your medicine. Spencer doesn’t take his medicine. He dusts off the lecture he gave to Rosita and tries it out on Rick. They’re lucky alright. This is the promised land, right here. Were Glenn and Abraham lucky, too?
Rick stops in his tracks. Negan may be charge, but that’s not to say the fight has completely gone out of Rick. At least not where this punk is concerned.
“You say anything like that again to me, I’ll break your jaw, knock your teeth out. You understand? Say yes.”
Rick leaves. Rosita takes her moment. “You had guns?” she hisses. “Why didn’t you tell me? You saw what I did to get one. That I need bullets.”
Spencer pleads his case. He didn’t trust Rick. He worried about him being in charge, especially given what went down with his mom and dad and, you know, everything. Is Spencer finally seeing the light? No. Spencer is, I’m guessing, defecting to Negan. After all, that guy HAS guns. And a plan. And a cushy spot for Spencer to lay his pretty head, which seems in keeping with what Spencer values most.
After he drives off, Rosita fishes a gun from the wheel well of her own car and sticks it in her waistband. She has a plan, too. Everyone remember Eugene’s talent for bullet-making?
Meanwhile, back at Casa Richonne, Rick is trying to make up a mattress-less bed on the floor when Michonne walks in. About the rifle she was keeping in the chimney — it was one of the Saviors’. Even though Olivia could have paid the ultimate price for not keeping a proper inventory, clearly Negan is guilty of the same. They could have hidden more guns and gotten away with it.
“Did you?” Rick says. Hope? Trepidation? Little of each?
She looks stricken. No. Then she walks away, but as angry women will, she spins on her heel and returns.
“Everything we have, we got from fighting,” she growls.
Got, says Rick. Past tense. They are outnumbered — even if they join forces with the Hilltop. Play by Negan’s rules and they get some kind of life.
“WHAT KIND OF A LIFE?”
Oops. Tone. Respectful tone.
Storytime, crabby lady.
Once upon a time, Rick had a friend. His partner on the police force. Got Lori and Carl to safety while Rick was comatose in the hospital. Got Lori knocked up, too — but they didn’t know Rick was still alive, so hall pass. And when they did, well, it was too late to do anything but soldier on.
He leaves out the part about Shane being willing to take him out to have Lori, Carl and Shane Jr. to himself — and what ultimately happened out in Hershel’s field long, long ago. He skips to the part where Shane Jr. was born Judith and it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t share his genes.
Cue the waterworks.
“I know Judith isn’t mine,” he tells Michonne. “I know it. I love her. She’s my daughter. But she isn’t mine. I had to accept that. I did. So I could keep her alive. I’ll die before she does and I hope that’s a long time from now so I can raise her and protect her and teach her how to survive. This is how we live now. I had to accept that too so I can keep everyone else alive.”
Sniffle. Well, sh*t. That’s a tough argument to counter — especially with Shane Jr. right there in the next room, or wherever it is she passes the time. I mean, with anything other than a reminder that it’s not his fault every time someone dies. But that’s Rick’s point. His fault or otherwise, he won’t have anyone else die if all they have to do is abide Negan to prevent it.
Michonne says she will try, then heads for her hunting stand to think all of this over. Behind her, a plume of white smoke rises and she heads to it. Every last one of the Alexandrians’ mattresses are in smoldering ruin by the side of the road
Going to take something more than following the rules to ever rest easy again.
New episodes of The Walking Dead premiere Sundays at 9/8CT on AMC.